Tag Archives: Theater

Beginner’s Guide to Musical Theater

From comic strip characters (Annie, Li’l Abner) to real people (like Fiorello LaGuardia, Maria Von Trapp, Eva Peron), wars (in Shenandoah and Miss Saigon), novels (Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera) and Bible stories (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar), musicals are more than just song and dance.

The Best-Loved Musicals

Note that the film version of a musical may be quite different from the original. Songs are often cut, added, transposed, re-ordered or given to a different character.

  • My Fair Lady
  • Evita
  • Hello, Dolly!
  • Fiddler on the Roof
  • Anything Goes
  • West Side Story
  • Oklahoma
  • The Sound of Music
  • Cats
  • Les Miserables (often just “Les Mis”)
  • Wicked
  • The Phantom of the Opera
  • Music Man

An interesting one that isn’t very well known is Lost in the Stars, which is based on Cry, the Beloved Country.

1776 isn’t one of the big ones, but it’s one of my favorite. You may think a musical about the Continental Congress and the signing of the Declaration of Independence would be as interesting as junior high History class, but it is quite entertaining, even while quoting from historical documents, like George Washington’s letters to the Congress from Valley Forge. And the hero is – wait for it – John Adams! Who knew?

Important Composers of Musicals

Cole Porter

Andrew Lloyd Webber

Irving Berlin

Stephen Sondheim

George Gershwin

Some are better-known as a composer/lyricist pair, such as:

Lerner and Loewe

Rodgers and Hammerstein

Gilbert and Sullivan

Famous Music Theater Singers

The Broadway singer has a bright sound which helps get the words across. Not always as beautiful or as “round” a tone as the classical singer’s. Their priorities are clear words and emotions, along with character. Even ugly voices have a place. Madame and Monsieur Thenardier in Les Miserables are ugly people, and their voices show that.

  • Betty Buckley
  • Bernadette Peters
  • Robert Goulet
  • Julie Andrews
  • Pearl Bailey
  • Carol Channing
  • Barbra Streisand
  • Ethel Merman
  • Barbara Cook – She sang the songs in many of the film musicals without credit.
  • Mandy Patinkin
  • Rex Harrison
  • Florence Henderson
  • Zero Mostel
  • Topol
  • Bob Hope
  • Kristin Chenoweth
  • Shirley MacLaine
  • Jimmy Durante
  • Dick Van Dyke
  • Patti LuPone
  • Jeanette MacDonald
  • Alfie Boe

You may want to check out Auditioning for Musical Theater.

Auditioning for Musical Theater

When participating in the fun of a music theater audition, expect to sing your prepared song, then read some sections of the script, and dance. Study the audition announcement closely for any information that may help you. To choose an appropriate song, you should have some idea of the characters that interest you. To read from the script well, you should know the story and understand what this character is like, so when preparing for a
musical audition, research the show.You may be tempted to think you know a show because you have seen the movie, but it could be significantly different from the script. Sometimes a whole character is cut, or reduced to nothing, or the keys have been changed. Occasionally your favorite song from the film is not in the stage show. So it is best to see the show done live, or to read the script. Unfortunately, scripts for musicals, unlike those for most “straight” shows, are
rarely available. You might find a summary in Best Plays, a yearly collection of theatrical works.

Note: I am writing about auditioning for amateur and high school productions. Standards for your dance audition at a professional theater may be much higher.

The Song

  • Your song should be a musical theater piece, and fairly energetic. Slow ballads don’t make as good an impression as something you can act. But an old song that’s comfortable and strong for you is a better choice than a new one, even if it is slow and romantic.
  • If you are auditioning for the part of the Reverend Mother in The Sound of Music, you shouldn’t be singing “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no”! Remember you have to show the directors that you look and sound like that character you want to play.
  • The song may be from the show being done, unless the directors have specified otherwise.
  • There is usually an accompanist at the audition, ready to sight read your music. Have everything clearly marked. (Ritards, cuts, etc.) Real music is much preferred over copies. It’s permissible to take a moment before you start to give the accompanist a tempo. And do thank him/her when you’re done.
  • You may be cut short. If there are many people auditioning, the directors may only want to hear 16 measures from each person. (Very likely when auditioning for a professional production.)
  • Have the piece memorized. Lee piece memorized. Learn it well in advance and
    do some staging.
  • In community theater you can sometimes see the other auditioners perform, a very educational experience. You should be considerate of others. Be quiet when they sing, applaud if it is allowed. (Sometimes applause is frowned on, because an audition is not a concert.)
  • Don’t be one of the people who walks in and says, “I didn’t prepare a song. Umm, can I just sing Happy Birthday?” This makes a terrible impression, and usually these people sing poorly. The bosses listening to you will not want to work with someone who doesn’t work, doesn’t prepare, doesn’t seem to care.



After singing your song you will be asked to read from the script. Read through the script before the audition, if at all possible, but if you haven’t been able to read it, you may ask who this character is that you’ve been assigned to read. You may also ask about the context of the excerpt – what came before it. Read LOUDLY and slowly enough to be understood. Think about how that character would say it. Read with conviction and
. Your audition will come across as flat and uninteresting if you don’t take a chance and really go for the extreme side of the person you’re portraying, especially if it’s a
wonderful wacky crazy, like Miss Hannigan in Annie, or Ado Annie in Oklahoma. Really go off the deep end on these, because you look silly if you don’t.


Some musical auditions include dancing. The audition announcement should say whether or not you will have to dance. A few steps will be taught to the auditioning actors in groups, and the directors will watch to see who learns it quickly, and who looks graceful. Be aware that singing and reading are often much more important, and having trouble on the dance will not necessarily put you out of consideration for a part, unless it is a heavily
dance role. Obviously, you should be a confident dancer before setting your sights on such a part.

For more information on the audition process and preparation for it, look for the book Auditioning for the Musical Theatre, by Fred Silver. It has a lot of good suggestions, and a wonderful list of unusual audition pieces.