Ten Audition Songs to Absolutely Avoid (& 1 Good Reason to Ignore Us and Sing Them Anyway)
Heck of a title there. Bear with us.
Anybody who has worked with us before knows that we *hate* hard-and-fast rules, when it comes to performing. Each artist is unique; what they bring to the table is individual to them, and no one rule any teacher can come up with can possibly apply to every single person who comes into the industry. So we usually abhor these “do not sing” lists that auditioners (especially colleges) put up.
There are strong reasons not to bring certain songs into an audition room. From age of character, to strong language, to being “star” songs; there are considerations that need to be made when choosing material, that go beyond “do I sound good singing it.” We’re gonna cover all the “do not sing” bases here.
And at the end, we’re gonna talk about when to ignore conventional wisdom, and sing the song you want to sing anyway. Strap in.
Songs to Avoid for Theater Auditions
#1: The “Star” Song
Alright, we all know this type of song. We love this type of song. These songs are often called “Star Vehicle” songs, songs either written for or made especially famous by a particular performer.
These songs, while generally excellent pieces of music, should generally be avoided. When you sing this kind of song, you immediately put yourself in the position of being compared to the original performer. You may be comfortable with that comparison - power to you, if you are - but particularly if you’re younger and less practiced, you may want to skip that comparison and go for something a little less celebrated.
#2: The “Age-Inappropriate” Song
Friends, if you’re between the ages of 16-40, we have great news; most of the musical theater canon is written for you.
We understand, there are a ton of great, dramatic pieces written for older actors, but let those actors sing those songs. Not only is it a little jarring to watch a 17 year-old belt out “Rose’s Turn,” but oftentimes those songs are specifically written for actors with a lot more life experience; the depth of feeling and understanding that comes with living life is what makes those songs really pop. Whether or not you can sing the notes on the page, the performance will always fall just a little bit flat.
So believe us, at a younger age, you have the whole wide world of MT writing at your fingertips! There’s no need to punch older. Plenty of time to perform those songs in later life.
#3: The “I’m Crazy” Song
Please, if you take anything away from this article, let it be this; stop singing “Screw Loose” for auditions.
When you bring in a song to an audition, you’re not only demonstrating what you can perform well, but you’re also, to an extent, letting auditioners know the kind of person you are. Is this person sensitive? Smart? Funny? Kind? Unkind? Stubborn? Possibly difficult to work with? All those questions are running, at some level, through an auditioner’s mind as they’re watching and working with you.
So, if you bring in “Screw Loose,” or an equivalent song that demonstrates that you’re a screamy weirdo, that’s what an auditioner will get from your performance. Give yourself more credit than that! You can pick a better song that translates what you can do much more effectively, we promise.
#4: The “Overdone” Song
Alright. Alright. We’re in a tricky area now. In general, you want to avoid overdone songs because auditioners tend to start tuning out when they hear the same song over and over again. Imagine going through a Spotify playlist that’s only got fifty covers of “Gimme Gimme” from Thoroughly Modern Millie on it, and you’ll begin to understand what many auditioners go through when they put out a call for a belty soprano.
Now, the question of which songs are overdone and which are not does change with the times. Nowadays, songs like “Dead Mom” from Beetlejuice and “Santa Fe” from Newsies are wildly oversung, but in 2012, as an example, two of the big songs were “I Know the Truth” from Aida and “Go the Distance” from Hercules.
We can’t speak for every individual auditioner, but we doubt many of them would complain if a young singer brought either of the latter two songs in, nowadays. What’s popular changes over time! It’s good to be aware of what people are singing. A quick google search “do not sing list musical theater” will turn up any number of lists from different auditioners’ perspectives. I recommend reading a few and making your decisions based on which songs appear on multiple lists.
By the way, the other reason to avoid overdone songs is very simply that you don’t want to be compared to too many other people. If you sing Live Out Loud from A Little Princess, and the three gals before you also sang Live Out Loud from A Little Princess, but they all happened to sing it better? Well, the auditioners may remember that. Less “done” songs will invite fewer comparisons.
#5: The “Currently Running on Broadway” Song
There’s “overdone” songs, and then there are songs from shows currently on Broadway.
The truth is, any show that’s currently running on Broadway will have a lot of music that people want to sing. It’s what they’re seeing ads for, it’s what they’re seeing when they come to New York, it’s top of mind for most performers.
