The Girls on the Go: Ditch the Baby Voice (And Other Ideas for Younger Roles)

There are so many different types of female character roles.  As I’ve said before, “Character Role” is pretty much an umbrella term for any role who is less understood or accepted by society compared to the ingenue. Naturally, character actresses are drawn to “Quirky” pieces to set them apart. What’s quirkier than wearing pigtails (even though you’ve outgrown them)?

If you’re a twenty-something (or even early thirty-something) woman with a really effective skincare regimen, I am confident that you have recently worked on a song in which you played a child or young teen. I’m no psychic, but I’d be willing to bet that song is around five minutes long with a challenging piano line that changes time signature every few bars. Did I nail it, or did I nail it?

Nailing it.

Nailing it.

Contemporary musical theatre has so many young-girl roles, usually played by young adult women. Whether this is due to labor laws or Sondheim-ian difficulty is anyone’s guess. Either way, being able to pull off young roles is a useful skill for your proverbial tool kit.

It takes a lot of talent to create or perform a convincing child character, especially given that the vast majority of writers and actors are not children themselves. With adult perspective comes adult insight that a younger character does not yet possess. So, how do you reconcile your grown-up understanding with that of a fictional child or adolescent? And how can you do it in an honest way?

Turn off the umpteenth college-showcase-Youtube-rendition of whatever song you’re practicing. Go find a real-life kid. Catch up with your niece. Eavesdrop on public transit during the evening rush. Genuinely invest in an age-appropriate conversation with a young person in your life. You are legally prohibited from creeping around playgrounds without a child in tow, so don’t do that. I know actors love to talk and “Interpret,” so I am urging you to observe and listen.

Really listen.

You’d be surprised at how few children have a pigeon-toed stance or a naturally Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks-esque voice. Also, amazingly enough, teenage girls do not develop Valley Girl dialects around the time they get their periods. Who knew? When child characters are presented as caricatures, I find that it usually obscures what is being said in the piece.

Jen Cody in Her Party Dress, from Kerrigan-Lowdermilk's Henry & Mudge.

Jen Cody in Her Party Dress, from Kerrigan-Lowdermilk’s Henry & Mudge.

Does this mean that you should play every emotional beat of Kerrigan and Lowdermilk’s “My Party Dress” as if it’s Richard III? Hell no! Take cues from the composer and lyricist. Trust me, when the songwriting is that good, you can find moments and make choices that are grounded in reality. For example, the rhythmic cadences in “My Party Dress” seem to be written to emulate childlike streams of consciousness. Indulge a spoiled elementary schooler who knows she’s adorable by letting her talk your ear off; you will be floored with how well Kerrigan and Lowdermilk captured it without pandering.

A blue-haired Lisa (Sarah Cetrulo) from Joe Iconis and Robert Maddock's The Black Suits.

A blue-haired Lisa (Sarah Cetrulo) from Joe Iconis and Robert Maddock’s The Black Suits.

Speaking of pandering, we live in a culture that constantly talks down to teenagers, especially girls. Look at the media discourse surrounding Miley Cyrus. No matter what you think of her music or image, Miley Cyrus is not nearly as stupid as some reporters treat her. Teenage girls feel things intensely and sometimes make questionable choices (Hello, hormones and social pressure!), but their thoughts and emotions are legitimate. Remember that when you’re playing a teenage character. Not to mention, if you’re young enough to pass for a teenage girl, your teenage experiences are not that far behind you. Why dredge up some fakey-overacted sass while singing Joe Iconis’ “Blue Hair” when you probably still have your ninth grade crush on your Facebook Friends List?

I know I get really sick of hearing this, but if this article applies to you, you are still very young. I’m not passing a judgment, because we’re all in the same boat. It’s just a fact. Your childhood wasn’t that long ago. If you use this to your advantage, you won’t have to hide behind gimmicky movement or damaging vocal habits to convey youth. Your adult mind can process a piece like Bobby Cronin’s “Dear Daddy” and understand the stages of grief, but your very clear “Inner Child” (I hate that phrase) can connect to its repeated question: Why?

Children’s stories are important. We all know that children will listen, but storytellers should also reciprocate. Young people, by virtue of their experiences and understanding, live in a different version of the world than we do. Sometimes, we can learn from them. We could use the purity and sweetness inherent in Pasek and Paul’s “Caitlyn and Haley” or Drew Gasparini’s “Kindgergarten Love Song.” We can laugh at the future of today’s privileged teens to the tune of Nick Blaemire’s “All About Me,” or we can look deeper into those futures with Julia Meinwald and Gordon Leary’s Pregnancy Pact.

As performers and writers, we have the opportunity to remind audiences that young people matter. We also have the opportunity to tell young people that we are listening and want to know their stories.

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