Your audition book should be a Swiss-army knife, with tools for many different circumstances. Since musical theatre draws from every musical influence under the sun, categorizing it into particular styles can be tricky, especially since many composers go between different styles for different shows. But painting in broad strokes, I’ll give it a shot:
Classic Musical Theatre:
Think Golden Age of Musical Theatre, roughly (and debatably) between 1940 and 1965. This could include shows by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser, Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Herman, Bock and Harnick, Jones and Schmidt, Meredith Willson, Kander and Ebb, Cy Coleman, the later work of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, etc.
Classic musical theatre scores tend to have a Tin Pan Alley/jazz standard influence (i.e. Guys and Dolls, Gypsy), an operetta/”legit” influence (i.e. My Fair Lady, Carousel), or a mixture of both (i.e. South Pacific, The Most Happy Fella). Songs by the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, etc. might also work in this category. It’s also possible that a contemporary song written as a throwback to classic musical theatre would work (i.e. Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Producers), though I recommend having a song from the actual time period for the sake of authenticity. Sometimes throwback songs are intended to send up classic musical theatre, and if you’re auditioning or classic musicals you want to genuinely inhabit the genre.
Contemporary Musical Theatre:
“Contemporary” is a bit of a misnomer here. I think of it as material from 1965 to the present day, well-aware that’s an enormous span that includes a wide variety of musical influences. This could include shows by Maltby and Shire, Ahrens and Flaherty, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Menken, Marvin Hamlisch, Maury Yeston, William Finn, Andrew Lippa, Craig Carnelia, Jeanine Tesori, etc.
I’m not yet talking about Mega-Musicals, Pop/Rock Musicals, or current musical theatre writers, though some of the names I listed are still quite active, and many of today’s writers have songs that fit perfectly here. Think what you might audition with for A Chorus Line, Closer Than Ever, or The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This might also be what you sing for a Disney musical. Here, I’m talking about a contemporary “Broadway” sound that’s not decidedly referential to a particular genre of music.
This is what I’d call the trend that started in the 1980’s with epic shows like Les Miserables, Jekyll & Hyde, Chess, and the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber. They are operatic in scale and require voices to match.
Sondheim’s particular sound merits its own category. Much like picking a Shakespeare monologue, there are only so many Sondheim songs in the world, so don’t be too concerned with which ones are overdone. The four volumes of “All Sondheim” are excellent resources. Pick what you love, and consider your future accompanists. I would also include composers like Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa here.
Current Musical Theatre:
There are so many artists writing musicals today, drawing from many different influences and styles.
First of all, if you love musicals, go see as much new musical theatre as possible. Find out whose material you respond and reach out to them. They might have a song that’s perfect for your book. You might also find a creative playmate. It’s important to support fellow artists. Newmusicaltheatre.com is the place to start looking. You might also keep an eye on writers coming out of NYU Tisch’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program and the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.
The stand-alone story song is particularly popular these days, so it might be worth having one in your book, especially if you’re interested in auditioning for new work. Plus, you probably want it for shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Be More Chill.
Non-Musical Theatre Songs:
If a show is heavily influenced by a certain musical style, sing the source material. This is also a nice way to share your artistic taste beyond Musical Theatre Land.
Classical Repertoire (Opera, Operetta, Art Song, etc.): If you have a classical singing background, you might keep an aria or art song in your book. Plenty of shows call for classically-trained voices, some shows have specific roles that require them, and many performers go between classical and musical theatre projects. Depending on the song, it could double as an option for legitimate sounding Golden Age musicals.
Jazz Standard: This could be a song written by one of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters (The Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, etc.) for a 1920’s or 1930’s Broadway show or revue, or it could be a popular stand-alone song. A standard might double as an option for jazzier Golden Age musicals, or be a good choice for shows like Ain’t Misbehavin’ or City of Angels.
Pop/Rock: I won’t go through every variation of “Pop/Rock” since that would take forever, but with so many jukebox musicals and musical scores influenced by various pop and rock styles, it’s important for the creative team to see that you can live in the actual genre*. Find a 1950’s pop song for Jersey Boys, Grease, and Zombie Prom, a 60’s/70’s pop/rock song for Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who’s Tommy, a more contemporary rock song for Rent, Next to Normal, etc.
Folk/Country/Bluegrass: Many shows draw from Americana folk and country music, including Big River, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Smoke on the Mountain.
R&B/Motown: There are lots of recent jukebox musicals inspired by this genre, plus musicals like The Wiz, Memphis, and Dreamgirls.
Rap, Gospel, Latin, Disco, etc.: You get the idea. If you can think of it, someone has probably incorporated it into a musical.
*An important note on Non-Musical Theatre songs: Just because it wasn’t written for a musical doesn’t mean you get to forgo your sense of dramatic storytelling, nor should you diminish your rock star energy in order to “act” the song. All songs are meant to communicate something, and you should tap into the same need to communicate the stakes, dilemma, and story as you would with any song written for the musical theatre. Pretend that you wrote the song from your own life experience, and assume that kind of ownership in sharing it.
That’s an awful lot of styles to consider. Now, let’s whittle it down.