You've seen them do their stuff, these artistically ambidextrous super-humans. In Glee. In High School Musical. In your high school musical. These dynamos can do it all. Sing. Dance. Act. On stage. In film. On TV. Underwater. Airborne. Upside-down. You name it. They can do it.
They're the song-and-dance folks. The hoofers. And to the star-struck hoofer wannabes, they look like they've got it all. Fame. Fortune. Glory. Sometimes even money.
And you want to be one of them.
You want to spend your professional life in musical theater.
That stage is where you want to be, with the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. It's where you and your ego can soak up the adulation, and glory in the wonderfulness that is you.
You know yourself. You had a blast sucking up attention and praise in the school plays. Remember when your crooning of There’s a Place for Us in that creaky production of West Side Story in 10th grade had even your worst enemies in tears?
Forget about ballet: Hey, there’s more to showbiz than getting up on stage and twirling in toe shoes.
And acting? In so-called legitimate theater? Macbeth? Much Ado About Nothing? All words and nothing else is so, so dull. There's more to life than words alone.
And opera is out, too. Pesky language barriers torpedoed that idea. Singing about murder and mayhem in Italian and hitting those high Cs, grace notes and melismas? When you could barely learn to count to 10 in Spanish Class? No way.
Nope, musical theater is for you. You yearn to be part of an art form that works all the body parts—and then some.
Musical theater artists have to have it in spades in brute strength, concentration, commitment, and oh, did we mention talent? The strength to do dizzyingly impossible dance moves, the vocal range to hit high C after high C, the mental commitment to memorize hundreds of lines, in tempo. Practicing till you feel your eyeballs are falling out of you head.
And there's more. Maneuvering around power-mad choreographers. Endless auditioning. Voice classes. And job prospects that are even worse than those of actors—if you can believe it.
For every Hugh Jackman, there’s an anonymous thespian stoically belting his way for eight performances of Carousel at the Kootenai County Fair in Idaho and waiting tables at night to pay the rent. For every Christine Chenoweth and Bernadette Peters (who has been around for so long, she should be carbon-dated), there's a musical theater M.F.A. graduate who leads the noon-day line dance at the local assisted-living facility. There are the anonymous choristers whose lives and hard times and strained muscles have been immortalized in A Chorus Line.
Musical theater is a hybrid. Legit actors are suspicious of it, some even going as far as saying that, as least as far as Broadway goes, the worlds of legit and musical theater are virtually two separate professions—people from these two different worlds barely know each other. What's worse, warns actor John Lithgow, song-and-dance performers compete for the minuscule number of jobs in and out of town.
Still interested? Brave soul. Okay, onward!
Where does this artistic hybrid come from? What primordial creative antecedent made Sweeney Todd possible? (This Broadway gem involves soliloquies on the joys of chopping people into bloody bits, then breaking into multi-octave ditties about axes and butcher shops.)
Blame it on the Europeans who exported their comic light operas to these shores in the 19th century. The mega-hit, Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore, really got the ball rolling. Pinafore fever hit, and American audiences saw an all-black Pinafore, German, Yiddish interpretations. After Pinafore, American musical theater was never the same.
Showboat. Carousel. The King and I. The Lion King. Wicked.
We hear your seats are in the upper balcony. Have fun defying gravity.
Musicals morphed into their contemporary form by ditching compartmentalization (like, actors act, singers sing and dancers dance, and that was that…). When the directors/choreographers—Agnes de Mille. Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett – muscled in on Broadway, actors became dancers, dancers became actors, and singers did a little bit of everything.
Musicals paint scenes in bigger, broader strokes. The characters verge on cartoon. Dialogue diminishes. Big, big forces — the score, the musical beat, the rhythm—are telling you, the performer, what to do.
Big challenges. Big talent. Big rush. Got what it takes?
You generally have to be a triple threat—or at least a strong double threat—to make it into a musical. (Think: less competition—lots of folks are great at one thing—but if you have game in all three, the competish is...less). You have to be in fighting trim as a dancer, an actor and a singer. But what about Renee Zellweger? Or (ancient history) Rex Harrison? From time to time actors dabble in musical theater—vocal skills be damned. Renee Zellweger was vocal mini-mouse but actorly powerhouse in Chicago. Parents, grandparents, great-grandparent—remember British actor Rex Harrison's "talking" performance in My Fair Lady? He compared his attempts to keep up with the orchestral background to trying to catch up with a runaway train. Said Rex of his talk-sing mode: "I have a range of about one and a half notes, and that's that."
Training, o you aspiring thespians, comes in many guises. Some tell of getting on-the-job training as teens, when they worked as a cast member in theme park productions. They sang show tunes in a Six Flags park show, five to 20 shows a day, same role eight times a day. That regimen makes boot camp seem like a breeze.
But most aspiring musical thespian/dancers take a more formal route and pick up this myriad of skills in school. High school. College. Conservatory. The list of classes goes on and on. Acting. Voice. Piano, Dance (ballet, jazz, tap). Stage crew. Costume crew. Makeup. Music theory.
On Thursday, you could be perfecting your flamenco dance stomp for a student production of a play where a Steve Jobs character invents a perpetual motion machine that ends life on planet Earth (yep, you know your student playwright friend ain't Shakespeare).
Although he looks a little like him in this light.
On Friday, it's voice class, when you suffer through an hour of training your voice with scales and "eee's" and "ooo's" for the time you'll be singing an hour nonstop six times a week for that lead role in UrineTown (another school production, but this time it's a professor's production, and you always wanted to make a great impression on him).
Competition is brutal, and the audition regimen is grueling. It's never-ending if you want a life in musical theater.
Hoofers crave attention and adulation, especially when it is focused entirely on them. "Me," "myself," and "I" are your favorite pronouns. Add-ons: Ego. Discipline.
You also need a titanium-strength thick skin because rejection is virtually 24/7. The reasons for not getting a part give a new definition to "infinity," "irrational," and "huh?" A fly on the wall of an audition area might hear the deciders-of-your-fate say stuff like: "Oh, I didn't like that gleam in her eye," or "He was too perfect. I need someone with more of a Quasimodo-esque je ne sais quoi."
The good news: If you make it, you'll have fame and fortune and, maybe, steady work.
The bad news: You may (likely will) never break into the biz. You may end up doing a day job full-time, like leading noon-day activities at a local senior center. Or waiting tables. Your artistic activity defaults to singing in the shower.