musical theatre

Musical Theatre And The Hollywood Inspiration

Author: Mark Olsen, Chair, Musical Theatre Department, New York Film Academy

Disney On Broadway

In past eras, musical theatre trends were predominantly linked to styles of music and the vision of a few distinctive composers and creators who were writing as a way to reflect their time and to respond to the current pressures of their day. The universal themes of love and loss and the search for redemption or reconciliation were weaved into highly original plots that gave each production its unique sound and visual aesthetic within its newly minted world.

Fans waited with great anticipation to see the movie versions of stage musicals such as Oklahoma!, Brigadoon, Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, and of course, West Side Story. Many of the great musicals of that era did not just spring forth from pure imagination. They were adapted from another source. Guys and Dolls for example was based on Damon Runyon short stories, Oklahoma! is based on the Lynn Riggs play Green Grow the Lilacs and West Side Story is based on Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet.

Book and play adaptations have a long and successful history in the musical theatre genre. Borrowing themes and central plot ideas from these literary sources, the creators of the musicals of that earlier era enjoyed great success at the Broadway box office. In some cases, those adaptations as well as original works would be adapted for film, contributing to those box offices and gradually growing a new genre of entertainment called, the movie musical.

In recent times, however, a new trend has emerged in the musical theatre world and as a result, the earlier trend of stage works becoming movies has essentially reversed. Today it is evident that the Broadway musical genre has increasingly come to rely upon Hollywood and the world of the animated and non-animated cinema as its inspiration and source material. Movies, strangely enough, are now being adapted for the stage.

It is no surprise that Disney has become a leading force in this new trend. Moving successfully from animated feature to the stage, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King launched this trend which has been playing out in a robust fashion ever since. Just a cursory list of recent Broadway musicals reveals not only how many film based musicals have or are now gracing the Broadway stage, but also how much the trend seems to be here to stay for the foreseeable future. Consider the following list:

The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Billy Elliot, Elf, Bridges of Madison County, Rocky, Once, Catch Me If You Can, Grey Gardens, Big Fish, Bullets Over Broadway, The Color Purple, Cinderella, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid. And as I write this, The Coal Miner’s Daughter and Dirty Dancing are in the works in London.

Clearly this is a formula that producers find attractive and in some ways you might ask why it took so long. Movies, we know, can be distributed across a much wider swath of the public and as a result, they can more readily garner the all important title recognition which can, at least initially, give the box office more reliable ticket sales.

As always, regardless the trends and regardless the shifting tastes, for a Broadway show to succeed there must be that elusive combination of magic where the music and the production and the actors and the story all merge to create a synergy of force that lifts audiences and has them dancing or singing as they leave the house. In other words, just because a movie was popular, it doesn’t necessarily spell instant success within the highly competitive Broadway arena. Just ask the producers of the recent flop, Ghosts the Musical.

How To Calibrate The Physical Expression Of A Song

Author: Mark Olsen, Chair, Musical Theatre Department, New York Film Academy

Musical Theatre

To sing a song in the musical theatre is to move beyond the simple presentation of the tonal elements and to allow the song to live fully within an active story-based context. That is not to say that there are never moments of simple song presentation in the musical theatre. Some songs in certain musicals, like many numbers in the musical Dreamgirls, for example, are placed and sung as pure presentations of song. However those moments are rare and even in their straight forward presentational style, are often laced with background context. In other words, a song in the musical theatre is not only sung it is acted. Acting is the truthful blend of visual and aural expression within an imaginary context. Therefore, a singer in a musical must also connect to the physical life, the body language, of the song.

There are numerous classes and coaches who specialize in helping singers improve and maintain their vocal performances. Physical expression, however, tends to get much less attention. That is why many musical theatre performers resort to cliche gestures and wooden physical choices in their work. They become so absorbed into their vocal performance that the physical expression becomes flat, uninteresting, or even unsupportive of the imaginary circumstances.

To begin calibrating the physical expression of a song, the performer needs to have a clear understanding of the “world of the play”. The time period and the overall style of the musical will already carry with it a number of physical demands. The physical life of a farcical screwball comedy is much different than the physical life of a nineteenth century operetta. Once the style is determined, other research begins. In most cases, our modern access to the archival footage of past decades and previous productions makes this a fun and relatively easy process.

Viewing excerpts of old footage as well as paintings from certain periods and researching the clothing of a certain era will go a long way toward feeding the imagination. However, the song needs to come to life within the context of the production. Therefore the performer needs to know how the director and artistic team view the world of the play. Each production of Kiss Me Kate, for example, will have its own point of view and could, as one production I witnessed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, be placed in Little Italy, New York. Under those conditions the character choices and onstage gestural life will be uniquely influenced by that location.

Once the initial research is complete, the performer needs to embark upon some special homework: physical exploration. A good beginning is to simply sing the song while moving freely around the room. Put all expectations and conventional notions of how to move and simply commit to a liberated and unedited exploration of movement. The singing need not be particularly accurate or at full volume and should take a back seat to the more important journey of the body. Keep this exploration going beyond the comfort zone, beyond the known and conventional notions of the song itself. Literally take the song on a ride well beyond the confines of its normal boundaries.

This exploration, if done well, will allow for some unique and highly expressive choices to emerge. An hour of physical exploration that results in even a single gestural discovery is time well spent!

