I didn’t want to take my own advice.
As I weeded out songs from my own book, I had way more than ten songs that I felt needed to be in there “just in case.” Songs I’d been using for a long time. Songs I’ve been told I ought to have in there. Many songs I loved.
I found myself asking myself the same questions about each song:
- What does this song accomplish for me (dramatically, stylistically, etc.)?
- Is this song redundant to others in my book?
- Is this objectively a good audition song?
- Do I truly love this song?
The redundancy question was the most interesting. I had quite a few songs that fulfilled similar functions. In particular, I had multiple uptempo vaudeville-inspired tunes and multiple quirky waltzes.
Sticking to the Ten Song Theory, my non-musical theatre songs revealed themselves very quickly. There were certain composers I loved, I knew I wanted a 1950’s pop song, and I knew I wanted a country song. Pulling mostly from sheet music I already had, my four choices became clear, and they all make me happy.
Choosing my musical theater repertoire was trickier. I confined myself to the remaining six slots of the Ten Song approach: Classic Uptempo, Classic Ballad, Complimentary Classic, Contemporary Uptempo, Contemporary Ballad, Complimentary Contemporary.
- I only had one option for Contemporary Uptempo on most of my lists, so that was an easy choice.
- I knew I wanted a Sondheim song in my book, and I knew I wanted a specifically “comic” Classic song, so my Complimentary Contemporary slot went to my Sondheim song. That helped determine what my Contemporary Ballad was going to be.
- Looking at my Contemporary Ballads, there was one that I’m a little more endeared to than the rest. It’s a song that I’ve loved since I was a kid, and it brings me a tinge of shame to admit I love. That slice of vulnerability is good. If I ever sing it, I’ll be sharing a piece of myself, which I believe that’s important. It also happens to serve me dramatically and stylistically, so it’s not only a sentimental choice (I weeded out many sentimental choices throughout this process); it’s a conscious, strategic choice based on how I’d like to introduce myself.
- Of my Classic Ballads, there was one song that I couldn’t imagine removing from my book. There were quite a few I loved, and I questioned if I needed a more generic, utilitarian piece, but as long as I was committed to distilling my book, I couldn’t imagine removing one particular song. Any song I considered in comparison felt redundant or “correct.”
- Because I had the most Classic Uptempos, this was the hardest choice to make. Even stranger was that I didn’t have one option that I loved that would fulfill a catch-all Classic Uptempo song. I had lots of vaudeville-style songs and quirky, comic waltzes. I wanted something that wasn’t steeped in a specific style. Something like “Miracle of Miracles,” “She Likes Basketball,” “I Met a Girl,” “She Loves Me,” “Nothing Can Stop Me Now,” etc. I love all of those songs, but none of them felt like the way to go. Once again, I went back to musicals I loved as a kid, and thought of a song that I never imagined bringing into an audition room. Was it vocally rangy enough? Was it too childish? Would it make any sense? Then, I started singing it and realized a few things: It was full of discovery (and therefore actable), it lived deeply in me, it was a fun journey to move through, it evoked the energy and spirit of the other songs I mentioned, it brought me the same guilty pleasure as my Contemporary Ballad, and I enjoyed singing it. It never occurred to me to use it as an audition piece, and now I’m delighted by the thought of it. So for all of the Classic Uptempos I previously had in my book, I chose a completely new one.
- However, I specially wanted a comic vaudevillian number, so I kept one of the other Uptempos in the book as my Complimentary Classic.
After determining those ten, I decided on two additional songs to keep in my book to serve specific functions. Once again, that decision came from considering the overall composition of my book and what specific vehicles I wanted at my fingertips. But I’m confident about using my ten core songs, and I can swap in other songs when I need them. I still want to have readily some of the songs I weeded out ready to swap in, and I found a third tier of songs that were either still in the works or specific to certain styles. Those second and third tier songs may eventually replace some of my core ten. No ten songs can show everything about you, but a satisfying list of ten is a good place to start.
Ultimately, it goes back to what songs you love. Many of my core ten songs have lived deeply in me for many years. What makes them effective is that they’ve marinated in my being over time. Not all ten are such old friends. Some are newer and specifically, strategically chosen. In all cases, there was a sense of compulsion: I couldn’t imagine removing them from my book given the options on the table, .
The whole process forced me to consider myself both as a commodity and as an artist. How do I want to market myself? My songs had to reflect that. If I want to book work, I need my audition songs to point to certain creative possibilities (often uninspired or obvious ones), but how I want to market myself may or may not reflect how other people see me. I get to offer what I’m capable of. Artistically, discovering the sense of compulsion around certain songs illuminated and reminded me what I artistically want to share. What stories do I love telling? What perspective and play can I offer when I walk into a room. What do I want to say? That compulsion toward certain material is an excellent clue to where my creative curiosities lie. It activates conviction, and reveals the entrances to caves that you need to explore.
That’s how you get through auditions: by choosing material that you are perpetually compelled to explore.
Back to Part One: What Should I Sing?
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