Singing in character
Your route into a character or song can come from many different sources – there’s no one right way. For inspiration, some actors would take a trip to the zoo, to find out how wolves behave. Others, who work from external factors, would need to find the very shoes or clothes that make the character real – the top hat, perhaps. Others like to work from the text itself, taking not only what the character says, but what others say about them, and deciding which parts speak truly. Of course, the music itself also tells you a huge amount about the character and the emotional path of the story.
When singing in musicals, you have to perform in a heightened manner in order to be able to launch from speech into song. You can’t speak at your normal level and then jump into song and expect it to be credible. In rehearsal, try muttering to yourself before your lines come up, so as to build up your energy levels before it’s time to speak. Then speak with more energy as you come up to a song. You’ll probably be speaking over a musical introduction, which will demand this energy anyway.
The old cliche is that you sing when speech isn’t enough, and on stage we have to believe that there’s a need, at a certain moment, to sing. Take the line from the musical Anyone Can Whistle: “Everybody says don’t walk on the grass/ Don’t disturb the peace/ Don’t skate on the ice/ But I say do.” What the character J Bowden Hapgood is singing is essentially “break the rules”. But, behind that sentiment, the actor should have a whole internal list of reasons for why he is singing this: because he’s lived life as a political dissident, because he sees the woman he’s singing to as stuck in her ways, because he fancies her too, because he genuinely wants this for her and because she probably could achieve it. All of that personal history and information about a character’s intentions should be in the performer’s head before singing the line “But I say do”.
The musical theatre actor should always ask six questions about their character:
• Where has this character been?
• What are they doing now?
• Where are they going?
• Are they working through a problem in the song?
• Do they come to any decisions?
• Who are they talking to – who is the song for?
• How do they physically reflect their state of mind?
When the actor can answer all of these questions, they will know why they’re saying every line. This “why” is the first step to embodying a character.