A Professor’s Recipe to Electric Musical Theatre Stage Presence

Matthew Teague Miller

Stage Presence.  Star Quality.  The X-factor.   Whatever you call it, it is the difference between an adequate actor and a good actor and often times, between a good actor and a star.  Many people say it is an indefinable quality that someone is either born with or not.   As a college professor who is charged with teaching students how to be solid actors and musical theatre performers that does not cut it.  It is my responsibility to teach my students everything in my power to make them stronger and “you’ve either got it or you don’t” is a mantra that does a disservice to my students and my profession.  

Last week after a rehearsal a student of mine stopped by my office and asked me what she could work on to take her performance to the next level.  

“I’d really like to see you go for it more,” I told her, “you are doing everything the way you’ve been directed to but to really soar in the role, we need to work on your stage presence.”

“My what?” She responded.

“Your stage presence,” I reiterated, “I want to see you own this role in order to take it up a notch.”  

“I don’t know what that is,” she said, “How do I do that?”

Now I’ll admit… it is a pretty bad note.  It is not specific and pretty doggone generic.  But I was in a hurry and in the professional world it is a note that I could have given and it would have made some sense to the actor.  Her question was totally legitimate, “what is stage presence and how do I apply it to my work?”  

I sat there for a moment bewildered and not knowing how to explain it.  Finally I just looked at her and said, “Let me send you some videos.”

In the age of the internet, research is easy.  These young whippersnappers have no idea what we old folk use to go through to do it… we had to go to the LIBRARY, walk 25 miles in the snow (even in California where I am from) and somehow it was uphill in both directions blah-blah-blah.  

I spent the next couple of hours assembling a list of videos that demonstrated what I considered to be great musical theatre stage presence for my student.  I solicited suggestions from friends and compiled a small Youtube library.  This is in no way is a “Top ten list” but rather ten great examples of star quality on the musical theatre stage.  And a demonstration of the crackle-n-pop that I believe makes musical theatre performers stars.

Lining these videos up next to one another I started to notice some qualities that all of them possessed.  The more that I studied them, the more it felt like each one of the videos demonstrated one of these qualities clearly but all of them had traces of all of these qualities.  Could it be that while there is “no recipe for success” there is in fact a recipe for stage presence?  And that, while each performer’s voice is unique and to what level these characteristics are harnessed varies, it is the presence of all ten of these qualities that make up a musical theatre actor’s “star quality?”  This is in an untestable hypothesis but the more I watched recordings of great performances the more I felt like I was on to something with the identification of these ten important attributes.  
The ten characteristics of great stage presence that I have identified are

  • Commitment

  • Energy

  • Fearlessness

  • Intensity

  • Ownership of the Material

  • Danger

  • Hope (aka The Musical Theatre Twinkle)

  • Power

  • Focus

  • A Little Bit of Crazy

Let me use the following videos to illustrate.

One of the most memorable and electric performances that I have ever seen (albeit on video) was Michael Jeter in TAKE A GLASS TOGETHER from Grand Hotel.  His commitment to the character, choreography and storytelling is unmatched.  This guy is in 1000% and you cannot question that for one second.  His body moves in an almost muppet-like fashion as he bobs, weaves and bounces everywhere.  He leaves it ALL on the stage (and he won a TONY for it).

2)    ENERGY
When Ben Vereen played The Leading Player in Pippin, he energy was so explosive that you expected there to be fireballs shooting out of his finger when he pointed.  The sweat spraying off his face when he turns his head to look around the stage is the physical manifestation the kind of energy the makes for incredible stage presence.

When Donna Mckechnie performed Music in the Mirror from A Chorus Line, she left her inhibitions at the door.  Her reckless abandon makes her performance thrilling and captivating.  You simply can’t be afraid of how you look or what you sound like and have incredible stage presence.  She is electric.   No artist can live in fear and thrive.  Fear is the enemy of creativity.  Show us how it is done Miss Donna (Special thanks to my good friend Jerry Jay Cranford, Professor at Augustana College, for reminding me about this great video!)  

