The Real Poop
For many people, the best parts of high school all involve bright lights, choreographed song and dance numbers, and hairspray—lots of it. If you go to or attended a high school of a decent size and annual budget, then you're probably more than a little familiar with musicals.
While some people preferred football or math class, you spent all of your time learning "Tonight, Tonight" from West Side Story—both parts. You know how to do jazz hands and jazz squares at the same time, and you love the smell of stage makeup in the morning.
But is this just a school-time hobby, or is it more than that? You know that there are those certain people who go to the big city not just to see the big performances, but to actually be a part of them. That's why you're here; you want to be one of those special people. You want to spend your professional life under the bright lights in musical theater.
We're sure your parents will be thrilled (yes, that is sarcasm).
The stage is where you want to be. The applause of the crowd. It's where you and your ego can soak up the adulation and bask in the glory of a night at the theater. Never mind the fact that you'll spend most of your waking hours rehearsing, performing, and working your second (or third) job just to be able to audition every few months.
If you can work every single week at this career, you can average over $50,000 a year (source)— but almost no one actually works every single week. You'll be lucky to even work one week out of the year.
That's not for lack of trying; it's just that, like any other performance profession, the competition is fierce. Not fierce like Beyoncé; fierce like a half-starved lion who's just spotted a wounded gazelle. And unlike movie and television actors, people actually have to be willing to leave their houses to see your work.
Then there are the skills you need to make it on the stage. Musical theater artists have to have brute strength, concentration, commitment, and a great deal of actual talent if they want to pull off those dizzying dance moves and hit those high-Cs night after night and put it all together in a rollicking good time.
You'll be practicing till you feel your eyeballs are falling out of your head. Endless auditioning, voice classes, rehearsals, literally hundreds of lines to memorize—the list goes on.
Meanwhile, the job prospects are even worse than you might imagine. For every Kristin Chenoweth and Bernadette Peters, there's a dozen musical theater M.F.A. graduates who wait tables or lead the noon-day line dance at a local assisted-living facility.
Musicals paint scenes in big broad strokes. The characters are humans who verge slightly on cartoon. Dialogue is less important than the musical numbers that follow. But like any other performance piece, the main driver of your action is taking the audience on a cathartic journey.
It doesn't matter if they're laughing at your prat falls or shedding tears for your rendition of the show's biggest ballad—as long as they're entertained, you're doing your job.
To get that job takes an enormous amount of raw talent. You generally have to be a triple threat—or at least a strong double threat—to make it into a musical. This means having skills as a dancer, an actor, and/or a singer. So what if you're only seven-tenths of a single threat? That, grasshopper, is where training comes in.
Training comes in many guises. Some people are simply born into a family of perfect mezzo-sopranos and bari-tenors that can hit every note a human can register—and some that only dogs can hear. Most other show-tuners take a more formal route and pick up this myriad of skills in school. What starts as a way to pass time and express yourself in high school grows into a profession with practice and determination.
The list of classes one needs is extensive: acting, voice, scene study, movement, and dance (of which there are dozens of styles) is just the tip of the iceberg. It's even a good idea to learn how to put on your own make-up just in case the lights make you sweat it all off before intermission.
The constant need to be a perfect performer may be a daunting task, but it's a breeze compared to the rollercoaster of emotion that is actually trying to get a job. The audition regimen is grueling—and every single friend you have in the industry is going for the exact same parts.
You'll need a titanium-strength thick skin because rejection is just a part of the game. This doesn't mean you're bad—you may be great, but they just decided to go another way. The reasons never matter; what matters is whether you can pick yourself up and head out to the next one.
The good news: If you make it, you'll have a shot at fame and fortune and (just maybe) steady work. The bad news is that the deck is stacked against your success. Oh well, that's show business. At least New York is a great place to find something else to do.