Unfortunately, because it’s top of mind, the music will inevitably be wildly overdone. There’s an informal “three year rule” that gets talked about in the community, which is to wait three years after a show closes to sing the music from it in an audition.
As with all rules, this also comes with caveats; if the show wasn’t very popular, maybe closed quickly, the music might not be overdone at all and waiting only one year might be okay. If the show was beloved, particularly by other performers, you may want to wait longer than three years. The musical Waitress springs to mind as an example of a show like this, that isn’t currently running (as of December 2022) but was so popular that you may need to continue avoiding the music for a few years.
#6: The “Ethnically Incorrect” Song
When a certain member of our coaching team was sixteen, their go-to song was ,“Make Them Hear You,” from Ragtime.
Now, in their defense, culture was a little different in 2010! Racial awareness is in a better place nowadays, and no teacher or director ever brought up to that high schooler that it didn’t matter how much they liked the song, it wasn’t written for them.
So in my twenties, now that we know better, we're here to tell all our white boys (and girls); stay away from Make Them Hear You. Stay away from In The Heights. Stay away from The Color Purple. Basically, if a song was written for a character of a specific, stated ethnicity, and that ethnicity is not yours, don’t sing that song.
Often, an easy way to check this for yourself is to look up a casting call for the show. A call for Effie or Deena in Dreamgirls, as an example, will generally say something like “Female-identifying, Black, 20s.” If you don’t fit that description, best look elsewhere for rep material.
(The exception, here, is in pop/rock/non-theatrical music; unless the song specifically confronts issues of race or identity, you’re generally free to sing whatever you’d like regardless of who the original singer is.)
#7: The “List” Song
List songs. Bit of a staple in older musical theater particularly, these pieces in which a character generally has an idea (“You’re the top”) and then they rattle off a long list of examples to support that idea (“You’re the Coliseum/You’re the Louvre Museum/You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss/You’re a Bendel Bonnet/A Shakespeare Sonnet/You’re Mickey Mouse”)
These are a fun trap for a vocalist. The songs are cute! You go down a list, and people laugh at the words you say. It’s like a cheat code!
Unfortunately, list songs don’t really work for auditions. They’re kind of emotionally barren by design; they’re about the nouns a lyricist has prepared for you, and in an audition context we really want to be seeing character and vulnerability and a story arc.
A 32-bar cut of a list song, then, generally won’t give you time to do much more then set up the list and get through it once. That’s just not enough space for you to really show the auditioners what you’ve got, emotionally or vocally.
#8: The “Non-Solo” Song
This one may seem obvious to our more seasoned performers, but we want to make sure we cover bases for everyone here.
Some songs are written to be sung by more than one person. There are duets and group numbers aplenty in musical theater, and a lot of them are great songs. Some are especially catchy, and you might be tempted to bring them into an audition scenario; think twice before you do that.
When composers are making choices, whether to make songs solos or duets or group numbers, they’re often making those decisions based on emotional context. Why are characters singing this song? Is this a sentiment that’s very individual to a character, or is it a broader idea shared by more than one person?
Well, examine the lyrics. An ensemble number will generally have lyrics that are very broadly applicable to a lot of people. The ideas are sweeping, usually very general (“One short day/In the Emerald City/One short day/To have a lifetime of fun”) and tailor-made for a large group to sing together.
A duet’s ideas, in that vein, will be more intimate and specific than those expressed in an ensemble number. Duets are generally easier to turn into solos, but even they have their own questions you need to answer first; like, do the lyrics make sense when sung by just one person? Does it still sound as good when you get rid of that harmony line the second person would have sung? And, most importantly for our purposes; can you get a solid beginning, middle, and end in 32 bars when you strip the duet down to one person singing?
If the answer to any of those questions is no, we recommend moving on. There are plenty of great solo songs, no need to get struggle out a solo version of “Only Us” or “In Lily’s Eyes."
#9: The “Wrong for Your Voice Type” Song
This one is tricky. When taking into account what one should sing in an audition, one wants to find a song that speaks to them, that’s thrilling, that really engages an audience; and for some voice types, that may be harder. Baritones, altos, basses, we're looking at you.
