On the morning of Barrett Doss’ first preview for Groundhog Day—in which she stars as Rita Hanson—the actor chatted with Playbill to reflect on the road of auditions to her Broadway principal debut. Here, she takes us through her book of songs and shares how she thought “outside the box” to find material with an arc to bring her joy in the audition room.
What song did you sing to book this job?
Barrett Doss: I only had to sing from the show for my Groundhog Day audition, so I feel pretty lucky because this music is really actable, which is what I look for in an audition song. I first auditioned for a different role in the show, so I got to sing a couple of different songs for the show over the course of the whole experience.
What are your go-to audition songs you sing? Take me through your book.
One of my favorite songs to sing at an audition is “All for You” from Saturday Night [by Stephen] Sondheim. It’s really short—which is nice to have a short, quick song to get in and out of—and all of the story is already packed inside this one beautiful, little package. The whole [song] is like 36 bars, which is kind of a perfect cut. I love to sing “Keepin’ Out of Mischief” from Ain’t Misbehavin’. That always feels like a really luxurious song to sing, so I enjoy that, and it’s really easy to take it from the bridge to the end of the song in a nice solid cut that has authority and big notes, if that’s what they’re looking for.
When you first started auditioning, what were you looking for, in terms of great pieces to present at auditions? How do the songs in your repertoire speak to you?
As a young, black musical theatre actress, you sometimes feel really confined to a certain number of shows, and I always had a lot of fun thinking outside the box and trying to do things that weren’t just from The Wiz… That being said, I learned the song “White Boys” from Hair really early, and I always loved singing that, and I still do pretty frequently. But I was always looking for something that had not only story, but that I had fun singing—that I knew that if I got in that room, and I was feeling nervous, as soon as I got through the first couple bars of the song, I was going to start having fun singing it.
Any advice on finding the perfect cut? Do you work with a rep coach?
I used to work with Steven Lutvak, [the composer and co-lyricist of] Gentleman’s Guide. I’ve known him since I was 16 years old, and he used to coach me. I generally like to take a bit from the beginning and middle and end of the song and sort of mash it together. … I always want an arc, and sometimes you can get that going from the bridge to the end, so that’s also a nice option.
When it comes to genres other than musical theatre, what do you sing at auditions?
It’s funny, I don’t think I’ve gone to a musical theatre audition in a while that has asked me for anything other than a pop/rock song. I think it’s a real challenge. But I love looking for [songwriters] who are kind of theatrical. I used to use a lot of Sara Bareilles, actually, before Waitress, which makes a lot of sense now that she’s written a musical because she writes [songs that] really want to get a point across. I also love using Lady Gaga. I think she’s an amazing songwriter.
Something that I realized recently is that when I’m listening to pop music or R&B, I find it really helpful that if you hear something you like, go see if they have an acoustic version on either guitar or piano. A lot of pop singers do that at some point. I remember the first time—like ten years ago now—I saw Lady Gaga singing “Poker Face,” just her and the piano, I was like, “This is an amazing song.” It’s great when you hear it on the radio, but you can’t hear it, so I realized if you look for acoustic versions of big, high-production pop songs you like, you might find some really nice surprises in there. Don’t restrict yourself to songs [by] gender. I started singing [John Mayer’s] “My Stupid Mouth” before the album that Audra McDonald sang it on came out, and [then I thought], “Of course she sang it” because it’s really a great song.
Where do you look for inspiration? How do you keep your book fresh?
I love getting recommendations from friends. I have a lot of friends who are ballet dancers, and I always feel like they have amazing taste in music. I love folk music, too. I also like to look for singers who change genre, like a soul singer who might try a country song and record it. India.Arie did that Don Henley song [“The Heart of the Matter”] on her album [Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship] years and years ago. … I like to take inspiration from that, too.
Do you have a terrible audition story, or was there a song you used that you’d never use again?
I auditioned for Holler If Ya Hear Me, and they asked for a rap cut, and I had never rapped or tried rap, so I taught myself Left Eye’s verse from the song “Waterfalls” [by TLC], and it was pretty awful. It was very awful! But it turned into my go-to karaoke song. I don’t love karaoke, but when I do go, that is the one song that I will sing because I get to show off that one verse, and I got my Instagram handle from it, so that was an awesome find!