Liz Caplan has become a legend among Broadway performers. She is the vocal coach tasked with caring for the instruments of such stars as Ben Platt (and all the Evans Hanson since he originated the role), Adrienne Warren of Tina fame, Larry Owens of A Strange Loop, Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, Debra Messing, John Mulaney, and, most recently, Tony winner Andrew Garfield as he films the tick, tick…BOOM! adaptation.
What makes Caplan’s technique so different from all the rest and so coveted? And how can you learn to sing like a Caplan student? The world-class instructor joined Playbill for a live Q&A, with special advice for graduating seniors (high school and college) as a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Watch the full video above.
“It’s holistic in its approach,” says Caplan of her practice. “I take on what I’m given from the person’s psyche, from what is going on with their bodies, what’s going on with their sinuses.”
Her lessons address breathing and moving before anyone attempts to sing. Freedom rather than tension is the goal. Easier said than done.
As a starting point, Caplan recommends all singers begin a relaxation practice—stretching, yoga, or even just a daily knees-to-your-chest moment and rock side-to-side, “any small motion that keeps you connected to you calms the body down and calms the cells down. And it calms the muscles that tend to grab, where you feel like you’re in a perpetual inhale and you’re never exhaling. What’s so good about stretching is you start concentrating on your breathing.”
How does that translate to performance? It’s about conditioning the body “to get notes into the body in a way that’s gentle and soft and accepting so that when you go to sing it, the notes are already in your body and you can leave the mechanics at home.” Adrienne Warren worked a year with Caplan before debuting as Tina in London.
“A big part of what Liz does, and what I understand about treating the body as the instrument, is it’s so much a psychological series of moves that you have to make,” said Garfield when he joined the live stream. “It’s so counterintuitive, to be relaxed enough to own these notes that you previously would not imagine you could ever reach. There is something remarkable and seemingly magical about it even though it’s absolutely based and grounded in biological reality that Liz happens to be an expert at.
Garfield, who plays Jon in tick, tick…BOOM!, considers himself a completely novice singer. “If it’s possible for me to expand my vocal range and confidently hit notes that were previously unreachable, then I think there’s hope for anyone really,” he said. He and Caplan also shared the story of director Lin-Manuel Miranda’s reaction to Garfield in an early table-read.
Caplan also gave her best advice for dietary health that affects the voice and why most teachers recommend staying away from dairy, gluten, and acidic foods, as well as how to find the right voice teacher, before Hamilton’s Chris Jackson joined. Jackson has been studying with Caplan since his In The Heights days.
“I couldn’t sing anymore. I’d sung myself into a hole,” he confided. “I never understood my instrument very well. I was kind of just getting by.”
“I grew up in athletics. I was never a dancer growing up, but I didn’t grow up in theatre. I grew up singing in church every week at ungodly hours of the morning, not warming up or not even understanding the basics of a warmup or the basics of how we make sound and most importantly how we make it more efficiently,” he said. Now, thanks to Caplan, “I have a voice I didn’t have 10 years ago.”
Caplan rounded out the Q&A with live audience questions, sharing her thoughts on the most vocally challenging role on Broadway, whether she is for or against shows' use of alternates, and caring for the voice as performers age.
But her most valuable piece of advice: “Learning a craft has to be joy.”