Intensity makes the 2022 Tonys a night to remember

Danger! High Voltage!

Here’s my #1 takeaway from the 2022 Tony Awards broadcast: it was Intense! Phew! Exciting musical theater depicts characters in extreme situations, experiencing extreme emotions, and the Tonys turned up the dial to 11 time and again during their most recent awards show.

Exhibit A: the performance of Joaquina Kalukongo, who won the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her work in Paradise Square. Check out the last moments of her performance: 

The final notes of her song are almost unbearably intense: loud, long, fierce, to the point where surely viewers began to wonder: Will she hurt herself? How long will she hold this? Displays of extreme intensity are often accompanied by a sense of danger, and that was certainly the case here. Afterwards, the audience roared their approval (and relief), reminding me that this is what we crave from a stage performance: people who push themselves past the limits of what we think is possible.

Exhibit B: the performance of Ariana DeBose in the opening number.

This opening number is challenging in many ways – complex choreo, tricky lyrics, a choppy song comprised of lots of quotes from other songs. Ariana carries it all off with seeming ease, and that’s what we want. “Never let them see you sweat,” is a familiar bit of advice given to young performers – it actually was written by an ad exec as the tagline for an antiperspirant commercial, but it absolutely applies in musical theater performance.

Intensity was everywhere in the Tony broadcast: intensity created by ensemble choreography like the virtuosic dance steps of Paradise Square (I loved watching my former student, Sidney DuPont, sailing through the air), intensity of sound and light in Six (screlting divas ultra-amplified and lit by powerful beams of light that stabbed through the air), intensity of feeling from the winners in their acceptance speeches.

And intensity could also be conveyed through silence and stillness, as it was in Phylicia Rashad’s acceptance speech. Her words were delivered at a stately pace, set off by pauses, and her powerful truths stated in a controlled, measured way.

Intensity is the “I” of SAVI, the fourth and final key attributes of successful musical theater performance embodied in its acronymic name. In their pursuit of intensity, singing actors must train like athletes, cultivating strength, endurance, range, control, agility and coordination through deliberate practice. Are you looking for ways to bring a little extra “extra” to your performances on the musical stage? The exercises in The SAVI Singing Actor were created to help you do just that! Grab your copy at the SAVI Store.

From “great singer” to “great singing actor”

Congratulations to the recently-named semi-finalists of the NATS National Musical Theatre Competition! Earlier this fall, I served as an adjudicator for the first round of that competition, which entailed watching multiple video submissions from nearly 50 of the first-round contestants. Over the course of a dozen dozen videos, I heard an abundance of great singing, but the performance skills demonstrated by the contestants varied widely. What made certain performers stand out? The best of them knew how to create behavior that communicated the drama of their songs in a manner that was Specific, Authentic, Varied and Intense – in other words, that was SAVI!

So here are Ten Tips for performers who want to level up from “great singer” to “great singing actor.” The best of the videos I saw were made by performers who understood and embraced these principles. If you’re a teacher or coach, you’ll want to explore all ten with your young artists!

1. Skip the slate.

Use an on-screen title instead. Or if you choose to slate, make an edit between your slate and your performance. Why? Well, when you slate your selection, you’re in a polite, neutral state, and it can be hard to transition quickly to the emotional world of the song. Too many performances bring the neutral politeness of the slate into the first phrases of the song. When you’re self-taping, you have the advantage of being able to “prep” (get yourself revved up emotionally) before you start recording.

2. Plunge in.

Start your performance as soon as the intro begins. Don’t use your first verse to warm up. Many songs start softly or simply, but that’s no reason not to be full of life from the first note. If you’re doing a pre-taped audition, why not use the moments before the camera rolls to get up a head of steam?

3. Mobilize your eyes.

If you’re performing for the camera, don’t just stare at the lens the whole time. If your eyes don’t move during your performance, you look like a zombie. Use focus shifts at the beginning of key phrases. This rule applies to performing onstage as well – it’s not just a camera thing.

4. Bring your words to life.

Specific words and phrases have specific meanings, so you can’t sing everything with the same vocal energy and facial expression. Understand what you’re saying and how what you’re saying NOW relates to what you said in the previous phrases. Use powerful, incisive diction. If that means disrupting your beautiful legato tone, do it. The loveliest sound isn’t always the best sound.

5. Free your shoulders and torso.

The heroic “singer’s pose” is old-fashioned and limits your expressiveness. You don’t need to present yourself frontally to the camera in every moment. And don’t forget the rest of you, from the waist down. Express yourself with your whole body. I don’t mean constant motion, but one strong physical choice initiated at the beginning of each phrase will make a big difference. It’s even helpful to adjust your stance from time to time. Pick up your feet and put them down in a different place; they’re not nailed to the floor!

