FIRST STEPS, Part 3: Getting Your Songs Into Voices

In the first two parts of this series, writers discussed some first-step-options for your newly completed musical as well as the pros and cons of attaching a solid director to the piece. This week, I wanted to talk with writers about the importance and time frame for getting your songs heard with great singers.

How soon should songwriters get the material into voices? When in the process should writers get actors to sing the material?

I personally want to hear voices tackle the material as soon as possible. A great performance can help guide the rest of the writing and all future drafts. Similarly, finding out that a song isn’t working can save unnecessary pain later on. One song that doesn’t work in the piece can affect a great deal of the rest of the show, so it’s best to know that early on.

Musical theatre writer Alexander Sage Oyen (Moment By Moment, Outlaws) agrees that the realities of the song can only be determined when a singer tackles it:

For me, a song doesn’t come alive until I have a voice other than my own on it. It gives me a perspective on the piece. If I’m just listening to my own demo of a tune, I can’t give the song itself the same kind of consideration than I can when it’s in the hands of an actor and I think that also comes down to the collaboration thing. I think songwriters have to buy into the composition as an actor to find what is dramatically serving to the story and also finding action and intention. Once you add the collaborative nature of an actual actor singing those words, you’re getting something different and something that you can discuss and understand. Sometimes we don’t always understand the things we create as best we can.

In many ways, then, actors help serve the collaborative effort that instinctively builds great storytelling through song. When an actor embodies a character through a song that needs testing, writers can step back and assess whether they have approached the various levels of character development AND have really captured the moment they were trying to capture. 

Ryan Cunningham agrees but also warns to be sure a song is ready to leave your hands:

I would give a song to an actor as soon as you feel that it truly is a song. If you have fragments that you think might one day be something, don’t give it to an actor just yet. But if you think you’ve pieced it all together in a way that it can tell a coherent story, that’s a great time to bring an actor in. An actor will quickly tell you if the story is coming through–even if he/she doesn’t directly say it, it will be clear to you if the song is performable. 

In this way, an actor doesn’t have to serve the role of dramaturg. The actor becomes a crucial conduit for delivering the material and seeing if the story ‘sings.’ The writers then have a better and quicker handle on any dramaturgical changes that must occur.

Now if we all agree that hearing the songs early is important, how do writers best go about that? Kait Kerrigan offers:

Concerts are a great way to try out material, but it’s equally fruitful to bring a singer over and show them a song and hang out for a couple hours working on it. Hearing a song in a singer’s voice helps so much. It also gives the writers (if there’s more than one) a frame of reference for what it will sound like and a new way to talk about the song even if it’s not far enough along that you’d want to perform it in a concert. 

This should be comforting to any new writers who worry that getting singers can be costly. There is no need initially to rent a theater or studio to test new songs. Great singers in your living room serve the same purpose – and perhaps even more so because the focus can be on the material and not the logistics of a public event. HOWEVER, songs that work can get staying power when these same singers are looking for new audition/cabaret/concert material. Such a scenario can be a win-win for all involved.

So, writers? Invite your actor friends over for dinner and wine – and get those songs on their feet! You’ll be further along than might imagine.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of First Steps, coming soon!

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