Last month, I had the great pleasure of watching some of LA’s newest Broadway hopefuls compete weekly in LA’s Next Great Stage Star to win a grand prize of $2,500, representation, and a headlining engagement. The competition required learning eight musical theater songs in different categories like Female Composers and Musicals from 1940-1959.
Each week was a different theme, different outfit, and different opening group dance. The amount of preparation and money each contestant put into the competition was intense. They probably spent half of what they hoped would be their prize money on vocal coaches, accompanists, and wardrobe.
However, I would hope that, even if the 17 contestants who didn’t win knew the outcome before they entered, they still would have competed. Not only did the singers get exposure to three new judges every week, who were a mix of casting directors and agents, but even as an audience member, you could see the enormous amount of progress the singers made. It was a baptism by fire with immediate feedback.
At the first show I saw, which was two weeks into the competition, skill levels and stage comfort varied greatly. Some people had a great voice with no emotion. Some moved around too much. Many were trying to sing a song out of their range or comfort zone.
By the finale, all the singers were markedly better. At week six, it felt like a real competition, just in time for the elimination rounds. Seeing how much the performers had grown, I felt almost as if I had been in the competition myself. I learned nearly as much just from watching them onstage and hearing the judges after each song. Here’s what I learned:
5. Know Your Audience
“To whom and about whom are you singing?” Connect to a specific audience. Above everything else, make eye contact. When you close or squint your eyes, the audience loses their connection with you. If you pick a single point to sing to in the audience, make sure that point is higher so everyone can see your eyes.
4. Dress Professionally.
The audience needs to focus on your performance, and distracting clothing takes away from it. Singers were cautioned against wearing dresses that were too revealing and flat shoes that didn’t help their posture. They needed to worry less about what their character would wear and focus on what flattered their figure and helped them look like professional singers.
3. What Works for Auditions Doesn’t Always Work Onstage.
Since this was a performance, not an audition, the storyline and character in the musical weren’t as important as doing justice to the song. The singers didn’t need to worry about what was going on in that scene right before the song started, and they could choose whatever emotional journey fit the piece best, rather than the character. They didn’t need to make the motions of someone sweeping, for example. They were also cautioned to, “Watch out for Disney princess arms,” where both are raised skyward simultaneously.
2. Pick Something You Can Do Well.
One of the weeks the singers all performed best was “Producer’s Choice”, the week when the producer of the contest picked the songs they sang. The music usually fit their personality and vocal range much better than songs they chose themselves. It is important to show off your voice, but a performer needs to be honest about their current abilities. It’s better to perform a piece within your wheelhouse than stretch and miss notes or pacing.
1. You’re Telling a Story.
“Take us on a journey.” The first week I attended, this was the note judges gave a majority of the singers. Opera is a musical form; musical theater is an acting form. “Think of every song as a monologue with a beginning, middle, and end.” When you follow the through line of the song, it becomes a character arc, and you end every song in a different place than you started.
After the competition finished, I heard great news about the singers. Some had signed with agents, others had booked jobs. For singers with a good amount of musical theater training who want to take it to the next level, I highly recommend LA’s Next Great Stage Star.