A Practical Guide to Auditioning Pt. II: Building an Audition Book hero

A Practical Guide to Auditioning Pt. II: Building an Audition Book

Posted Sunday, June 2nd 2024 by Bryan Chan
In part II of "A Practical Guide to Auditioning", Bryan discusses the process of building an audition book for musical theatre auditions and gives suggestions on what makes a well-crafted audition book.

This is part II of Bryan's "A Practical Guide to Auditioning". Click here to view part I of the guide.

The biggest question I get as a voice teacher from musical theatre actors is “What song should I sing for this audition?” Let’s face it - most of the time, actors do not get much time to learn a new song for each audition. Therefore, to be efficient, actors spend much time crafting and practicing an audition book consisting of songs they could use at any audition. 

What is an Audition Book?

An audition book is a folder/binder of songs an actor is prepared to perform at an audition. The book should be organized by sections (more on that later) or alphabetically. Since most auditions nowadays only require singers to perform 16-32 bars* of a piece, each song should have marked cuts indicating the start and finish. A well-crafted audition book should have a wide range of songs that not only showcases an actor's best work, but also provides the casting table with enough information about your versatility as an actor and singer to make an accurate casting decision.

*Caveat: the archaic way of asking for 16-32 bars is rooted in tin pan alley song tradition and golden age musicals where most songs follow the “AABA” 32-bar form. Nowadays, a 16-bar cut of a song usually means 30-45 seconds and a 32-bar cut of a song means 1-1.5 minutes.

Categorizing by Genre

An easy way to start building your audition book is by understanding how we categorize songs in Musical Theatre. In general, genres of musical theatre songs can be understood chronologically. Here’s a categorization based on Theatre Trip’s Musical Theatre Time Period article:

Pre-1920s: Pre-Musical Theatre (Gilbert & Sullivan, Strauss)
1920s-1930s: Jazz/Tin Pan Alley (Irving Berlin, Gershwin)
1940s-1950s: Golden Age (Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Loesser, Lerner & Loewe)
1960s: Post-Golden Age (Kander & Ebb, Start of Rock Musicals)
1970s-1990s: Pre-Contemporary (Sondheim, Concept Musicals, Rock Operas, Megamusicals, Disney)
2000s-2010s: Contemporary (Song Cycles, Jukebox Musicals, Pop/Rock Musicals, Disney)
2020s-Present: Current (Anything that is currently running in Broadway)

Another way to categorize musical theatre songs is by understanding its function and feel. Essentially, there are 2 questions you want to ask:

  1. Is it funny? (Comedic vs. Dramatic)
  2. Does it feel fast or slow? (Uptempo vs. Ballad)

Based on the above information, I have created this framework for which you can plan your audition book:

Classical Musical Theatre (Golden Age, Operettas, Jazz)
Contemporary Musical Theatre (2000s onwards, current broadway selections)
Concept Musical (Sondheim, LaChiusa, Guettel, etc.)
Megamusical (Webber, Schönberg, Wildhorn, etc.)
Pop/Rock/R&B/Country (either from a musical or from the radio)
Wild Card (Anything you personally connect with!)

The above genres in the framework demand distinct vocal and acting styles, giving you ample opportunity to showcase whatever the casting director wants to hear from you. In general, you want 1-2 pieces per genre, totalling up to 7-14 songs that you can use for almost all the auditions. Within the book, you would also want to balance the amount of Comedic vs. Dramatic and Uptempo vs. Ballad songs you have.

Updating Your Book

I highly recommend updating your book the moment you find any song stale or uninspiring. There are so many options nowadays via the internet to keep your book fresh. That being said, the only way to find inspiration from a song is by doing background research, script study, and score analysis (in my opinion), so make sure you are doing that work for every song in your book before you move on to a new piece.

A Few Suggestions (Take it or leave it!):

  1. Keep most of the book positive (and funny)! Yes, I get it. We singers are all addicted to slow emotional ballads. It feels so good to belt out “On My Own” from Les Miz or “Words Fail” from Dear Evan Hansen. That being said, often directors sit in a room for hours listening to ballad after ballad and it can be… a lot for them. Don’t miss the opportunity to rejuvenate the room with a hilarious rendition of “The History of Wrong Guys” from Kinky Boots or a feel-good pop song by Maroon 5.
  2. Keep it concise. Sometimes having a small audition book can be advantageous for the actor. After all, it’s about the quality, not quantity, of your performance that gets you booked.
  3. Put yourself in the shoes of the pianist. One of the biggest random factors in any given audition is the pianist. I have heard many horror stories about my students’ audition going haywire because they brought in a Jason Robert Brown or Adam Guettel piece that has a crazy complex piano accompaniment. Why make it hard for yourself? Consult your pianist friends and choose songs that don’t have a piano part that is too musically complex to put in the book.
  4. Let the “YOU” shine! As much as we want to impress the directors and producers with our amazing talents and wonderful voices, it’s your essence and acting that will get you cast. Listen to what your gut tells you: Do I like this song? Do I connect with the character in this song? Why am I choosing this song out of the millions of songs in the MT repertoire? From my experience, my students perform their best when they sing songs they connect with. I promise if you connect with the piece, so will the director, the producer, and eventually the audience.

Building anything is a process! Take your time to experiment with and research different songs. An audition book is not supposed to be a test in talent and skill for an actor. When built right, an audition book can be a solid foundation of which an actor can lean on and perform their best work in front of directors and audiences. Happy singing!

Bryan Chan

Voice Teacher Associate

Bryan Chan is a voice teacher for all and a trilingual (English/Cantonese/Mandarin) cross-genre performer who strives to provide support for singers wanting to sing any and all genres of their liking. Experienced in performing and teaching musical theatre, classical, and pop/r&b/soul singing, Bryan constantly finds ways for students to connect to their authentic expression beyond the confines of genre and style. Bryan’s students have found success in college auditions, professional gigs, or just their weekend karaoke sessions with friends.

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