by Ashley Griffin

In addition to being a writer for the OnStage Blog, Ashley Griffin has performed on and off Broadway, as well as on TV and film in New York, LA, London, Stratford and Chicago. As a writer, Ashley’s work has been developed on the New World Stages, Manhattan Theater Club on Broadway, Playwrights Horizons and others. Ashley has taught at NYU and is a member of the AEA & the Dramatists Guild.

Especially in the last five to ten years, a muffled question has been whispered through lecture halls and between artist friends in cafes…

“What exactly do they mean when they say they want a ‘Contemporary Musical Theater Song’?”

For those who don’t know, musical theater performers have what is called a “book” – literally a folder of music they have cultivated and perfected over the years that they bring to all auditions. It’s carefully divided into “types” of audition songs so they’ll have something that fits their bill no matter what they’re asked for.

Basically, these categories are as follows:*

*Note – there are obviously differences, and everyone has a slightly different definition of these categories. This is not intended to be definitive, just an overview that most people can generally agree on (and remember that many of these overlap – for example you can choose a Golden Age Legit song, a Comic Belt song etc. ):

Golden Age/Traditional Musical Theatre – Generally any musical theater from the 1920s to 1960s (with the exception of “Hair”.) This is mainly the category you would draw from when auditioning for shows by the following authors:

  • Rodgers and Hart

  • Rodgers and Hammerstein

  • Learner and Lowe

  • Block and Harnick

  • cabbage porter

  • Meredith Wilson

  • Etc.

Legit – Most commonly, this refers to songs for women that fall in a high soprano range. You would use this for everything from auditioning for Luisa on The Fantasticks to the Bluebird track on Shrek. In special cases, this can also include operettas.

Belt – Most commonly this refers to songs for women who fall into a ‘belt’ – the definition of this has changed over the years but basically means when a woman sings very high in her chest voice/mixture (just think to Idina Menzel). But what was considered a belt in the 1970s is no longer considered a belt today — so these songs are now more often specifically referring to music that falls within a belt range written after the year 2000.

cartoons – A funny song. (Although there’s nothing worse than walking into an audition where the crew looks at you and says, “Make me laugh.”)

dramatic – A not funny song.

torch song – Honestly, I’ve never been asked for a torch song in my entire career, but it still counts as a category. It is technically defined as a sentimental love song, typically one in which the singer laments an unrequited or lost love. “The Man That Got Away” is probably the ultimate example.

Disney – Anything you could use to audition for a Disney show or a show based on an animated feature. In general, any Disney song would fit the bill, possibly including songs by composers who wrote for Disney like the Sherman brothers and certain songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, etc.

oldies – Pre-1970s pop songs…maybe good for shows like Little Shop of Horrors or even Hairspray.

pop rock – Generally songs written in the 1970s or later that were not written for musicals (that’s KEY – pop/rock songs are traditionally songs that weren’t written or never appeared in a musical).

Contemporary music theatre – Traditionally, this is any song written for a musical after about 1980.

But let’s take a closer look at the last two categories…

The definitions as I’ve listed them were accurate around the early 2000’s when there was a fairly clear distinction between pop/rock shows and most new musicals – on one side there was ‘rent’, on the other side you had work to do with brilliant up-and-coming talent like Jason Robert Brown and Jeanine Tesori, and you needed different types of songs to audition for each one.

But then things changed, relatively quickly.

It started in a somewhat gray area. Take “Spring Awakening”.

In 2006, Spring Awakening was a new original musical. But his score had a unique folky, rocky sound that sat somewhere between Jason Robert Brown and the Top Ten. His lyrics were poetic and abstract – these weren’t storytelling, plot-driven songs, they were in many ways closer to the kind of music created by Regina Spektor and Ingrid Michaelson. So what do you bring to a Spring Awakening audition? A poetic pop/rock song? Or something from “Songs from a New World”?

And then pop/rock became a mainstay of most Broadway scores. We got a plethora of jukebox musicals in which narrative stories were created from music catalogs by non-musical theater musicians combined with original shows that either had a pop/rock sound or were actually written by pop/rock musicians – take ” Next To Normal”, “Spiderman” and many other things. If you look at the Broadway landscape now, you have shows like “Six”, “Hadestown”, “Jagged Little Pill”, “Dear Evan Hansen”, etc. Sara Bareilles was a staple musician to pull audition music from – her songs they weren’t “musical theater” but they still had narrative elements. You could sing a Sara Bareilles song to just about anything. But now that she’s the composer of “Waitress,” she’s actually firmly slipped into the musical theater category, and you sometimes get a side eye looking at her solo material for a “We don’t want a musical theater song.” – Audition sings .

