Before she won a Tony as the title character in The Drowsy Chaperone, Beth Leavel was pounding the pavement in search of a reliable song that would consistently book her work. As she readies for her next Broadway endeavor in Bandstand, she takes us through her days of auditioning and remembers the songs that resonated with her in (and out of) the room.
Take me through your audition repetoire from your early days? What's in your book?
Beth Leavel: It’s so interesting because when my soul needs healing, I will teach, so I’m around all of this amazing energy [from] kids coming into the business anew with their fresh eye, and I look at their books, which wasn’t a thing when I was auditioning when I moved to New York. It took me forever to get my audition song—I like to call it my “go-to” song, the song that really resonated with me and was getting me work. But I didn’t have a “book.” There was one song that always got me work. A friend of mine, who was a musical arranger, got me a rendition of “I’ve Got Rhythm” [from Crazy for You], where I can just sit there and hold that C at the end of it, and that seemed to get me a lot of work. I kept using that song over and over again until a director went, “Beth, it’s so good to see you”—it was for some summer stock audition—“You’re not going to sing ‘I Got Rhythm,’ are you?” I was like, “Ha, ha, no…!” Then I knew I had to expand my repertoire.
Now that you do have a book, what’s in there? When you started to find new songs, what were they?
I always try to find songs that are good for storytellers, and I’m not saying that I don’t have an 8-bar and a 16-bar cut, [but] that would be a different kind of audition. I remember auditioning for SETC, Southeastern Theatre Conference, where literally I had eight bars, and I sang [“Nobody’s Perfect”] from I Do! I Do! I just belted for six of those bars. But if I now have the privilege of singing an entire song, I like storytelling songs that have a beginning and a middle and an end (A lot of those are comedy ones. I do “Everybody’s Girl” [from Steel Pier]) and that also serve the purpose of, “I know I’m going to have to belt an E,” or, if it’s a soprano role, [showing] my upper register. To find your go-to song, find what’s going to get you the work, what song makes you happy, what song really shows off your gift. When I found “I Got Rhythm,” before I overdid it, I [thought], “Oh my gosh, this is me! This feels really good. This is going to get me work.” And it did.
You said you teach. What advice do you give to students on finding that “go-to” song?
One: it serves their voice. That’s the bottom line. We’re storytelling through our song, so it has to sound good in your voice. And, number two: I like when you can connect with the author’s intentions through your vehicle, really showing me why I need you to be the one to tell me that story through this song. I would rather see a really amazing actor perform the song than someone who has amazing technique.
You said that the audition scene is very different from when you first finished college. How have you seen it change? How have you gone into auditions differently throughout the years?
I’ve seen a lot of showcases. We didn’t have that back when I came to New York in the ’80s… [Today’s aspiring actors] have these opportunities to come into these showcases and to present themselves to people in the industry, and I’m like, “Wow, what a privilege that is.” They have a head start. I learned more in the moment when I moved to New York. You’ll get to see what roles you’re getting cast in, so that’s [your] type. I’m still learning by trial and error, but I know the parts I’m going to be cast in. It changed for me after I won the Tony Award. I was presented with opportunities that I didn’t have to audition for, but I was established in what my type was. But people think I don’t have to audition after that, and that’s not true at all! I still audition a lot.
Do you think that type is diminishing, or do you think it’s still a big part of booking a job?
I think of myself as a certain type, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do something else. Initially, when you’re just starting out in the business, it probably would behoove you to have roots in a certain type. Once you start working and getting a paycheck, then I think, “Hi, whatever!” I think “type” has become a dirty word, and I’m not sure that’s necessarily true.
Where do you look for inspiration in new songs?
I get inspired by the work. I remember listening to [“She Cries”] that Jason Robert Brown wrote—listening to it and crying. When it viscerally affects you so deeply like that, I don’t have to do homework; I just have to step into that world, and it does it for me. I just have to be available for whatever the author’s intentions are—whatever the lyricist wants me to do. When I read a script, and I go, “Oh my gosh, I want to sing about that emotion. I want to sing about that feeling. How do I do that?”
Do you have a terrible audition story, or was there a song you used that you’d never use again?
Speaking of Jason Robert Brown, I brought “Surabaya Santa” into an audition a long time ago, and that was so unfair to do to the accompanist … and it was unfair for me to go in unprepared. Note to self: Just go in there, and really know your stuff.