Another technique is to play a recording of the song and to move and dance and physically explore without any attempt to sing the song. Let the lyrics and the sounds of the music move the body in abstract or literal ways, free to move in a spectrum of physicality from high magnitude and high energy to miniature and very low energy. As in the other exploration, much like panning for gold, the process is to make a personal physical connection to the song and emerge from the exploration with a few useful choices, nuggets of gold, that can then be refined and adjusted to meet the needs of the song’s circumstance.

Artistic discovery is often linked to limitation of one kind or another. Try giving yourself a series of “rules” or “limits” as a way of forcing you out of your usual physical choices. Tell yourself that you are not allowed to stand with arms extended and palms upward. When you remove this common choice from your vocabulary you are forced to engage the body in new ways and find more interesting and more expressive physical choices.

In conclusion, to calibrate the physical expression of a song a musical theatre performer can choose the following:

1. Research the time period of the musical
2. Research the particulars of the specific production
3. While singing the song, engage the body in a fully released explorative journey
4. While listening to a recording of the song, engage the body in a fully released explorative journey
5. Sing the song while enacting some particular physical limitation that forces new and personally unusual choices to emerge.

Q&A With Mark Olsen, Chair, Musical Theatre Dept., New York Film Academy

Mark OlsenQ: How do I know if I can succeed as a professional Musical Theatre performer?

MO: As anyone will tell you, there are simply no formulas or guarantees in the theatre profession. However, there are a number of things a young person must have if they are to have a fighting chance at success. First, they must have passion or what sometimes is called, drive. There simply must be a burning desire to propel you through the many stages of development that will need to occur. Secondly, you must have innate musicality. There are all types of voices and all types of vocal ranges that are useful and successful in the musical theatre world. However, without a natural sense of rhythm and an ear for pitch and the ability to retain melodies, the chance of success is greatly diminished. Finally, you must have quality training in all three of the disciplines of the musical theatre: acting, singing, and dance.

Q: How can I get the most out of my musical theatre training at the New York Film Academy?

MO: The simple answer to that question is to show up consistently, each and every day, with determination, focus, willingness to learn, and the courage to endure the tough days. However, there are other more specific strategies that work: ask questions whenever you truly have one, consult often with teachers to insure you are making progress, keep a journal to record insights and class assignments, always be sure to prepare and to do your homework so your class time will be of true value. Finally, stay healthy!

Q: How do I stay healthy?

MO: For a performer your body is your instrument. Unlike other professions where you are able to tune and polish and even repair your instrument, the performer uses the organism itself. Therefore, like a master musician taking great care of their extremely valuable violin, you must do the same. It is a well-known fact that smoking has a detrimental effect on the voice and can diminish breath capacity and physical stamina. Drinking alcohol as well as speaking at maximum volume in loud bars can harm the vocal folds. Rest and relaxation is an important counterpoint to the demands of a conservatory training program so meditation, yoga, tai chi, massage, long walks, and other similar methods are very helpful to ease the stress factors that can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system. Drink mostly water and eat fresh, well-balanced foods. If you want to compete with the best you must give your body, your instrument, every advantage.

Q: What are the essential first steps to break into the musical theatre profession?

MO: In addition to the aforementioned, it is important to get really good at auditioning. In fact, to really succeed you must adopt auditioning as a lifestyle. Our program has many opportunities to learn the process of auditioning, however the reality is that you only really get good at it by doing it. Another essential step is to create and develop your musical theatre “book.” This is your personal songbook with your “go to” songs for any possible audition requirement. By having this resource in one single binder you are able to access music quickly and be ready to share your talent at a moment’s notice.

Finally, it is essential to network. Today’s social media platforms make this much easier than in years past. Your classmates, your professional contacts, your teachers, friends and family all are part of your support system. Employment in our business is of course a result of skill, talent, preparation, and timing. It is also a by-product of professional trust. You need to become that company member who is always reliable, emotionally resilient, and generous with your talent. People respond to that spirit and when it comes to casting and hiring for a role, those personal qualities become part of the decision-making process.

Q: Who do you consider the most influential artists in your field?

MO: Personally, I would select composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim as the musical theatre artist whose work has had the most influence to date. He almost single handedly propelled the American musical theatre into a level of sophistication and storytelling that has nearly become its own genre. In his mid twenties he wrote lyrics for the musicals West Side Story and Gypsy. He went on to compose and write lyrics for a wide range of successful hits such as: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum, Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday In the Park With George, and Into the Woods.

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your career?

MO: I think the most valuable lesson I have learned, and it is a lesson that took time to actually sink in and take root, a lesson that can be applied to all walks of life but is particularly important for artists and people in the performing arts: A career is not vertical, its horizontal. In other words, if you constantly think of your accomplishments and your career path as a vertical climb, you will inevitably feel dry spells and failures as a “falling” action. However, if you perceive your progress as horizontal, you know that there are times along the pathway of life when you are in a magnificent garden and you are well fed. However, there will also be times when you are in the flat plains or the desert badlands. In this model, you know to keep going forward, to simply put one foot in front of the other, and eventually you will arrive at the next oasis, the next great feast.

Q: What are the essential first steps for breaking into the musical theatre field after training in the program at NYFA?

MO: Again, I will repeat that there are no formulas. Nevertheless, the most obvious and essential steps you need are the following: you must have a good headshot and resume put together, a strong audition package which includes a handful of songs broken down into 16 bar cuts, several strong monologues, highlights from any NYFA filmed projects including the movie musical, and the deep drive to attend as many auditions and to become involved in as many projects as you can. Once you begin to develop “street cred”, which is the recognition of your talent and your personal integrity among your peers and friends, you have a chance that the industry casting agents will take notice and help to open the doors that will nourish your growth.