Suddenly, “pop/rock” and “contemporary music theatre” seem like one big jumbled category.

But one that still often remains differentiated in foreplay breakdowns.

If I go for “Jagged Little Pill” and ask them for a contemporary musical theater song, Jason Robert Brown technically fits into that category, but that’s definitely not what they’re looking for in the space. Likewise, if you’re interested in Les Mis and ask them about contemporary musical theatre, I guarantee they’re not looking for anything from Six.

It’s almost as if there should be a third category that differentiates contemporary music theater from the 1980s-2010s from contemporary music theater from the 2010s to the present day.

Because leaving the category so vague does both the performers and those behind the table a disservice. One of the most frustrating things for a casting director is when a talented performer walks into a room and sings something that’s completely wrong for the show they’re auditioning for. Likewise, there is always a moment of panic when a performer is auditioned and they just have no idea what to sing or what the auditioners are looking for.

This problem is only compounded when you’re auditioning/casting for a brand new musical that no one has heard yet. If you see a breakdown for…let’s make something up…”Fish Hamlet on Mars” and there are no YouTube clips, no song recordings, NOTHING, and the breakdown is “Create a contemporary musical theater song…” well hey, what are you going to do to do? Should I bring a mega musical song from the 80’s? Or, wait, is it supposed to be funny? Maybe I should bring something along the lines of Something Rotten? Then again, it might be a angsty rock show, but they didn’t ask for pop/rock – so do they want something like “Six”? Maybe something like “Hadestown” would cross the line…or is this really more of a traditional musical theater piece and I should bang out some Adam Guettel. Help!

On the other hand, I’ve seen breakdowns go in the opposite direction and become so specific that they basically prevent the auditioner from having appropriate material. I’ve seen a breakdown that went something like this: “Please prepare a funny high soprano/operetta song that’s fast and written between 1931 and 1936” – I’m not kidding. I taught musical theater history. This song doesn’t exist.

We need a more efficient way to categorize audition material and give performers the best chance of success with the least amount of stress. Performers literally spend YEARS on their book so theoretically they can walk into any audition knowing they have a great song to sing for whatever needs. So, for what it’s worth, here are my suggestions:

– Please do not have performers learn new material for audition unless: 1.) you specifically need them to learn music from the show, and 2.) it is some sort of callback situation. When you have an open call, you don’t have to panic several hundred auditioners by asking them to learn a 1982 Tears For Fears song (but a lesser-known one because you don’t want to sing all of it all do else is…)

– Be as clear as possible about what you need to hear from the cast for that particular show. Especially if it’s a brand new piece. Even something like “Please prepare a Jason Robert Brown style contemporary musical theater song” is SUPER helpful! We can do this!

– As Broadway expands its definition of what a pop/rock score is, perhaps we can expand our audition definition as well. There’s an unspoken prejudice that pop/rock songs from musicals aren’t “authentic” enough. ie if a team is trying to look for a pop/rock artist and they’re singing something from “Six”, well, they’re not REAL pop/rock artists, they’re a musical theater person who wants to do pop/rock . That may have been somewhat true at one time, but it absolutely isn’t anymore. You’re not an authentic rock artist because you’re singing a song by someone that was never written for Broadway. That would mean that the entire catalogs of Michael Jackson, Carole King, The Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Alanis Morissette and many more just “don’t count”.

I think we need a new category. As a bad example, we could have Golden Age musical theater which could take us to the sixties, traditional musical theater which could cover (most of) the seventies to the early 2000s, and contemporary musical theater which could cover all of 2006 til today. Keep in mind that the Golden Age category spans about 4.5 decades in our current breakdown. Contemporary covers 5.5 decades. We are due for a new category. It might be amazing to think that so much time has passed, but we can’t go on decade after decade without recognizing that something fundamentally musical has changed on Broadway. Do we still intend to use the Contemporary Musical Theater category forever? Remember that in less than forty years, 100 years will have passed since the “end” of the Golden Age. This means that “Contemporary Musical Theatre” will be the nickname covering 100 years of material.

Perhaps it is time to pause, re-examine the remarkable musical changes that have taken place in our lives, and adjust our demands and expectations accordingly. It could be the beginning of a literal new chapter in musical theater history.

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