Jasmine Cephas Jones made her mark as part of the original company of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Hamilton, and she needed to sing a pop song to get cast. In fact, the actor explains that most (if not all) her recent auditions have asked for tunes not from musical theatre. Here, she reveals the pop songs that fit her style, and explains what happened when she forgot the words at her audition for the biggest musical of the decade.
What did you sing at your initial audition for Hamilton? Did you have to sing from the show?
Jasmine Cephas Jones: What a lot of musical theatre is doing now is they ask you to sing a pop/rock song, and some of them actually say, “Don’t bring in a musical theatre song. Just sing a pop song that shows off your range,” so I sang a Prince song called “How Come U Don’t Call Me [Anymore]?” It’s a beautiful song. It’s got an R&B vibe to it, but I love playing around with it. It’s got a great belty feel. When I first auditioned, I sang “Satisfied” and “Helpless,” and they gave me “Say No To This.” They didn’t have “The Schuyler Sisters” sheet music, but they tricked me. [Music director Alex] Lacaimore wrote out the Peggy part on a napkin and taught it to me, so I learned the beginning of “Schuyler Sisters” in an audition room, actually.
What other songs are in your book?
Another great one, actually, is a Katy Perry song called “Wide Awake.” That one is also amazing because it can show off your range, you can also play with it, and that’s a huge belt song as well. Another one that I do is Christina Aguilera’s “You Lost Me.”
When you’re searching for pop songs, do you look for songs that tell a story or songs that show range? Where do you start?
The first song will show off my range, and then the second is a good song that tells a story that has a character involved. You want to show what you’ve got. That’s why my number one is “How Come U Don’t Call Me?” because Prince is one of the artists who influenced me the most and I relate to so much.
You said you’ve mostly auditioned with pop songs, but do you have musical theatre songs in your rep?
Two: Funny Girl’s “My Man,” the Barbra Streisand version, which is great because it’s a two-minute song that gets straight to the point. Also, one that is completely different is “Poor Wandering One” from Pirates of Penzance. It’s something that is more in the classical group. I’ll throw that in there to show off this classical side that I have a lot of people probably don’t know I can do.
Where do you look for inspiration in finding songs?
I guess it depends on what the character [is] that I’m going in for and what the vibe is of the musical. I get inspiration a lot from the actual music, like the backtrack—whether it’s the piano, the chords, or even if it’s something so little as a flute in the background—something that catches my [ear], that sounds different, that speaks to me… I try to find the “B-track” songs that aren’t used so much, that people haven’t really heard before.
Do you have a terrible audition story or song that you’d never use again?
Oh my God, when I auditioned for Hamilton, I kept messing up the words to “Say No To This.” I did it twice, but thankfully, I was right for the part, and [the casting team] was like, “Come back, and make sure you’ve got all the words down.” I guess it was just a nerve-wracking [moment], where my brain just wasn’t working that morning. Sometimes, you go into an audition, and sometimes you’re just not on it completely 100 percent. Even if you prepared it so many times, there’s just something that’s not clicking with you, but it was completely embarrassing, and I felt like crap. Thankfully, if you recover with singing the sh*t out of it—or everything else is okay—you get a second chance. But I left, and I was like, “I’m definitely not getting this. I totally messed up on the words twice. This is not happening.” It goes to show you that 1) you have no control over these things, and 2) sometimes what you think they think is something completely opposite. As an actor, you just got to let go.