Happy New Year, everyone! Things have been a little quiet around here lately, and new blog posts will likely continue to be somewhat sporadic over the next few months due to my current schedule. However, I’m THRILLED to announce a brand new series of interviews here at MTR with influential individuals in musical theatre today! My first interview is with renowned pop/rock musical theatre repertoire/acting coach and author, Sheri Sanders (of Rock the Audition fame).
I’m a huge fan of Sheri and her work (and have mentioned her in posts here on multiple occasions). About six years ago, a few former classmates at Millikin University in Illinois told me about an amazing workshop of Sheri’s they had been a part of. Soon after, her book, Rock the Audition: How to Prepare for and Get Cast in Rock Musicals, was released to the public, and I couldn’t put it down after purchasing. Sheri explains things in such a detailed and straight-forward manner, and her work has been a major inspiration to me and so many others over the years. She has worked with Broadway and Off-Broadway performers, film and television actors/actresses, college performers, teachers, and others. She even has a brand new project called Rock the Performance to tell us about (see below for details).
Without further ado, here is the interview Sheri and I put together recently:
1. Hi Sheri, I know you’ve been very busy lately, so thank you for collaborating with me on this interview! I’m sure most Musical Theatre Resources readers are familiar with your hugely successful pop/rock musical theatre training program, Rock the Audition (and its corresponding book), but could you please provide an overview and brief history of the program?
It’s my pleasure cause’ I think you are so cool, Kevin! I noticed that the climate was changing from what we call “legit” to “popular music” in Musical theatre and since I was an actress who grew up listening to the radio, I grabbed a hold of the new expectation, which was to audition with a “pop/rock tune” and began to build techniques from instincts and information to empower performers with the techniques to change with the market. It was the book that was the key that let me into 55 musical theatre programs over the last 4 years, which has been my goal. To get teachers AND students studying popular music together so by the time the students graduate, they are ready to compete and succeed!
2. Very cool, could you walk us through what a typical Rock the Audition workshop is like?
Well, since “pop/rock” is really an umbrella that multiple styles of popular music live under, I teach performers and their teachers and coaches to understand “pop” music historically by teaching them in the order in which life happened. So we start with the 50s and 60s with Motown and Rock & Roll, for example, then move into the Vietnam Era, the Disco Era, 80s pop/rock, then Contemporary Pop and Rock/Punk, Hip Hop, Country/Bluegrass and finish with what I fondly call “Faeries”, all using authentic popular music from the radio.
3. You also have a new project, Rock the Performance, correct? Would you mind telling everyone about that endeavor and the inspiration behind it?
Yes. I have been the crazy aunt that comes in for a day, or 2 or three days and shakes the place up and then leaves. It has been very fun, but I still feel that with my visits, and the book, the contemporary performer and the very busy teacher have no ability to take what I set them up with and continue with any kind of consistency. 4 years ago, I approached Hunter Arnold, A Tony Winning B’way producer with the idea of taking everything I’ve built on-line for a greater reach. I took my book, (which is now out of print!) and created 8 training modules in all the afore mentioned styles, that are succinct, with links to the right music to listen to , the best videos to watch and the MOST vital information to get you immediately into the world of the music. We asked Hal Leonard to give us the rights to about 5,000 popular tunes and I am cutting and arranging all this music into “16” and “32” bar cuts that sound awesome on the piano. The site also has GREAT instructional videos and industry guest content! It took us 4 years to build, but we are LIVE! And growing fast!
4. So exciting! Along with preparing actors and actresses for stage work, I know you also work with performers with film aspirations as well. What are some of the unique challenges there?
Film and Television. YES. Well, as we all know, two things are going on. Musical Theatre is showing up on TV now, and because of HOW MANY MORE PERFORMERS there are in the world, self-taping is the new wave of auditioning, for TV and Film, for Broadway and for College even! So part of my 8 week training program are 8 live on-line classes, one every week in every style, where we focus not only on mastering the style, and learning how to be show-specific, but we work with the very serious subtleties that allow us, the viewer, to believe you are on television. Musical theatre, especially popular music, needs to feel like a rock video. This gives the impression that you know how be on camera. With The Wiz and Grease leading the way, all of our favorite rock musicals are bound to show up on the screen, and why not be ready for that. It’s exciting for me. I am taking two on-camera classes to strengthen my teaching technique and we are building an on-camera technique for the site as well!
5. I’m sure this is a loaded question, but how do you feel your life experiences up to this point have impacted your current programs and projects?
This is very loaded, and we may have to talk over cocktails. What I’ll say for now is that I had trouble being myself. No one would have thought that if you asked anyone about me, because it was only in very specific places in my personality. So in creating this program which intends to “get a person living in different worlds” truthfully, it also became an opportunity for students to really be themselves. Not a “type”. In turn, it gave me the opportunity to be myself. In all parts of me! So I would say, the projects impacted ME, actually!
6. That’s great. Now for some nitty-gritty questions! Last year, Shenandoah Conservatory published a study in Journal of Voice about the vocal requirements for musical theatre singer-actors today. The authors surveyed over 1,000 professional audition listings and discovered that 25% of them specifically asked for pop/rock singing. An additional 30% asked for singing that is at least partially influenced by pop/rock styles. What do these numbers mean to you, and do you foresee this trend continuing on Broadway and elsewhere in the future?
