Do you dream of being the next Scarlett Strallen or a similarly fierce triple threat? Though a few musical theater performers have specialties, these days, being a dancer, singer and actor is the norm. Fortunately, you’ve been taking vocal lessons and acting classes along with your intense dance training to make sure you had all the necessary skills. Now, after all your hard work, you’ve landed a role that requires your combined expertise. Along with being thrilled, you’re probably also nervous to use all of your skills onstage at once. Never fear: DS got the scoop from three Broadway pros on how to sing, dance and act simultaneously.
Breathing is Key
How does the cast of Rent belt out high notes during “La Vie Boheme” while dancing on tables and leaping through the air? “It’s all about the breath,” says Dylis Croman, who performs in Chicago on Broadway and has also been in Sweet Charity, Fosse and Oklahoma. “Your breath allows your movement to be fulfilled to the end of your fingers. It also helps you reach the notes you have to hit. If you’re holding your breath, you’re holding your voice and your whole being.”
Marty Lawson, currently performing in Shrek the Musical, explains that while dancers tend to breathe high in their chest like athletes, “you don’t get a lot of good singing support up there. But your body instinctively breathes high in your lungs when you’re doing any cardio activity. You have to focus on breathing lower and supporting your singing until it’s a part of your natural technique.” Croman says to switch to the singer stance that’ll allow you to vocalize well, relax your torso and concentrate on gaining support from your lower diaphragm. Being pulled up in your normal dancer stance will be counterproductive here.
For Cry Baby the Musical, Lawson, who has also performed in Movin’ Out and The Times They Are A Changin’, says the number “Can I Kiss You With Tongue?” was particularly tough and required him to concentrate even more on breathing correctly. “We were stuck behind hills on the set, where no one could see us,” he says. “We had to curl up into balls and scrunch our necks. We couldn’t sing very well.” So it was extra important for the cast to sing from a lower, supported place. “There were only six couples on stage, so no matter how hard or how unpretty it was, you had to sing.”
Know When to Let Go of the Dancer
When it comes to musical theater, most importantly, you need to embody your character. But not all characters are dancers, and it might be hard to let go of your inner—and outer—dancer stance to look more like a normal person. But this shift is essential.
“Thinking about what’s realistic for your character and how that character naturally moves helps to let go of the technique,” says Nina LaFarga of In the Heights. She says having experience in many dance styles will help, too. “Experience in modern or hip hop is important because those are styles where you often don’t want to look like a technical dancer.”
LaFarga first realized she had to let go of her inner dancer during her first Broadway show, Aida. “I observed the show for a couple of weeks while I was learning it. I watched all of the dancers carefully. The ones that really stood out were the ones that made strong character choices in every scene.”
Croman says, to start the process, train yourself not to need the mirror constantly. “When you’re doing a scene with someone, really use them,” she says. “You’re involved with someone else, so it’s real, instead of you concentrating on what you look like.”
When dancing in a triple-threat piece, make sure to find the acting motivation for your character, as opposed to just doing the choreographed moves. “At a certain point you realize everyone can kick high and turn well. You need to find what can make you stand out from the crowd while still doing the same steps,” Lawson says.
To help the process, flesh out your character and her background in your mind, and decide what she would be like. Does she get nervous around boys? Chew with her mouth open? Have a bounce in her step? “It’s great to be able to do the choreography exactly how they want you to: That’s what’s going to get you the job,” Lawson explains. “But bringing individuality to the steps is what’s going to keep you booking jobs and being interesting on stage.”
Remember, even though you might want to quiet your inner dancer at times, when used intentionally and intelligently, your dance background can help you. “If you’re connected to your body, then the acting becomes easier because you’re comfortable in your own skin,” Croman explains.
Time for Teamwork
Ever wonder how the dancers in the famous kick line at the end of A Chorus Line seem to keep kicking—and singing!—forever? Well, it’s not that the ensemble has superhuman powers. They’ve just learned an essential part of onstage teamwork. “If there’s a long note that the ensemble is singing in unison, you don’t necessarily assign who breathes when, but you do get a feel for it,” Croman says. “That’s called staggered breathing. You sneak breaths when you can.”
Lawson adds that you have to balance yourself in terms of deciding how much energy to expend on both singing and dancing. “If you know you have a hard singing part coming up, you probably can’t kill it and dance as hard as you can right before that,” he says. Croman agrees. “I don’t change the choreography, but I might use a little less force in order to get certain notes out,” she says.
Be Honest with Your Artistic Team
There are going to be times when you just can’t sing and dance full-out at the same time. But if you have the chance to talk about issues with your choreographer and director in the early stages, you might catch a break. “During the creation of In The Heights, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and the musical director Alex Lacamoire worked hand in hand,” LaFarga says. “They made compromises for us. Alex would say, ‘Can I get more volume here?’ and we would step in and explain the movement we were doing at that time. He’d find other people in the ensemble and get more from them at the moment to help us.”
Lawson had a similar experience during Cry Baby the Musical. He says directors and choreographers are usually “understanding and keep an eye out for problem areas. If the entire ensemble is turning upstage or giving a note where it can’t be supported, they’ll change the choreography to work it out,” he says. “It does happen once in a while when you’re lifting someone so you can’t sing. They understand that.”
Never Stop Training
Even if you feel like you’ve spent your entire life in a studio, don’t stop going there now that you’ve made it to the stage. “Take class and continue to train in your craft,” Croman says.
Case in point: When Lawson made it into shows like The Times They Are A Changin’ and Cry Baby the Musical, he stepped up his singing and acting training. “I was in acting classes eight to 12 hours a week, and I was singing four to five days a week, plus practicing on my own,” he says. “Being in musical theater requires a lot of work.” LaFarga adds, “Choosing to be great at all three means three times more work.” But as anyone on Broadway knows, it’s worth it!
Emily Macel is a writer based in Washington, DC.
Photo of Nina LaFarga and Lin-Manuel Miranda by Joan Marcus