Speaking as a light baritone myself, I understand the frustration of trying to find modern theatrical material, when so many of the great songs nowadays are written for the high tenors and super sopranos. Putting aside the feelings of inadequacy that may come with realizing a great song is just too darn high, there’s a pretty strong taboo against lowering keys for theatrical music, particularly when the song has a famous money note that the auditioners are waiting for.
So the lower voices have to keep on looking, a task made ever more arduous by the “do not sing” lists that somehow always manage to strike out every great middle-range song we were thinking of bringing in.
We get it. It’s really annoying. Unfortunately, until colleges and theaters make the audition room more accessible to folks with lower voices, we’ve gotta get creative. That means we put away Heaven On Their Minds, and My Petersburg, and World Burn, and Astonishing for a few years, until advanced technique can stretch us into those stratosphere notes that our higher-voiced tenor and soprano friends can reach naturally.
A little tip here; it’s often not how high a song can get that will make a song untenable for a lower voice type, but how high a song sits. The character Gabe in Next to Normal, as an example, doesn’t actually have that many super high notes. However, many of the notes in his songs hover in a spot that many baritones would recognize as their passage, or their break, making them much harder to sing pleasantly for someone with a lower voice type.
To remedy this, one might pick a similar song that begins in a lower speaking range and then builds into a few high notes, like One Song Glory from RENT. This gives a lower-voice male the same shot at giving a thrilling rock vocal performance without running the risk of tripping over trouble spots.
The goal is to identify what kind of performance you want to give, and select a song that can fulfill that for your individual vocal range.
#10: The “Genre You Don’t Know How to Sing” Song
Lastly, we want to be singing genres we know how to sing. If you never listen to folk songs, and you’re going in for Bright Star, make sure you listen to a bunch of folk music first! Get a sense of the style before you bring it into the room.
This also goes for bringing songs into college audition rooms. If you’re selecting material for a college audition, you want to be choosing pieces that show you at your best, not what you think the auditioners want to hear. We guarantee, what they want is you at your most expressive, your most confident. So if you’re not a pop singer, as an example, don’t concern yourself with trying to make yourself seem like one. Sing that Golden Age ballad, show off that head voice! Auditioners at a college audition are specifically there to assess potential. If you tell a cohesive story and demonstrate a bedrock of strong vocal technique, they’ll know they can teach you the other stuff.
(Btw, the use of this particular video is not meant to lambast the creators at all; their use of theater styling on hip hop songs is totally intentional here. They sound really good, and there are even very particular auditions where this kind of choice would be incredible - certain roles in &Juliet and Moulin Rouge are coming to mind - but of course, in general, a performer auditioning for a legit hiphop/pop show will want to target a sound more authentic to the genre.)
And now, as promised; one good reason to ignore us and sing the songs we just told you not to sing.
#11: The Exception
The thing about art, all art, is that it’s abstract. Abstract things, by definition, defy rules and conventions, strictures and commandments. As a performer, you are an artist. Rules about what material you’re “allowed” to pick, can only ever really operate as general guidelines.
You’re an individual. It may actually be that a song on this list really is the best song for you.
When educators sit down and write these lists out, what most of them are really looking to provide is motivation for you to engage a little deeper with your song selection. They want you to look past the obvious choices and try to find a song that really enables you to express your talent.
So when they say “don’t sing Not For the Life of Me,” from Thoroughly Modern Millie, most of them are not saying “under any circumstances.” If you’re someone who deeply, viscerally understands that song and what it’s about, if that role is made for you, if you can knock that performance clean out of the park and leave your audience gasping, do that song.
If you’re first and foremost a comedic actor, and you have a list song that you’ve worked a dozen unique, hilarious moments into, and you know it absolutely kills, do that song.
If you’ve arranged your own solo version of the group number “This Was a Real Nice Clambake” from Carousel, and the auditioners have never heard an interpretation of the song like the one you have prepped, do that song.
The point of all of this, really, is to help you find your own artistic voice, and showcase it as best you can. Sometimes, the answer is that your own artistic voice really is best showcased in that song made famous by Idina Menzel. The key is to be honest with yourself; are you singing it because it’s your heart song, or are you singing it because there are some cool high notes?
The more overdone the song is, the more clear you have to be about why you’re singing it. But if you know that song is your song, sing it.
Just don’t do Screw Loose.