Historically, the term ‘voice recital’ has been used almost exclusively to describe a performance of classical vocal music selections (often a combination of art song literature and operatic arias). While these performances occasionally include a musical theatre selection or two, it remains uncommon for a recital to solely feature musical theatre repertoire. However, singer-actors in the theatre world have been performing solo cabarets for decades. These performances tend to be less rigid and structured than their classical recital counterparts– often featuring a combination of loosely connected songs, monologues, and dance numbers. This begs the question: is it possible to program and perform a true musical theatre ‘recital’? Yes, of course. It simply requires some creative thinking and a willingness to experiment.
The first step toward building a solo musical theatre recital is deciding what you want to sing. There are many approaches you can take to achieve this. Here are some personal suggestions:
1. The single songwriter or songwriting team approach. For this approach, choose a prolific musical theatre songwriter or songwriting team with a HUGE output of stylistically diverse music. I’m talking about influential songwriters like Stephen Sondheim or Kander & Ebb here. I strongly advise against selecting a songwriter who has only written a few shows (especially if his/her songs all sound about the same). Once you have selected a songwriter or songwriting team, start listening to as much of their music as you can. Make note of songs you like– even if they’re sung by performers who aren’t the same gender as you (gender-bending is often fine in this setting, but you may need to adjust the song keys and/or arrangements). Be aware that you may run into legal barriers with this approach. Make sure to research copyright laws and contact representatives of the songwriter or songwring team to ensure that it is alright to perform their work in your recital.
2. The ‘themed’ approach. Select an overarching theme for your recital. Simplicity is key here. For example, a theme like ‘seasons’ could work. For that theme, you would select repertoire that corresponds with each of the four seasons (spring, summer, fall, and winter). The recital could then be broken up into four sets– with possible breaks in between each season/set. Another approach might be to select recital repertoire based on each of the seven deadly sins or the four elements (fire, water, earth, air). A few other potential theme options: stages of a person’s life, stages of a relationship, stages of grief, etc. The options are basically unlimited here. Just make sure you have the resources in place to find appropriate songs for whatever theme you choose. Also, try not to select a theme that is TOO generic. For example, ‘love’ is a far too bland and open-ended theme.
3. The historical approach. Historical-based recitals are very popular in the classical music world. However, musical theatre songs can be categorized into specific time periods as well (you’ll just be dealing with an overall shorter time span). For example, you could begin your recital with an operetta aria, segue into musical comedy repertoire from the early 20th century, pivot into Golden Age musical theatre songs, touch on experimental 1960s/70s musical theatre rep, explore songs from the European-influenced ‘pop operas’ of the 1980s, then burst into the contemporary musical theatre scene. There are many other methods for organizing musical theatre songs chronologically as well. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all musical theatre repertoire is the same. It isn’t. Much has changed over the past century.
4. The styles approach. Musical theatre is an ART FORM that encompasses many, many vocal and music styles. Therefore, it would be completely reasonable to organize your recital repertoire by vocal and/or music styles. If you decide to go this route, consider choosing 4-5 styles to use as ‘sets’ in your recital program (ex. a set of Golden Age Legit songs, a set of Pop/Rock musical theatre songs, etc.). For a list of common musical theatre vocal styles, please see this post. For a list of musical theatre MUSIC styles (there is a difference), check out this post. Try to make sure the songs in each set have a thematic connection of some kind as well. Performing a set of four legit musical theatre songs with no thematic connection is, frankly, weak programming.
5. The solo song cycle approach. There aren’t many pre-existing musical theatre song cycles out there, but they do exist. Something like Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns could work. Another option is Songs From an Unmade Bed. Theatrical song cycles are out there– it just takes some digging. In many cases, performing these cycles will require purchasing performance rights, so keep that in mind.
Please don’t limit yourself to the approaches above– they are merely suggestions. You can mix and match some of these as well. Be creative! Once you have selected an approach for structuring your recital, start thinking more about how you’ll organize and program your recital repertoire in a logical way. I’ll provide some tips for this in my next blog post on this topic. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading as always!
P.S. If you need help selecting musical theatre recital or audition repertoire, check out my new musical theatre and pop/rock repertoire consulting business, The Repertoire Guru.