During and (somewhat) after college, I learned of this mystical thing called an "Audition Book." According to liberal-arts-theatre-degree folklore, it was some sort of a binder filled with cuts of songs that one would sing at professional auditions. Your starting and ending places would be marked in the sheet music, the songs would be separated by category, and the papers would be placed in plastic sheet protectors. This gargantuan binder would come with you to every professional audition so you could whip out a prepared piece any time someone asked. Any random person. Even on the street. ("It could happen!" I heard...) It would be the most valuable thing you owned in New York City; woe to all those who leave it on the subway.
Audition books had a sort of mythic, epic quality to nineteen year old Mimi. Through various Tumblr and Reddit sources, friends who attended BFA programs, and the occasional Google search, I pieced together that an Audition Book would be something I needed to assemble eventually, but the task seemed incredibly daunting. I had binders full of sheet music... but did it all "work" for me in the professional world? What cuts were "right" to use? Is this song a good audition song or a good concert song? Are all of these songs I currently like overdone and unspecific on me? What should this binder even look like?!
It wasn't until I moved to New York City and began auditioning, taking classes, and working with other performers and theatrical organizations that I understood the intricate, personal process of assembling your Audition Book. I learned that three main things are required: curiosity, trial and error, and time.
If you plan on pursuing a career in musical theater, you simply have to know the genre; you need to explore its history and the slew of styles displayed throughout the decades. Being a curious student of your chosen industry is essential to understanding the layout of the genre, and finding material that helps showcase your strengths as a performer. There is no shortage of great, under-utilized audition material out there, but you have to be tenacious in listening to and learning about it.
Make a list of musicals you've never listened to, and want to! Research your favorite composers and see what other shows they've written, that maybe you've never heard of. Just have FUN listening to new things; you do love this stuff, after all! (Right?!)
If you need help, reach out to me for resources about all sorts of musicals and where you might want to start.
Trial and Error
Once you find great gems to add to your book, you need to put them to practice. Sometimes, a song you discover might seem perfect for you in theory, but getting it up on its feet in class or in an audition can reveal more about how well it will or won't work for you. Be patient as you work on things, and don't be afraid to seek outside opinions from coaches or teachers you trust. Make sure, though, that YOUR voice is the one reigning supreme as you choose the material that ultimately goes in your book. You have to love and look forward to sharing every piece you bring into an audition.
Book Audition Rep Coaching packages with me if you're interested in working with an experienced coach on material you've found and want to try out!
There is also a plethora of organizations and training programs designed specifically to help you craft your Audition Book. Comment below if you'd be interested in learning more!
Above all, recognize that this process takes time. As we'll explore below, Audition Books can contain a great deal and span a wide array of eras and styles. It takes a while for your curiosity to yield song options for you to consider further, and even longer to learn, work on, and fine tune the material you end up with. Even when you do feel solid with the Audition Book you have, the work never ends. As you age into and out of various types of roles, you'll need to replace material that isn't serving you as it might have at another time. You may also discover new songs that showcase you even better than your current pieces, and you'll need to evaluate what to keep and replace. Your Audition Book is an ever changing entity, so have fun letting it grow and change alongside you.
What Should Be in Your Audition Book?
As I've mentioned, Audition Books are personal and unique to each performer; furthering that idea, not everyone will need the same categories, number, or variety of songs. However, what I outline below is what I've noticed to be trends in the industry - having pieces that fulfill the below categories, in my opinion, will maximize the number of auditions you can attend and your potential to be called back and (hopefully) cast.
I'm going to say this once more: the below categories are general guidelines based on my experience. Everyone's Audition Book is going to look different, and that is something to celebrate!
The "Essentials" for your Audition Book
- at least 1 Golden Age ballad (pre-1970)
- at least 1 Golden Age up-tempo (pre-1970)
If this is an era that you feel particularly comfortable in, you might consider adding 1-2 more songs in this category that contrast, or show a different "side" of you
- 1 Contemporary ballad
- 1 Contemporary up-tempo
Pay particular attention to post 2000's musical theatre productions for this category.
- 2 contrasting pop-rock songs
Broadway today is flooded with juke box musicals and influence from pop-rock singers. This song category is, in my opinion, the most important to have moving forward in the industry.
Make sure at least one of your selections is fun and joyful; be able to bring along a proverbial "crowd" and have a blast with the music.
