The main issue I see actors have when choosing rock and pop material is how overwhelming making a choice can be.
We're literally talking about millions (billions?) of songs, spanning rock, pop, jazz, country, bluegrass, lounge, punk, ska, emo, latin...and on and on.
Where to even get started?
Well, my first piece of advice is to start by putting limitations on your search. If you're trying to "think of a song you love," you're likely to get overwhelmed quickly. Or, defaulting to an uninventive choice (Sara Bareilles, Kelly Clarkson, etc).
Instead, come up with a short list of roles that you need a rock/pop song for. That should narrow your search to a finite list of characteristics: maybe one of the songs you'll need is an edgy 80s rock song about revolution. Maybe one is a feminine, soft folk ballad about loss. The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to find a great fit.
(This is how you should always approach picking rep, by the way. For more on this, check out the TheoryWorks FREE online masterclass on building your book, featuring interviews with Merri Sugarman, Michael Cassara, Tony Winner James Monroe Iglehart, and more.)
Choosing the Song
So, per the above, you're on the hunt for a song that fits the role you're auditioning for, both in terms of vocal range, style, and emotion. Look for a song that seems similar to songs that character sings in the show.
Make sure it lives in the world of the show. If this song came on while you were listening to the "Mean Girls" soundtrack, for instance, could it be mistaken for a song from the show? If so, you're on the right track.
And, perhaps most important: make sure this song says something about your musical knowledge and taste.
Say you're casting for "Bright Star." Someone comes in, and sings Carrie Underwood. Do you get the sense this person really understands your show, and the score?
What if instead someone came in singing Aiofe O'Donovan?
Now we're getting somewhere.
Songs We Forgot We Love
Extra brownie points for songs we all know and love, but that we don't immediately think of. There are entire genres that haven't been represented in shows on Broadway yet. Go to genres and artists that haven't been used yet for a Broadway score, and you're likely to find songs no one is doing, but that we all go "oh, yeah! I LOVE this song!"
For example, no one's made a yacht rock musical yet, to my knowledge. (I'm in a yacht rock band, so full disclosure of my bias here.) What about doing a song by Captain & Tennille? The Doobie Brothers? Electric Light Orchestra?
Or Hall and Oates?
Give us that feeling of nostalgia, where we're reliving a song we forgot we loved. That feeling, plus hearing something super right for a show from a person super right for the role? Done.
Pick Songs with Lots of Chords
Or is it just the same two chords over and over?
Look for songs with chord variance. "Somebody I Used to Know" sounded really interesting because of the textures used in the studio. Harmonically, though, it's incredibly boring. Which will become really apparent when it's just you and a piano.
Instead, look for songs with harmonic complexity. Your pianist can do a lot more to support you, and it'll sound awesome. Songs written at the piano (think Norah Jones, Billy Joel, Elton John, Roberta Flack, Fiona Apple, and Stevie Wonder) tend to sound better at the piano.
Rewrite Your Vocal Line
So, you've gone through the process of finding a great song for your character, it fits in the world of the show, it's a song we all love, it has harmonic variance -- but then you're told it "doesn't go anywhere in your voice," and to ditch it.
Don't! Not yet.
Instead, see if you can bend some of those vocal lines up. Singers usually try to show off on a riff (a melismatic outlining of scales), but that can quickly become too much. A little goes a long way there.
Look at those chord symbols again. Look at what note the normal vocal line starts on. If the chord happening underneath you is G major, and the normal vocal line starts on a G, try starting on a B instead. Or a D. Hear the way the line can go now, starting from a new point.
This tends to work best on repeated musical material. If the verse has four lines, and the last two are the same as the first two, this is a great spot to switch it up. Same for the chorus. You can get away with singing a double chorus if it's short, and you're bending the vocal line to show the casting team something new.
Learn Your Theory, Y'all
Is this blowing your theory mind a bit? Check out our 6-week online courses in music theory for actors, featuring one-on-one weekly instruction by yours truly either via FaceTime or in person.
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Questions on any of this? Comment below! (I'll respond! Promise!)
Until next time, folks!