Mandy Patinkin has an intensity to everything he does but few moments come close to his rendition of “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George.  His voice cuts through the soundscape with an intensity that is only matched by his commitment, energy, focus and…. (the other ten qualities of incredible stage presence).  His acting is the quintessential example of theatrical intensity.  Just wait till 2:35.  This video is a masterclass.

When a performer can live in and own the material that they are presenting, magical things can happen.  In this day and age of masturbatory musical theatre performances with singers slipping their same favorite unnecessary riffs and runs in because they like the way it sounds, Bernadette Peters reminds us how to indulge in a freedom of back-phrasing, front-phrasing and shifts in melody NOT because she thinks is sounds good but because it helps her character express her feelings!  No one else could perform this song like this… because Bernadette owns it (Super special thanks to Anderson University Professor David Coolidge for reminding me of this masterpiece).  

6)    DANGER
In one of the greatest musical theatre performances in history, Jennifer Holiday walks a tightrope across an alligator filled swap dangling on the edge of certain disaster with every note.  The vulnerability in her acting and the exposure of her soul gives the audience a sense of danger that makes us sit up and pay attention.  In situations like this we grab the arm of our seats, sit up straight and hold our breath for the entire eight minutes of the performance.  It won’t be until tomorrow that we realize that we gave ourselves bruises from the tight grip.  Try not to chip a tooth while you clench your jaw and watch the following awe-inspiring performance.

7)    HOPE (The Musical Theatre Twinkle)
Great musical theatre performers get a hopeful optimism and a twinkle in their eye that I theorize is a remnant of the classical rags-to-riches musical comedies of the 1920’s (like Sally, Sunny or No No Nenette).  It causes audiences to lean forward in their seats and root for the people onstage, even when we KNOW things are not going to end the way that the characters think it is.  Check out Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald perform Wheels of a Dream from Ragtime at the Kennedy Center.

 8)    POWER
If stage presence is commanding an audience’s attention, few things command attention the way that a performer’s raw power does.  The power in which a performer presents material and the power in their instrument.  No one is a better example of musical theatre power than Patti LuPone.  I could have shown something from Evita or Anything Goes but her power doesn’t seem to have an expiration date… so I decided to share her Tony performance of Gypsy.  When she is on stage, she commands our attention and her power captivates and controls us. 

9)    FOCUS
While focus can be closely related to “intensity” they are certainly different, as demonstrated in this great clip of Sutton Foster performing Gimme Gimme from Thoroughly Modern Millie on the Rosie O’Donnell Show.  As she sings this song the rest of the world fades away and she creates a captivating performance that is difficult to take one’s eyes off of.  Focus, unlike intensity, can have an ease and gentleness to it.  In fact, you’ll see that while this number starts with incredible focus from the outset, her intensity is able to build… really kicking it up at about the 2:30 mark.  Nobody owns her focus like Miss Sutton. 

I wrestled with the title of this attribute because it sounds a wee-bit negative… but lets be real it takes “a little bit of crazy” to stand in front of a group of strangers and pretend to be someone that your not.  In fact in some walks of life that is the very definition of insanity.  Some performers can harness that “little bit of crazy” energy and allow it to propel them into having a great stage presence.  I don’t mean this as a knock… I basically have a BFA in crazy and an MFA in directing-crazy.  That wildness in one’s eyes can be an actor’s best friend.  It creates a sense of unpredictability that is totally mesmerizing to watch in a performer.  A great example of “A Little Bit of Crazy” in performance is the clip below of Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner from a performance from Side Show that they did on the Rosie show.  Harness the crazy inside you performers! I may have chosen this clip to demonstrate it… but every single clip on this list has “a little bit of crazy in it.”  Get your crazy on!  

Perhaps your personal recipe deals in two parts POWER and an one part HOPE… or you like to sprinkle in a little extra DANGER and keep the LITTLE BIT OF CRAZY to a minimum, that part is up to the performer.  You can season to your personal taste so to speak.  The point is that all ten videos posses all ten elements and, it is my contention, that it is the ownership of all that makes for great theatrical stage presence.  

Do not hesitate to share your thoughts or links to other great example videos in the comment section below!

Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times