Last year I sat in on an audition for an upcoming community theatre production of Oklahoma. I was friends with the director and he wanted some feedback on how they run their auditions and organize their talent pool.
As auditions began, something stood out to me. Depending on the role they were auditioning for, every man sang either "Kansas City" or "People Will Say We're in Love". Every woman who auditioned sang either "Out of My Dreams" or "The Farmer and the Cowman". There were even a couple of "I Can't Say No" and "Lonely Room" auditions thrown in as well.
Immediately I thought I was mistaken and that this was actually the callback round but I was told during a break that the director does something a bit different for his auditions. Rather than asking performers to prepare 32 bars of any song, he publicizes what songs they want for auditions, even the exact section. So everyone who comes in auditioning for certain roles will be singing the exact same part of the song. I asked him why he did this,
"First of all, it's community theatre", he said. "These people have jobs, school, life. I can't expect them to fit all that and prepare a 32 bar selection. If it was a college or professional gig, then I could expect that. But I can't ask a mother of three, working full time, to prepare two contrasting song selections which would likely include finding sheet music, working with an accompanist, or whatever else. This way it saves them time and I have a much easier and fast way to do callbacks. Not to mention, it's easier on the accompanist."
This made a lot of sense to me. It also was something that I typically do when I direct a community theatre play, but this was the first time I saw it applied to a musical.
As the auditions continued, I could see his point. He was easily able to identify the men and women he wanted to call back for roles like Laurey and Curly. He then could use the callbacks to match them up. He was also able to cast roles like Aunt Eller and Ali Hakim from the auditions and not have to include them on the callback list.
So in the end, he was able to cut down an audition pool of over 100 to just 16 for 4 roles at callbacks. Quick and easy.
Since then, I've been thinking about this quite a lot, often during other auditions. What I've noticed is that, in a community theatre setting, there is nothing that someone singing 32 bars from another musical would tell me than if they sang a piece from the show they're auditioning for. At a professional and college level, it would certainly show preparation and professionalism but for community theatre? I could get the same impression, if not more, from a cold singing from the show itself.
It also removes a lot of the audition snafus we hear about. Whether it's not having sheet music, timing issues, or criticism of song selection.
Many theatres already do this approach with their plays, so why not with their musicals? I always thought it was unfair to ask community theatre performers to prepare a monologue for plays. More than not, when a community theatre director asks for this, it's more of an ego-fulfilling task than actually serving the show itself. But if I felt this way towards play, the same should apply to musical performers. Right?
Again, this is not a revolutionary idea. I now know of a couple theatres that do this. But I do think it's something that more theatres should look at if they're not already. It's all about getting down to brass tacks. If someone can't handle the vocal range for a certain role, those things can be ironed out during auditions, no need to waste yours and their time at callbacks.