In the contemporary music theatre world, anything is possible. Casting panels are constantly redefining their concept of “right for the part”, so when it comes to selecting an Elphaba or a Marius, the old rules do not necessarily apply. A classically trained singer can be cast in a rock musical. A pop star can be cast in a legit role. So how do you know what the audition panel is looking for, and how can you put your best foot forward? Well, to start with, you’ll need to carry out thorough research of the show and role you are auditioning for. You’ll also want a skilled and experienced vocal coach on your team. Enter top London singing teacher, Mark Meylan.
Internationally recognized for his expertise in both musical theatre and contemporary singing, Mark coaches and mentors professional singers from all backgrounds, guiding them through rigorous auditions, rehearsal seasons and performances.
He has been the resident vocal coach on many West End shows including Ghost the Musical, Jersey Boys, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Sister Act, Saturday Night Fever, Mamma Mia and Flashdance. He is currently vocal coach for The Book of Mormon and I Can’t Sing (The X Factor Musical).
I was lucky enough to meet with Mark during his Australian teaching tour this month, where he kindly answered a few questions for iSing readers.
iSing: Do professional casting panels ever look for poprock singers over traditional music theatre singers?
Mark Meylan: In musical theatre casting, sometimes they’ll really look for pop-rock people, and then they’ll have a year or two of experiencing that, and then they’ll say, “let’s have the same role played by a legit person”, so it moves around it seems. For example, we had somebody from a pop band play Fiyero, who’d already been a client of mine. One thing interesting about him was that he’s got massive tattoos down his arm. Now Fiyero starts off in a short-sleeve shirt. Fiyero’s not known for being tattooed. He had quite a rough take on the singing, a sound that they quite liked at that particular time. They quite liked his tattoos. They felt that gave him an edge as Fiyero (Wicked) and they didn’t try to cover them up. But then in fact the year after that, they decided to go for much more of an actor- based Fiyero.
iSing: So you wouldn’t rule out one type or another, based on who has played a particular role in the past?
MM: I think it varies. Sometimes people go from pop groups into
more legit things, and usually the bit where they come unstuck if they’re not
careful is in their acting. They can sing the part, they’ve got the right look
for what they’re doing, but the trouble is the skill they often don’t have is
the acting skill, and in a musical theatre environment that can show them up a bit. Like my Fiyero for example, I made sure that he went and did a lot of work on his acting, so he felt he was able to master all that. And he worked on it, and he was up for it. So that’s a skill they have to make sure they can do.
iSing: Would you act as a mentor in that situation, and help your client identify things to work on?
MM: I would usually guide my clients to things that I think are missing. Because especially if you have a pop name or you’re a film actor or television actor, people will often want to shoot you down and say, “They haven’t trained. Why have they got this job”? So I usually try and protect them as much as I can, and make sure that we plug the holes. So if they can’t dance well enough I’ll say go and do some work on that, or if they’re in a period piece and they can act but they’re not used to being in a period piece, for example My Fair Lady, I’ll say you need to go and work with someone on learning how to stand in that period costume and how to present because it’s very different from a contemporary way. Some people take that on board and welcome that, others don’t feel that’s my role and don’t do it, and that’s their choice.
iSing: Do you have a preference for any particular pedagogy or method of vocal technique?
MM: No, for me good technique and good singing is good technique and good singing. I don’t care whether that’s operatic, pop singing or musical theatre singing. I think the problem with a lot of the current methods is that they address specific techniques but not everything. They appeal to people who don’t want to create themselves; they just want to tick boxes. Some of those techniques are very good at getting people to sing songs, but it doesn’t get them to have their own voice very known to them.
iSing: Can you name anyone in particular who has great vocal technique for contemporary music theatre?
MM: Ryan Molloy played Frankie Vallie for six years in London and also played the role on Broadway. He knows what he needs to make his voice work. He knows his voice. I think that’s very commendable. That’s what you want of an artist – that they know what help to ask for and when.
iSing: Can you tell us about your journey to becoming one of London’s top vocal coaches? How did you get to where you are now?
MM: My journey was a journey of not being very well taught. I went to college having had very few lessons. I studied with a teacher who didn’t really know what he was doing, so he didn’t make me worse but he didn’t make me better. So I came out after three years having not progressed very far at all. I went and trained with a couple of others who also didn’t know what they were doing. Nobody ever sought out the top of my voice. Then I went to do a music education degree, and while I was there I started teaching singing in drama schools, and really loved it. So I thought, how can I find out more about this sort of work, the anatomy and physiology and technical things. I went to conferences, and joined what was then known as the Voice Research Society in England, which became the British Voice Association. I’d go to meetings where there’d be speech language therapists, singing teachers, speaking voice teachers, laryngologists, voice scientists and they would all give us information. I’d sit next to them and get to know them, and I just learned and learned and learned and found out what I wanted, until suddenly I was the person out the front telling everyone how this works.
iSing: What are your top audition tips for singers auditioning for contemporary musical theatre?
MM: The first thing on top of my list is always show me what you can do, not what you can’t do. It’s very easy to pick a song that’s slightly harder, but
only goes well on a good day with wind behind you. Well, why would you pick that? Sing something that’s easier, and don’t sing Defying Gravity, show us what you can do. The panel, whether they be for a college or a job, will sort out what your voice can do. They’re trained. These musical supervisors and directors know how to get what they want out of you.
Go in and sing well. I don’t care what you sing, as long as you sing well. Because if the casting director goes “oh they’re great, she’s too short for the role but she sang well”, they’ll get you in for another job. If you go in and don’t sing well, the casting director will say well she’s too short for this job and she doesn’t sing very well”, so it would be hard for you to get back in the room with that casting director again. Go in and sing well, always.