If you’ve never talked to another human before, or laughed, or talked to another human being before about laughing, then maybe this is big news. But if you have, then you have probably come up with this idea already: The most important element to comedy is surprise.
This is hard-wired, right? We laugh at Buster Keaton slipping on a banana peel because we don’t expect it. First the lil’ dude is upright, walking down the street. We expect him to keep on keeping on.
But when B-to-the-K goes down hard on a little scrap of yellow fruit casing, it jiggles the picture. The wheels of our thinking are interrupted, and guess what? We laugh. It’s the best of all possible responses to the surprising, treacherous crazymaker we call life. (Crying is hell on our mascara.)
So it follows that when it comes to an audition song in the comedy category for musical theater auditions, one of your goals should be to surprise the person behind the table, whether they’ve heard your song’s lyrics before or not.
Okay. We know that we should include surprise in our auditions. But how the hell should we DO that without scaring the bejeezus out of all the nice people in the room?
Here are a few elements to play with when you’re looking to uncover an element of surprise and give your comedy songs a new twist.
This is pretty simple: sing a song you wouldn’t normally be called upon to sing.
- If the song is usually sung by a wide-eyed soprano, and you’re a beefy character actor: surprise!
- If you are a prim middle aged woman and you bust out a Ludacris rap: surprise!
- If the character you begin with transforms throughout the song into someone radically different by the end: surprise!
Thinking about persona is something that you usually do before choosing a song in the first place. So start to look around for songs that are outside of your comfort zone, persona-wise. You should start to get some pretty zany ideas; Sutton Foster once pranced around New York audition halls singing “Oklahoma”, a tune meant for a whole dang chorus.
Another way to think about this is context. In the context of an audition, an auditor will decide a number of things about you between the time you open the door up until the time you open your mouth. Picking a song that normally wouldn’t be sung by the person they’ve decided you are, or changing your persona radically through the story of your piece, is going to subvert their expectations. And that’s exactly what you want.
B) Changes in Tempo, Rhythm and Style
When you’re making a song your own–and please, please, make a song your own–you are allowed to change the tempo. You’re allowed to toss in some train tracks (musically known as a caesura) to halt a melody while your character experiences a moment. And in the context of an audition, where no performance rights are involved and you’ve properly obtained your sheet music, you’re allowed to have an arranger create a new groove to an old tune, or an old tune to a new groove.
Consider all of these, along with any other ways to change the tempo, rhythm or style of a song, as way to tell your story anew. And of course, make sure you know exactly why you’re doing it, or what your character’s emotions are that make him or her want or need to express their story in this particular way.
I don’t know of anyone personally who is using this awesome Duck Tales Saturday Morning Slow Jam as an audition song yet, but I can’t imagine why not. It’s bad-ass.
Please note: I don’t suggest doing this with new or less familiar work, or work where the composers have meticulously crafted a song to include comic timing within it. This works best with standards, pop songs, or other extremely well-known pieces, where the listeners can be lulled into a false sense of security. “Oh, I know this one. I know what’s coming next.” BAM! Banana peel. Laughter. Like a horse and carriage, those two things. A horse. (Caesura. Longer caesura than expected. Perhaps with a vamp, and a raised finger.) And a carriage.
C) Acting the Shit Out of It
Finally, consider this old chestnut: Act the SHIT out of your song.
You most likely have some comedy songs in your book already that are perfect for you. They’ve got new contexts, and surprising rhythms. The writers have already put the jokes in, or you’ve found jokes between the words.
But for some reason, they don’t work anymore. You’re kind of bored with them, and you walk out of a room knowing you didn’t light a fire under anybody else’s ass either.
Here’s something that can change your relationship to those or any songs, and it’s the biggest surprise of all, when it comes to musical theatre comedy song auditions.
Consider just acting the crap out of them.
Forget the jokes you’ve decided on. Look at the basic circumstances of the song. What is happening? Who are you talking to? Why does your character say the very first phrase they say? Why don’t they stop talking at that point, is there a reason they go on to the second phrase? Are there changes in the tactics they use that are similar to the way a real, actual human being changes tactics in their speaking or thinking? Are there fears that you can register while singing, or realizations you can make in real time?
I give you Christine Pedi singing Bock and Harnick’s “A Trip to the Library”, a song with many strikes against it when it comes to auditions. The auditors have most likely heard it before. It’s a character song. It can invite shmacting. But it’s a brilliant lyric with a beautiful journey, and I could put Christine on repeat as she lives simply through the story.
That woman should be hired for everything.
So, friends, please remember: Sometimes the most unexpected thing that can happen to the person behind the table during a comedic musical’s audition day is to have an actor come in and express every word and note they say simply, without mugging, “putting on a show”, or glossing over specifics.
Be that actor. Be the very best actor you can be. Especially in comedy.
The response may surprise you.
If you’re interested in musical comedy audition coaching with Joanna, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about availability.
Posted on August 6, 2014