One of these should also ideally be a top 40 hit from the past decade or so.
- 1 "Megamusical" song (1980's-90's)
The sweeping, epic style of musicals from the 80's and 90's is rather specific. When you audition for things like Les Mis, Phantom, the Secret Garden, Jekyll and Hyde, Chess, etc., it's helpful to have one song that fits this style perfectly.
- 1 song written by Stephen Sondheim
Musicals by Sondheim are so often done and are intricate, specific, and identifiable. You'll also frequently see a casting call for one of his shows ask you to prepare another song written by him, so it's wise to have at least one prepared.
His songs also provide a chance for performers to showcase how they handle complex text, which can be helpful in auditions for other sorts of productions, not just Sondheim's.
The "Icing on the Cake" for your Audition Book
- 1 50's/60's song
for specific and commonly done shows like Jersey Boys, The Marvelous Wonderettes, Grease, Hairspray, Bye Bye Birdie, Smokey Joe's Cafe, Memphis, and more, where this era and genre are heavily influential
- 1 Disco, or 1970's-80's song
for specific and commonly done shows like Mamma Mia, Saturday Night Fever, Footloose, Kinky Boots, and more
- 1 song in another genre you work well in
Do you love classic rock? R&B? Jazz Standards? If you have another style you work in particularly well, show it off!
This is a great place to showcase your creativity and ingenuity; reimagining a well-known song that might be less common in a musical theatre audition setting can really make you stand out, in the right circumstances.
- 1 Folk song (or, alternatively, a Country song)
If you feel confident in this style, this can be a helpful category to add, especially as more shows like Bright Star, Godspell, Hadestown, Once, Working, and shows by Dave Molloy (Great Comet, Ghost Quartet, etc) continue to grow in popularity
- 1 Disney song
Disney usually has a specific vibe and styling; it can't hurt to have something targeted for these specific shows in your book
You: "Mimi... that's a LOT of songs."
You: "We're talking anywhere from 10-15 pieces in my Audition Book?!"
Me: "Sounds about right!"
Don't freak. I got you.
Remember when I said this was going to take time? It is, and you've got it. Remember when I mentioned each performer has different skill sets and needs? Your Audition Book is going to reflect that, and you don't need to have everything on that list to be a professional musical theater actor.
Let's chat next about what these songs should accomplish for you, and then we'll bust some myths about your book and auditions in general; hopefully we'll clarify a few things you might be stressing about!
What Do Various Songs in Your Audition Book Need to Accomplish For You?
An Audition Book is more than a series of songs you sound great on (though that is obviously an important factor). Consider the following when you're constructing your book:
1. Comedy. Having at least one song that showcases your sense of humor is paramount, and it's best if you have more than one. Up-tempo's in both the Golden Age and Contemporary categories can usually cover this, but sometimes up-tempo's can be more determined, driving, or dramatic than funny. If you need to add a song that's "in between" categories or is an extra piece in any one category to have a true comedic piece in your book, that's totally fine. I cannot stress how far comedy can take you in the audition process - most people, when given a choice, choose ballads or contemplative pieces, and you can really stand out if you lighten the room with something funny.
2. Choose songs that make sense in 32+ bar, 32 bar, and 16 bar cuts. I'm going to write another blog post on what makes a good cut, but in general, make sure that the songs you choose are able to make sense when pulled out of context of the entire song, or the show it's from. In rarer cases, some shows, casting offices, or regional theaters may ask for a "fuller" song (32+ bars) for your audition, but most will ask for 32 bars (about 1 min to 90 secs) or 16 bars (30 - 45 secs) of a song. Be sure your songs make sense as you winnow them down or expand them.
3. Identify a song that you could cut down to 8 bars. For those admittedly annoying auditions that get you in and get you out. This is a chance to show a "highlight" of your voice and personality, rather than a full story. In this cut, you'd want to show off an exciting, sweet spot of your voice - a "money" note or two.
4. Have a song or two that you can sing with little to no warm-up, early in the morning, hungover, vocally tired, sick, etc. Now, I'm not condoning going out drinking or partying before an audition, people... but... it happens sometimes. ;) Having a song you feel confident enough in on those days you're not 100% or don't have access or time for a full warm up is really helpful. Have I mentioned... you also don't need to show off the tippy top of your range in initial auditions, especially if you know yourself and know that top note is a reach when you're nervous. My advice: don't show them even the potential of a liability. If you sing even a whole step below your top note, their music director will likely know you've got more up top. If you're what they're looking for in general, they'll give you a callback (usually with the show material), vocalize you, or otherwise make sure you can sing what they need you to.
