A debilitating illness forced Katelyn Prominski to retire early from Pennsylvania Ballet. However, once she recovered, she felt ready to tackle a new stage: Broadway. But before she began booking musicals like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, she had to reckon with a new and humbling audition process. “When you go into a Broadway audition, you learn a dance combo first and then by the time they ask you to sing, your heart rate is going," says Prominski. “I remember one audition where I forgot the words and la-di-da'd my way through instead of singing the lyrics."
More and more ballet dancers are taking a chance on Broadway musicals. New York City Ballet principal Megan Fairchild recently starred in On the Town, while ballet-centric shows such as Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris have provided starring and ensemble opportunities for dancers from NYCB, The Royal Ballet Miami City Ballet and more. Many cite the artistic benefits of exploring an entirely new side of performance and the challenge of dancing, acting and singing. With eight shows a week, you get to practically live onstage and dive deep into a role. The pay is usually better, too. But in order to make this new world your own, you must be ready to rethink your audition approach and be open to a different set of professional expectations.
Take Time to Retool
Remember the lifetime you spent preparing for your ballet career? Well, musical theater is no different in its rigor. Though your ballet technique will be an asset, you still need to take a variety of dance classes such as jazz, tap and hip hop. Randy Castillo, now performing in the national tour of An American in Paris, moved back to New York City after a ballet career in Europe to prepare. Well before his first audition, he began taking voice lessons three days a week, going to jazz class and embedding himself in the musical theater scene at Broadway Dance Center. “Musical theater people work so hard, and you can't come into that world without taking it seriously," says Castillo. “It would be like me going into a ballet company with jeans on."
New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, who took a leave of absence this season to perform in the Broadway revival of CATS, agrees. “Approach Broadway auditions with the same diligence you had with your ballet career," she says. Pazcoguin became interested in musical theater after finding her singing voice as Anita in Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. She did her research by seeking out people in the industry and asking questions. In addition to polishing new dance skills, she learned she also needed a new resumé and headshot.
For a Broadway resumé, winnow your repertoire highlights, company experience and any other credits down to a page of bullet points; your headshot should be stapled to the back. Duncan Stewart and Benton Whitley, casting directors and partners at Stewart/Whitley agency, note that it's smart to get in touch with a theatrical headshot photographer, “someone who makes people look like people," says Whitley. “The headshot needs to show the story behind your eyes, your personality. The old bare-shouldered, serious photo is not going to cut it."
What to Expect on Audition Day
Broadway auditions are structured differently than those of ballet companies (which usually involve a class and maybe some repertoire). While every audition is different and show-specific, it's best to arrive already warmed up and ready to move. The dance portion usually involves combinations or phrases from the choreographer; anyone moving on to the next round will be asked to sing the music they have prepared and brought with them.
Your appearance is crucial. “You can't look like a slob," says Pazcoguin. “Your makeup must be on, no holes in your tights. I had to get some nicer dance clothes." Stewart and Whitley emphasize a more pedestrian, clean, athletic appearance. “No buns or black leotards for women, no tights for men," says Stewart. “We don't want to see ballet dancers going into an audition looking like outsiders, schlepping in wearing those oversize slippers. You should look like an athletic person who happens to dance well."
Because each show has a different style, prepare songs to match. For Castillo, that meant going to a few different voice coaches for help. “They each gave me different feedback," explains Castillo. “One helped me technically and another one was a pianist at auditions, so he would give me books and advice on what to sing for which show." It is a huge mistake to be musically unprepared—singing “Happy Birthday" is unprofessional. “Have two to three songs ready, 16 to 32 bars that show you off," says Whitley. And remember to breathe. “Your vocal coach should teach you where to breathe in a song, which makes you look more intelligent in the audition, like you know where the commas are," says Stewart.
Most of all, show your personality the minute you walk in the room. When Prominski made the best of her singing blunder and kept smiling, it paid off. “They saw my sense of humor about it, so they could have a sense of humor about it," she says, and adds that she ended up booking the job. Stewart and Whitley insist if you are charming, and the right alchemy is established with the creative team, almost any rookie mistake can be forgiven. Applying the technical skills, artistry, attention to detail and drive you already have to your audition will give you an added boost.
Do you need an agent?
While some dancers begin the process with an agent, others wait to sign until they have a few shows under their belt. “Get to know the casting directors and choreographers first," says casting director Duncan Stewart. While an agent can help you find auditions, negotiate contracts and manage your career, you're the one who books the gig.