Call it “Decision Paralysis” or “Choice Overload,” we don’t usually do so well when we’re presented with numerous options. There is a time to sift through the vast ocean of musical theatre repertoire to find those special songs that will be your calling cards. That time is not the moment before walking into an audition room.
Searching for repertoire is a great project to undertake between gigs. I used to go to Lincoln Center Library and check out matching libretti and original cast albums to learn about shows I’d never seen. Going to concerts is a great way to expand your repertoire knowledge. The “54 Sings” concerts at 54 Below and “Broadway By The Year” concerts at Town Hall are excellent resources. Also, presentations of lesser known musicals like Encores! at City Center and the Muftis at the York Theatre are great resources. Ask your fellow actors, directors, musical directors, teachers, coaches, etc. for recommendations. You never know who’s done what show or who grew up listening to what obscure cast album. There are also plenty of coaches who specialize in repertoire.
Some people say you need to find hidden gems for your audition songs. You might fantasize about finding that special song that only you sing that shows you off perfectly, and that people will look at your book and be floored by your savvy choices of audition material. That’s all well and good, and a nice side effect of a worthwhile exploration, but it’s not the point of building an audition book. The audition book is your professional portfolio that you use to interview for jobs. The obscurity or familiarity of its contents don’t matter. A deeper reservoir of repertoire knowledge may give you a better chance of finding songs that serve you especially well, but at the end of the day the songs are vehicles for your artistry. Your audition is about you, not your song choice.
My personal belief is that at a general audition, the original key, gender, and dramatic circumstance of the song are irrelevant. You should certainly do your research and know what they are. They’ll give you a clearer idea of the author’s intent behind the writing. But during your audition, you’re not playing the role in the show. You can certainly use the original show circumstances, but you still have to do your actor work to craft your pieces as micro-performances. Since you’re only working with the words and music of your particular cut, you can interpret it however you like as long as you’re still serving the material. But by all means, change the key to suit your voice, sing a song originally sung by a different gender, and create your own circumstance.
However, I would caution against changing the key if the accompaniment is notoriously difficult to play. If it’s a well-known song, the accompanist might already be familiar with it in the original key. Also, the transposition might make the accompaniment non-pianist-friendly. Be conscious of your future collaborator when adjusting the key of a song. Another good question to ask your pianist friends.
At the end of the day, here’s what matters when picking your audition songs:
Do what you love.
Truly, truly love.
Pick songs that live deeply in you.
There’s a difference between intellectually knowing a song and deeply knowing a song. One night, I was at a piano bar with a friend who knew the house pianist. My friend introduced me, suggesting the pianist hear me sing. The pianist asked if I knew “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods. I don’t think I’d ever performed the song in its entirety (maybe once during a voice lesson in college), but I’ve listened to the original album and watched the video of the original Broadway production since I was a kid. The song had been marinating in my bones for over twenty years, and I discovered I could sing it as if I’d been performing it for years.
I’m not saying you have to know a song for twenty years before bringing it into an audition room, but you want enough familiarity with the song to move moment-to-moment through the experience of its journey rather than focus on how to technically execute it. Again, your audition song is a chance to meet you. The creative team can ask for technical acting adjustments or check your vocal range. In an audition, you’re offering a sample of your artistry.
Since your audition pieces are meant to be brief samples, in addition to sections of full solo numbers, you might consider looking at…
Solo sections of non-solo songs. Sometimes there are mini-songs embedded in larger songs. The Mysterious Man’s section of “No More” in Into the Woods is essentially its own song. In Pippin, Pippin’s interjections during “War is a Science” (“And then the men go marching…”) might work well. What matters is that the selection has a musical and dramatic arc and journey.
Vocal Selections arrangements. Vocal Selections, especially for older musicals, are distilled down to the meat and bones of the song itself.
They don’t usually include dance breaks, background vocals, orchestral cues, etc. from the full stage production. It’s just the song.
Especially with older musicals, they sometimes offer lyric changes that make the song work better as a solo (not that you have to use them).
They sometimes print songs that are duets or ensemble numbers in the show as solos. The title song from Guys and Dolls, normally a duet, can absolutely work as a solo piece.
Vocal Selections usually have easier piano arrangements, which is especially nice if you want to transpose the song into another key*
*To be very clear, I mean having someone type up the transposition for you in music notation software. NEVER ask an audition accompanist to transpose on sight.
Since you’re offering prepared samples of your work, you can’t be expected to have a perfect song for every conceivable scenario. You just need enough variety of song styles to give a taste of what you do.