Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Review - Rock the Audition: How To Prepare For And Get Cast In Rock Musicals by Sheri Sanders

Review by Rob Hartmann

ROCK THE AUDITION: HOW TO PREPARE FOR AND GET CAST IN ROCK MUSICALS.  By Sheri Sanders.  264 pp.  Hal Leonard Books, 2011.  $29.99 (paperback with DVD); ISBN 978-1-4234-9943-5

You could read this entire review, or you could save yourself a few minutes and just run out and get this book now. Order it online, whatever you need to do. Trust me, if you’re working in musical theater, you want this book – no matter if you’re a performer, director, composer, or music director.

This is one of those books that, as you devour it page by page, you think, why hasn’t someone written this book before? And then you think, who else could have written this book? The author, Sheri Sanders, has a distinctive thought process and writing style which attempts to demystify the process of auditioning for rock musicals. (A disclaimer: I worked briefly with Ms. Sanders on a number of readings of new rock/pop musicals at the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at New York University. I can attest to the fact that Ms. Sanders knows what she’s doing – she was always first on our must-call list for rock musicals.)

As part of her research while she was writing the book, Ms. Sanders sat in on a number of auditions for rock musicals, interviewing the casting directors and other members of the production teams to get the answer to every actor’s question: what are they looking for? Surprisingly, she found that a common complaint, even at the Broadway level, was that actors were coming to rock auditions unprepared – unsure of how to do their best work in a rock or pop idiom. Ms. Sanders also points out that many times, creative teams don’t know how to describe what they’re looking for – which contributes to the vicious cycle of everyone involved knowing they need to solve the mystery of just how to deal with pop and rock music in the context of musical theater – but not really knowing specifically how to go about it.

Ms. Sanders smartly begins by breaking down the task into manageable pieces: the first lesson, of course, is acknowledging that the rock and pop genres cover over a half a century’s worth of music – the styles varying from decade to decade, with multiple subgenres springing off from one another. Her points are simple, but useful (for instance, knowing the difference between the musical era in which a musical was written and the era in which it takes place.)

One of Ms. Sanders’ most useful observations is that the singer must be aware of the social forces which gave rise to any genre of music. She provides pithy observations on the historical events of each decade – hopefully spurring her readers to further research of their own. I was particularly struck by the smart way she translated her history bullet points into useful advice on audition clothing choices. For example, when discussing the 70s, she writes:

Look at John Travolta (Tony) and Karen Lynn Gorney (Stephanie) in the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever. When on the dance floor, their moves were choreographed to be profoundly crisp and clean. However, inside of that “crispness,” their moves are fluid, loose, languid, relaxed and easy. Their clothes are tailored and really tight, but take a look at their legs! You’ll see the men (and women) are wearing bell-bottom pantsuits! With platform shoes! This was truly an era of freedom inside a structure.

The real meat of the book, however, is the section in which Ms. Sanders discusses the nuts and bolts of cutting songs to make them appropriate for use in an audition. Making rock and pop songs (which are so often guitar-based) work in a situation where they are being sung with solo piano accompaniment is notoriously challenging. The book addresses this problem, along with how to create a dramatic structure in a song where one might not naturally exist, through judicious cutting from section to section. (Ms. Sanders’ understanding and explanation of song structure and dramatic build is why I recommend this book to writers, composers and directors as well as performers.)  Most importantly, the book contains example after example of sheet music with cuts and notations to the pianist written in – demystifying the process of creating a well-prepared piece of audition music. (So often audition technique books merely describe the process of assembling, say, a sixteen-bar cut, but don’t actually show the reader what that means.)

The text is written in a very personal style: get ready to be called ‘darling.’ The cynical reader might roll his or her eyes  - but Ms. Sanders’ writing is genuine and honest. That’s who she is – her particular emotional energy emanates from the page. Since this book is in essence all about the art of personal self expression (the key to making rock music come alive in an audition room), the choice of style seems perfectly appropriate. I particularly enjoyed the section in which Ms. Sanders relates the Kinsey sexuality scale to performing rock music. (I can’t describe her analogy further and do it justice: you’ll need to read that for yourself.)

The book is a deceptively quick read: the narrative structure pulls you along through the book (a real feat which many “how-to” books don’t master.) There is so much packed into the text, however, that the reader should resist the temptation to swallow the book in a single gulp.

On its own, the book is a must-have; as a bonus, the accompanying DVD does what so many books of this type can’t do – demonstrate in action what can’t be fully explained in words. The DVD contains short videos which were shot as though the viewer were sitting in on one of Ms. Sanders’ master classes (with voice teacher Tom Burke at the piano.) In her energetic and engaging style, Ms. Sanders tackles “Voice”, “Body” and “Final Performance.” Under the topic of “Voice”, she covers the essentials of vocal styling of various decades by breaking down exactly what a singer can do with a sample song of the era. She contrasts rock styling with traditional musical theater vocal styling – demonstrating what approaches work and why. She’s loose and funny in the videos (at one point holding her nose while she sings to demonstrate what an 80s song sounds like with no nasality at all.) 

Any performer who is serious about wanting to perform in rock musicals should have this book; performers who may have avoiding rock auditions because they are intimidated will sleep better with this book by their side. Using Ms. Sanders’ clear and specific approach, directors, music directors and writers will find new ways to communicate with their actors about the sounds and styles they’re looking for. The essence of the book comes through in a quote from casting director Geoff Johnson:

“Casting directors just love to claim, ‘Oh, I gave this person their big break, I gave that person their big break.” In truth, they don’t give any actor their big break. An actor does. Actors give themselves their big breaks. We merely hold the door open for them to come through. Give yourself the big break that you deserve.”

Rob Hartmann is a composer/lyricist who is on the faculty of New York University’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program.

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