I’m actually surprised that the # is that LOW with how busy I am! I do continue seeing this trend as popular artists like HEM (the lead singer is writing Amelie) are writing shows that feel legit. I think the line will become blurry, and pop will become the new legit in some ways. Also, wonderful artists like Jason Robert Brown and Jeanine Tesori have such beautiful bold backgrounds in popular music, that that style will continue to blossom in our legit world, and the “blur” will become a very tasty dish with lots of flavor. I also HOPE that authentic legit keeps getting made by straight up legit writers. Shows like Gentlemans Guide, anything Sondheim, and classics like Fiddler or 42nd Street are too delicious to disappear! We need them for the delicate balance!
7. Interesting. I sometimes hear folks say that Broadway and the popular music industry have always been separate and should stay that way. However, prior to the 1950s, Broadway and Tin Pan Alley were some of the main sources of popular music in the United States. Although Broadway was slow(er) to adopt rock styles, I think the two worlds have grown closer and closer in recent years (i.e. jukebox musicals, Disney musicals, original pop/rock shows, etc.). How do you feel about the connection between Broadway and the pop/rock world today?
What a fun conversation. Burt Bacharach writing Promises Promises and Galt McDermott writing Hair, for example, then we got into Musical Theatre writers like Andrew Lloyd Webber writing Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph, Starlight Express, and that lead into Frank Wildhorn (a pop writer) and then Rent which (though I’d consider it musical theatre) asked for REAL rock music for the audition. So this relationship has been going on the whole time, but now the TREND is popular music writers writing musicals.
8. Great points. How does auditioning for a pop/rock musical differ from auditioning for a more traditional and/or ‘legit’ show today?
You HAVE to tell a story, and that’s the SAME. Whats different is with Legit, we are looking at the character you are playing, the scenario in the show, your motivation, and moving the plot. With pop/rock, the character is YOU, and you are telling the emotional story the music creates in you. The scenario is yours, cause this song is from the radio, not a show!
9. I know you spend a lot of time getting students and clients to ‘embody’ the songs and styles they perform (which I love). How would you describe the connection between singing and acting in pop/rock musicals today? Could you briefly explain the difference between performing, say, a 1950s rock ‘n’ roll piece vs a contemporary alternative rock song?
Yes, happy to. Based on the details of research on the time period of the 50s and 60s, how would you sing and move your body and have your feelings to that music? Make me feel like you are at a record shop or standing on a street corner singing doo wop. The music was meant to dance to or make out to. It was innocent. We’ve gone through so many different eras of emotional exploration since then, that by the time we get to Alternative rock, we’re alone in our room unleashing all the darkness we have in our soul in hopes to feel ok in this world. Never the twain shall meet, and everything in between these two is a piece of a puzzle that cannot fit into the bigger picture unless the puzzle piece is observed and the relationship to the other puzzle pieces is understood!
10. I love the puzzle analogy! A related question—in your book, you brilliantly explain that the year in which a musical is written and produced doesn’t necessarily correlate with the musical style(s) featured within the show. How does performing in a pop/rock ‘period musical’ like Hairspray (2002) differ from performing in a show like Spring Awakening (2006)?
It’s about what time period or style the show lives in as opposed to when it was written. So Spring Awakening in theory is contemporary musically, but they would be happy to hear Joni Mitchell just as much as Keane, or Jeff Buckley. It is listening to the FEEL of the show, and finding a song that feels like the FEEL. Poetic, raw, contemplative. There are great contemporary artists who are throwbacks and their songs would be awesome for Hairspray. Because they are throwbacks! A real 50s rock and roll tune or a 60s pop tune would be great for Hairspray, of course, but if the Go-Gos or Billy Joel or Bruno Mars have songs that feel like that world -and are GREAT, so consider singing those songs!
11. On that same note, what are the basic pop/rock styles and time periods you think performers, voice teachers, music directors, etc. should be familiar with? How would you recommend they go about learning more about these styles?
ALL of them. The more styles you listen to the cooler your voice is. Thats why we love singers Like PINK and Adele, Adam Levine and Alabama Shakes. They have multiple influences on their voices. All ANYONE has to do, is Get on Spotify or Pandora and make stations of every genre. Spotify already HAS those stations built in. You just have to click on them!
12. I know this question is a can of worms, and I certainly have my own thoughts— do you think classical voice training should be a prerequisite for performing pop/rock music? For example, if a student wants to have a pop/rock career, do you feel it is OK to skip “Caro Mio Ben” and let them sing the music they really want to perform?
It’s not a can of worms! You have to sound like you can sing 8 shows a week. Classical Voice trainings a must for solid healthy technique. Pop/rock is about style. It is again the spices in the dish that proper training has hopefully been cooking for years.
13. When working with a student or client who has never performed pop/rock music in her/his life, what are the most common challenges you face as an educator?
Letting go of control and allowing yourself to be emotional. We are trained to not be emotional but to evoke emotion and that works great with a legit song that has the story there to do that. We need your emotions to create your story. So is getting the performer off of being a “type” and onto being their messy, unique selves. It takes a minute, but the music really helps!
14. How many pop/rock pieces do you think a musical theatre performer should have in her/his audition book? Does this number correlate to the person’s career goals and individual strengths?
The same amount as legit! 4 or 5 that cover more than one style. I am a believer in stretching your strengths! So a legit soprano shouldn’t NOT have a contemporary pop /rock song, they should have 4 or 5 styles that sound great on legit soprano voices and one should be contemporary! There are sopranos in every style of popular music! You just have to look for them.
15. What general advice to you have for performers and teachers who are new to the entire subject of pop/rock musical theatre training? I know it can be a bit overwhelming for some at first.
It’s a team effort. It takes two hands to clap. Performers and their teachers have to do this together. If a teacher and a student both look up the history and listen to the music, they can meet half way and the growth could be simply astounding!
Thanks so much again, Sheri! Where can readers learn more about you and your exciting work?