Shoshana Bean is soulful, sassy and supremely talented. A seasoned musical theatre star and solo artist, Bean is renowned for her powerhouse vocals and masterful storytelling. She’s also a true pro: dedicated, driven and au fait with all aspects of the business side of her career.
Bean’s latest album Spectrum debuted at No 1 on the Billboard jazz charts. Inspired largely by Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, and Barbra Streisand – artists she admires for their resolute individuality – it’s her most ambitious to date. For this her fourth album she enlisted an 18-piece big band and Grammy award-nominated arranger Alan Ferber to help her deliver a fresh take on the classic big band tradition.
Bean has a strong and loyal fanbase; millions have viewed online her collaborations with Postmodern Jukebox, the musical collective that gives a vintage take on modern hits. Bean’s stage credits include playing Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway, Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and CeeCee Bloom in the pre-Broadway musical production of Beaches. She spoke to iSing’s LINE HILTON.
What does singing mean to you?
Everyone has a purpose and my purpose is singing. Sometimes people write to me and say “this song saved my life” or “your record helped me get through tough times” and I’m so touched. It makes me feel there is a bigger purpose and that I have a responsibility. For me singing is the most powerful way I can communicate.
You originally wanted to be a pop singer. How did you get into musical theatre?
I started in theatre when I was young. When it came to college there wasn’t a major in pop vocals, so I stayed with my first love, theatre. The discipline of theatre in general – showing up on time, being the last to leave, being prepared – has served me well. I also learnt the importance of connecting to the lyric and not just approaching a song to see how high you can sing or how many notes you can get in there. It’s about asking yourself: What is this song saying? What is the point? What is the story being told?
How did things change for you when you took over the role of Elphaba in Wicked from Idina Menzel?
I had to change my lifestyle because singing that show eight times a week is really taxing. I went from being in the ensemble to being the star. When you’re in the ensemble, no one really notices if your voice is a little rough or if you’re tired, you’re not carrying the show. When I was playing Elphaba, everything off stage was about staying in shape and energised for the show. My whole life became about that.
How do you prepare yourself to do a show eight times a week, or long-term?
It’s like preparing for a marathon. You need to stay rested, hydrated and in good physical shape. You need to be physically malleable, because tension of any kind is not helpful for your instrument. That means making use of whatever you can: massage, Pilates, yoga, acupuncture – you name it. Once you’re in great shape, it’s case of doing that marathon. Then your body is like “Okay this is what we’re doing. We’re going to do it eight times a week”. Then you build up the endurance.
How do you adjust your voice or your vocal style between musical theatre and the contemporary stuff?
Mostly it’s about placement. For musical theatre I always try to make the sound very clear and bright and forward. I want it to be clean, because I can get gritty and grimy and sloppy with my sound. Other than that, I think my vibrato is spinnier and faster with musical theatre. Again, the lyric is always the most important thing. With musical theatre I also try to be a musician as a singer. You learn what’s on the page and then you make it your own. You don’t necessarily change melodies, but you let it live and breathe the way that you would if you were looking at text in a script. The words are there, so you have to say those words, but you can decide how you emphasise them.
What’s your approach to vocal health?
It’s about balance. It’s a question of: what do I need to do for the gig, versus am I happy with the way I’m living my life? At some points in my life I’ve lived like a total nun and I didn’t enjoy it. The best thing I can do is stay rested and stay hydrated. Everything else is a crapshoot.
Do you have a vocal regime?
Yes. I have a teacher who I’ve been with for 18 months who basically saved my life. I have a very specific set of warmups to do every day, but I don’t have to go full voice every day. My teacher is not a fan of vocal rest. It’s like exercise. If you stop working out every day, and then you go back and try to run three miles, your body’s like “what the heck are you doing?”. I’ve learned that my voice is responsive to consistency, which is something I struggle with.
Do you swear by any lotions or potions?
I love doTERRA On Guard essential oil, because it keeps me healthy. When I fly or when I feel any kind of a tickle coming on I use it. I put it directly on to my chest, the back of my neck and the back of my ears – no carrier oil. I don’t mind a little bit of Mucinex and, of course, I love my steamer. I know it’s not a lotion or a potion, but steamers have saved my butt countless times. I’ve also recently discovered glutathione. If I’m really in trouble and I have a big gig, I’ll get it injected. It’s an antioxidant most commonly used by athletes [when they’re trying to recover from fatigue or injury]. My voice doctor in New York would not give you a steroid shot if you came in struggling and needing to get on stage but she’d give you glutathione. It feels like you’ve been ice skating over a bumpy surface and then everything becomes smooth and effortless. It’s quite expensive but it’s a game changer.
How do you cope with the ups and downs of the industry?
What helps is that I know, regardless of what happens, I’m still going to get up every day and sing. Whether I win a Grammy and tour the world, or wind up singing for 50 people in a hole in the wall bar in LA, I’m still going to sing. And I’m going to do it until I die, so I’m just going to keep setting myself goals and keep figuring it out.
Do you believe people are born with talent?
Let me put it this way, I think heart and drive are very important, as are the choices you make along the way. When I was younger I was never the star of the show. But I had pitch and I had passion, so I kept working at trying to be better and different. I think maybe some kids are more talented. But if you’re always being told how good you are, you can stop learning and striving. I would never say to someone “You just don’t have it”. Anyone can, if they work hard enough.
What challenges do new singers coming into the industry today face?
Standing out. It’s just so oversaturated. Creating an Instagram and putting up videos isn’t enough. You need to be self-motivated. There are so many whiny people who say: “I need a label, I need a producer”. Those days are over. No one person is going to push the magic button for you. As much as I hated doing all the work myself for all those years, I now know how to run my business, communicate with musicians, and produce a record. I wouldn’t trade all that knowledge for anything.
Do you have some top tips for singers?
Be an individual; it’s okay to be different because that’s what makes you special. And don’t take gigs that you don’t respect. There’s nothing worse than looking to your left and seeing someone rolling their eyes, because they can’t believe they’re doing this gig. There’s a great book called The Go-Giver that just shifted my whole perspective about my work, my art, my talent and my relationships. It taught me to show up with generosity as opposed to, everyone owes me something, because I’m good.