It would be easy to attend a Broadway show, be dazzled by the talents of its stars and not stop to think about the years of practice, study and hard work that performers engage in to get on that stage or the countless people behind the scenes who help get those stars there. Sure, natural talent plays a role, but there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to make a beautiful performance happen — much more, in fact, than many realize.
Most performers come to New York to make it on Broadway after attaining their undergraduate or graduate degree in acting or drama, but that’s just the beginning of the demanding routines required. “It takes a tremendous amount of training to star on Broadway,” says Tom Oppenheim, artistic director and president of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting (stellaadler.com), a proving ground for some of the best actors in the business since 1949. The proof is in the pudding as alumni from the storied Chelsea studio include Marlon Brando, Cloris Leachman, Kate Mulgrew, Donna Murphy and Elaine Stritch.
It’s not enough to be a great dancer or a great singer …
Richard J. Hinds, associate director of Newsies and a dance instructor at Broadway Dance Center (broadwaydancecenter.com) says that once the basics are nailed down, versatility is what makes a performer stand out. “We see a lot of dancers who come through the audition room, and the ones who really stick out are the well-rounded performers, the triple threats who can sing, dance and act, and all three are at a professional level. The first thing that I really stress when I’m teaching is you have to be able to do everything. Shows are much smaller than they used to be. There isn’t room for somebody to come in who only dances or only sings.”
Beyond acting, singing and dancing, many shows require specialized skills according to Hinds. “For example, in Newsies, tumbling is a huge asset when we’re looking for boys for the chorus. The same thing for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Then you have a show like Once where you have to play an instrument.”
How specific are these skills? Hinds points out that in Pippin, the chorus members require circus skills, and in Kinky Boots, certain roles call for males who “can dance in stiletto heels.” Struggling actors take note: Add juggling and accordion mastery to your resume.
Shows are willing to coach stars who show potential …
Coaches are there to help those who struggle, of course, and Hinds has seen plenty of performers who are stronger singers or actors than dancers. “It’s just a matter of not quitting. If you believe in that person’s potential, you do what you need to do to help them. It can be giving them individual attention with the choreography and recommending they take ballet or jazz classes.”
And usually the growth does come. “Some people after a week or two of hardcore dance focus may come in and surprise you. Then you say we have four weeks of rehearsal and it’s going to take a lot of work but we can get them to the level they need to be at for our show.”
Stars put in eight hours of work before every show …
According to Oppenheim, who is the grandson of legend Stella Adler, vocal training is paramount. “Even with microphones, performing on Broadway requires a real understanding of the voice as an instrument,” he says.
Liz Caplan (lizcaplan.com), the vocal supervisor for The Book of Mormon, Once and Motown and a private vocal instructor for several Tony-winning performers says it’s harder than it looks. “I believe audiences might think the people they see on stage only have to work two and a half hours a night,” she says.
“People are at voice lessons weekly, sometime more than once a week depending on the role they are playing; they’re taking exercise classes to keep their bodies healthy, yoga, aerobics. This is a daily occurrence. So they are probably working six to eight hours a day before they even get to the theater to do their shows,” she says.
To make matters worse, popular TV shows like America’s Got Talent and American Idol are pushing audiences to expect bigger, more dynamic presentations from performers, according to Caplan. “Because of these shows where the contestants have to sing into the stratosphere to sound impressive and get the viewers to vote for them, there is a sense that people are expecting that kind of performance when they go into a theater.” Many shows also employ rock scores, which can be vocally straining, so the demands on Broadway performers are that much greater.
There are occasions when non singing actors are cast in musicals, and training is invaluable to them. “I work with those people basically the same way as I would with musical people,” Caplan says. “I say let’s develop your sound from your natural instrument. Let’s make sure we do all the fundamentals of discovery: breathing, support, opening up your sound. Then I have them think about their character inside the role and the song and find the voice that way. So it becomes more natural to them in terms of making discoveries about their character and not thinking about singing, but thinking as though the singing is coming out of their monologues.”
Even experienced stars need regular vocal coaching …
For the more experienced, Caplan sees herself as an after-coach as well, “like Florence Nightingale, looking over the casualties and making sure I can patch things up and that everyone is taking care of themselves.”
“I’m very holistic when I teach. I ask ‘How have you been sleeping and how have you been eating? Has your energy been low?’ I want to know these things so I can advise accordingly, musically, vocally in our lesson time what somebody needs to do to make it through their next week or stay strong if they had a good week. It’s different every single week with everyone. It’s never the same. I don’t go into my week with any agenda of what exercises I’m planning to do.”
What a star eats makes a huge difference …
Caplan, in tune with other experts, points out that it goes far beyond voice exercises. Actors even have to watch what they eat to “be aware of what foods work for them and which can energize them.”
Yoga is part of advanced actor training …
Many performers also go to the gym to stay in shape or, increasingly, take yoga. “Yoga has become a part of advanced actor training at universities,” says Annie Piper (anniepiper.com), faculty member for NYU and the Yale School of Drama, as well as a private yoga instructor. “I believe yoga augments vocal training, it opens up the body and the musculature and the breath.”
She finds that yoga is “intrinsic to training, particularly to stage actors who need a strong voice. For example, if the rib cage isn’t free you can’t breathe well, if can’t breathe well, then you can’t support your voice. … A strong actor in the theater needs a strong body and good lungs to be heard. That’s a huge part of it,” she says.
Stars keep learning, even at the top …
Even after ascending to the top of a Broadway marquee, the work continues. Josh Bergasse, the choreographer for the TV show Smash who, like Hinds, teaches at Broadway Dance Center, says, “I think anybody aspiring to be a Broadway performer or a Broadway star should be taking voice lessons, acting classes and in a dance class — they should have a theater dance class, a ballet class and a tap class. They should be as versatile as possible. Even when you’re a star, you should still be taking classes. The best, the most successful stars never stop training, never ever.”