Anthony Barnhill, the associate musical director for Opera Australia's current production of West Side Story, gives us the inside story on auditioning for dancer/singers, with particular attention to vocal abilities.
What is your role on 'West Side Story'?
I think of this role as having three components:
Playing the show: I play piano in the orchestra for six performances a week.
Conducting the show: I conduct the show twice a week.
Teaching/maintaining the show: This involves leading vocal warm-ups before every performance, playing piano for a daily ballet class, teaching vocal parts when in rehearsals, running ongoing understudy rehearsals to ensure the understudies are always prepared should they need to perform, and communicating vocal notes from the musical director Donald Chan to the cast. In short, anything to support the musical director and ensure the show is musically in top condition at any given performance.
What was the format of the WSS auditions?
The auditions had dance and singing components. The auditionees were taught relevant dance combinations from the show and had to execute this in small groups.
Vocally, the audition process emphasised hearing auditionees sing excerpts from the show, more so than hearing "own choice" songs. This isn’t always the case in auditions but was the preference of the creative team in this case. Bernstein’s score is very specific: for the Jet boys there are some particularly low notes in the "Tonight quintet", but also a relatively high note at the end of "Jet Song". Auditionees were taught the show material in a group, and then were asked to perform the vocal excerpts individually. It required auditionees to learn quickly and jump right in!
Given it is such a big dance musical, how hard was it to find performers who had both the dance and voice to perform the parts?
Something of great importance to our international creative team was finding a cast that are age appropriate for the roles. West Side Story is about teenage gangs, but so often the performers are much older than the roles they’re supposed to be playing. In our cast, the youngest performer is 16, and many are aged 18-19 - straight out of high school. This gives the show an amazing youthful energy and a brings this powerful veracity to the final scenes.
Of course, the challenge for the creative team was finding performers that had the technique to dance and sing the show, but who were also within this young age bracket. I recall the director Joey McKneely saying that he was impressed at the level of training performers were getting at a young age in Australia, which made this difficult task achievable.
Was there a common mistake dancers made when doing the singing auditions?
Having played for hundreds of vocal auditions, I’ve come to believe so much of a strong audition is the result of choices made before even walking into the room. If you’re asked to sing an ‘own choice’ song, it’s so critical to get this right.
Often contemporary musical theatre songs are catchy and have a rhythmic speech-like quality – but they might not actually demonstrate a great deal in terms of singing ability or range, which is usually what MDs are trying to see. Generally, I’d say strong audition songs have a sense of musical phrase and allow you to show some different colours in your voice. Bringing in sheet music that is illegible, a poor edition found online, or with cuts incorrectly marked, are all surprisingly common mistakes that are easily avoidable.
Finally, even if dance is your forte, if the show also requires you to sing – start thinking of yourself as a singer! Your attitude in the room communicates so much before you sing a note. Sing with confidence!
What sort of advice or specialist training did you give the WSS dancers when it came to singing? Did you have to give them extra help?
In West Side Story it’s not as though the cast are separated into "dancers" and "singers". Of course, some cast plots may have more of a dance emphasis and others are more demanding vocally – but everyone is required to (and can) do both!
In rehearsals, we made sure everyone had a chance to learn vocal harmonies and worked in parts to perfect intonation, blend, and diction. Throughout the run, the advice tends to be more in the realm of how to best vocally deliver a consistent eight show week. It’s a demanding show and it’s so important the cast stay in good vocal health and develop a routine for this be maintained.
West Side Story is now playing at the Sydney Opera House. More: www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/whats-on/opera-australia/2019/west-side-story-theatre.html.
West Side Story then travels to the Canberra Theatre Centre from 10 - 27 October and the Adelaide Festival Centre Thursday 28 November – Sunday 8 December. See: https://westsidestory.com.au/
Look out for our advice article on vocal training for dancers in the Oct/Nov 2019 issue, out late September.