5. Your songs need to be engaging. Duh, right? But what does it mean to engage your audience, and to entertain them? I argue that actors need to approach auditions (and thus, your audition book) as a chance to show your skills at crafting a story. It is NOT a time to showcase how emotional you are about the craft, the song itself, or anything else. You have to understand that casting teams are not looking for you to change their lives or perspectives on theatre in a 1 minute audition, so don't put pressure on yourself to bring in a song or a performance brimming with emotion or huge personal stakes. Focus on finding pieces that you can craft a dynamic, nuanced, and even subtle journey with; the more detailed and engrossed you are in the story, rather than the emotions you want your audience to feel, the stronger your audition will be. This is all to say: you need to have a personal connection to and love for each song you add to your book, but you need to make sure you aren't wallowing in too many ballads or feeling the beauty of the song; we need to see you doing the work of telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end, living in a particular moment of life.
Audition Book Myth-Busting
1. You're not going to use the 10-15 songs in your Audition Book with the same level of frequency. You're likely going to have 2-4 songs you use most of the time. You'll learn what pieces show you off extremely well and do most of the leg work for you, over time.
2. You can still book using audition songs that are dissimilar to the style or genre of the production you're auditioning for. Overthinking your choices and bringing in a song you're less familiar with, just to match the perceived vibe of the music and fill a "category" in your book, can set you up for heartache. Don't feel that you need to rush into using a 70s/Disco song for that Mamma Mia audition if you're not totally comfortable with it yet. Instead, sing something else you know and love that gets as close to the style, story, or essence of the character as possible, while still showcasing your strengths and confidence. If you know you go in for Mamma Mia a lot and that you're really right for it, it might be wise to work on a 70s/Disco, ABBA adjacent song that you can knock out of the park (AND fits the show's musical style) for the next audition.
Side note: I know someone who booked Donna in Mamma Mia after singing "I Dreamed a Dream" in her initial audition. Totally different style of music, overall mood of the show, and more, but it was a song she knew and felt comfortable with, and in the end, that was more than enough for a callback and eventually, for a booking! YOU are the thing that matters in the room, not the song.
3. Read the submission or preparation instructions before every audition you attend. Seems obvious, right? You may have preconceived notions, based on experience, of what casting teams or directors will ask to see for a specific show you're auditioning for. Because of those notions, you may go on auto-pilot about what to work on before the audition and miss what you could more easily have prepared instead (ie, a song you already know well and use a lot!).
4. If you live in a big city like New York, every audition pianist can play Jason Robert Brown and Sondheim. They are standard and well known composers in the genre and their music has been on the scene for years; it is accompanists' jobs to know the music of this industry, just as it's yours, so don't be afraid to add their music to your Audition Book if their work is great for you. I'm less sure of this statement for smaller regions and markets, but generally in the professional world, their music is fine to bring to auditions.
5. Everyone seems to have an opinion on "overdone" songs - pieces that so many people know and do that you should avoid them, in theory. If you live in New York, every song is overdone. The sheer amount of people here, who all are constantly in class, listening to other people's auditions, means that a wide swath of the genre is constantly heard and used here. My advice: don't worry about adding songs to your book that you perceive to be overly popular; if it works well on you and lights a fire in your heart every time you sing it, it's right for you. That doesn't mean you shouldn't continue to listen to other songs that might accomplish similar things and show you off even more, but you're fighting a losing battle if you try to make sure all the songs in your book aren't "overdone." Remember:
Overdone in some places is unknown in others.
You can't control or know people's personal feelings about your choices, and everyone's opinions will be different, so you might as well choose songs you love.
There always tends to be "songs of the season" each year, where songs that are "overdone" seem to be elevated to "reeeeeeally overdone" status. Keep your ear out for these, but know that this is a quick cycle that tends to change every year or two, so don't change your go-to songs just because something becomes quite popular.
Tips For Putting Your Audition book binder Together
Materials to Purchase or Assemble:
1. A sturdy 3-ring binder. I use a 2 inch binder (you don't want the binder to be too big, so you can carry it around easily, but you also don't want it to be too small so things are stuffed too tightly).
2. Non-glare sheet protectors. You stick your sheet music in these, front to back, to protect from damage and to make sure your accompanists don't get paper cuts as they flip through your audition sheet music. Using the plastic sheets can also allow you to use a dry erase marker to write in and adjust your cuts' start and end places, tempos, etc depending on the audition.
3. Extra Wide, Plastic Divider Tabs - 8 count. Dividers are used to separate the categories within your book; I recommend getting at least an 8 count (more if you can find a higher count!) to accommodate the multiple categories you need in your Audition Book. The extra wide dividers are important to buy, as well, because they will fit the size of your sheet protectors; if you don't get the wide versions, the sheet protectors will cover the tabs. I personally recommend buying tabs you can insert paper into; that way, you can write the names of the categories, (ie: Golden Age, Contemporary, Pop/Rock, etc) for easy identification.
4. Post-It Filing Tabs (Wide). Within the categories that your plastic divider tabs separate, I also find it helpful to write out the names of each individual song and place them within each category's allotted space. This makes it very easy to turn quickly a specific song without flipping through an entire category, which might have up to four songs in it.
5. Table of Contents Page. You may be asked for a second song, and in the heat of the moment at in-person auditions, you might forget the name of every other song in your audition book (been there!). Having a table of contents page at the beginning of your book is helpful for anyone at the table, and you yourself, to quickly check out and decide what you should do next. You can make these easily in a WordDoc or Google Doc, or get creative of a site like Canva. For this reason, songs you do not know or are working on should not be in your book, nor should they be on your Table of Contents page.
Tips For BINDER Presentation
Be sure your name and contact information are clearly included on the spine or inside the binder, in case you do lose your book or leave it somewhere!
There are varying opinions on whether or not you should put a headshot on the front of your binder. Some people perceive this as tacky, others find it an obvious organization tool and a way to make sure no one accidentally takes your book. I advise you keep your headshots and resumes inside your binder in a front pocket, just because this business is all about impressions, and you may not want to come across as "green" or inexperienced by displaying it on the front of the binder. Again, I don't perceive people who do that this way, but some people do, so it may be best to avoid it altogether since it's not a big deal in the first place.
Avoid having loose papers in the front and back folders of your binder. Extra headshots and resumes are fine (just make sure they don't distract your accompanist!) and any callback material that you can easily take out and place on the piano is fine. Loose papers flying around from past auditions or callbacks, though, is not a good look coming into the room. You might consider keeping a separate, simple folder for all past sides or callback material you don't want to get rid of yet, but want to keep close at hand, just in case.
Tips for Sheet Music Marking and Presentation
Because you need to have 16, 32, and 32+ bar versions of each (or most) song in your book, I recommend that you include the FULL sheet music, with different color markings to indicate each cut, if using ink on the actual paper. If you use plastic sheet protectors, you could also use a dry erase marker to indicate the cut you want to use for each individual audition. Having the full sheet music, and knowing the full song, is important; you never know when a director or casting team will ask to see a different part of the song you bring in.
If your cut(s) jump around in the music a lot, to the point where an accompanist might have a tricky time, I highly recommend working with an accompanist who can make you a custom sheet music cut. There are software programs that professional pianists use to transcribe and transpose music, that they can also use to help make you a clear cut that will help in your auditions. Contact me if you need to be put in touch with someone who can provide this service for you.
Your sheet music must be double sided to reduce the number of page turns your accompanist needs to make. When you consider the easiest process for your accompanist, you're making your own life and performance better. If you use sheet protectors, it's easy to stick two pages of single sided music back to back if you need to, but always try to print your music double sided.
When you print or copy your sheet music, make sure that EVERYTHING is easy to read. Nothing should be cut off or faded; again, make your accompanists' lives easier. The way you show up and treat them speaks volumes about your professionalism.
If your cut includes a key change right at the point in the sheet music when your accompanist needs to turn the page, be sure to (1) point this out to them explicitly when you meet them and speak to them before you begin to sing, or (2) see if you can customize the cut with someone so that a page turn doesn't even need to happen there.
Phew! Ok. I know that was a lot, so I'm going to let that ruminate before delving into future blog posts on how to identify great audition cuts, personal favorite audition song lists, and more! I hope this post provides a good starting place for putting together your own audition book, and do let me know in the comments if you have any questions, concerns, or ideas about what I've mentioned above!
Happy Audition Book constucting!