6. Differentiate your phrases.

Every new phrase is an opportunity to deliver specific content and create meaning through contrast. This means knowing where the phrases begin and how the current phrase relates to the ones you’ve already sung. Don’t deliver every phrase with the same earnest generality.

7. Get yourself a partner.

An imaginary one, I mean. Nearly every song is more dramatic when you treat it like a conversation with an imaginary partner (IP). Does your song include the word “you?” You gotta know who that “you” is and where they are! Pro tip: if you’re recording your song on video, make the camera your IP.

8. Activate your face and mouth.

When it comes to expressing the drama of your song, your face is your ace! And a mobile mouth is a key to powerful diction. Exercise those muscles and get in the habit of using them. It’ll look a little “extra” when you play back your video, but you’ll be a stronger communicator.

9. Don’t go with the flow.

The notes and words shouldn’t just pour out of you. Song is a form of considered utterance – that is, each phrase is preceded by a thought, a decision about what you’re going to say and how and why you’re going to say it. The music may flow, or even groove, but your job is to navigate that flow, not ride it passively.

10. “More life! The great work begins.”

I’ll close by quoting the final lines of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America as a way of reiterating my notion of what it means to be singing actor: an artist who can bring a song or aria to life by creating behavior that communicates the dramatic event phrase by phrase. Work to eliminate anything – whether it’s habit, confusion, tension or lack of preparation – that stands between you and that goal.

The exercises and procedures described in my book The SAVI Singing Actor give you many exciting ways to move toward that goal. If you’re looking for further instruction in how to apply those techniques, or the opportunity to coach or study privately with me, I’d love to hear from you! And if you’ve got thoughts or questions about any of my Ten Tips, post them in the comments below!

Sondheim and SAVI

Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021)

As they did for so many others in the last half century, the works of Stephen Sondheim defined what the musical theater could be for me.

I was seventeen years old when I encountered my first Sondheim musical, Company, with the original cast onstage in the West End of London. For the next forty-nine years, I immersed myself in his work, devouring the new shows as they came out, attending the original productions, playing the cast albums over and over (to my roommates’ dismay) and endlessly discussing them with my student pals and professional colleagues. I directed five shows with Sondheim scores, music directed five, and performed in three (well, four, if you count my seven seconds of screen time as Sweeney Todd in Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl).  

It’s not surprising, then, that my notion of effective singing acting developed alongside my ongoing exposure to the innovative, complex, challenging scores that flowed from the mind of Stephen Sondheim and his collaborators. As my approach to the training of singing actors evolved and matured over the years, I looked for techniques that would be effective in bringing those works to life. 

Let’s look at the particular challenges you’ll face when you sing Sondheim onstage, the Five C’s of Sondheim, if you will:

  • Character – like his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim writes songs that are made to be sung by a particular character. Even more than in the work of Hammerstein, those characters tend to be complicated individuals, with a mix of admirable and regrettable traits. They often seek to conceal rather than reveal themselves, and a strong current of subtext (unspoken thoughts and feelings) usually surges underneath the words and phrases they use to express themselves.  This means you must understand who is singing, choose specific behavior that will effectively delineate that character, and seek areas of congruence with your own personality to endow that character with a sense of authenticity.
  • Context – Every Sondheim song grows out of a particular set of given circumstances that informs every choice of text and music. Each song communicates a particular dramatic event, and you’d be well-advised to make behavior choices that convey an understanding of that when you perform. Even when performing a song outside the show it was written for (in a class, a cabaret or a revue, for example), you need to construct a dramatic event, a scaffold of context that will support the individual moments and phrases of the song.
  • Complexity – Sondheim’s songs are famous for their complexity: the dexterity of his wordplay, the enormity of his vocabulary, the jagged rhythms and unexpected intervals of his melodies. They call upon us as performers to bring the highest possible level of technical expertise to the execution of the work – diction, intonation, phrasing. The same must be true of the choices you make when you perform a Sondheim song – each phrase must be supported by specific choices, and nothing can be general or approximate. 
  • Craft – A passion for craft and painstaking execution is one of the hallmarks of Sondheim’s works. Each word, phrase, chord is carefully chosen, the product of a tireless process of trial and error with endless polishing and revision. The work that you craft when you perform a Sondheim song deserves to be equally well-crafted. “Art isn’t easy,” says George in “Putting It Together,” “every minor detail is a major decision.”
  • Clarity – “Without [clarity], nothing else matters,” Sondheim writes in the principles for would-be lyric writers that appear in the Preface to the first volume of his collected lyrics, Finishing The Hat. A musical theater performance is made to be experienced in real time – there’s no rewinding and replaying, no subtitles, no second chances to make a first impression. Clarity comes when you make the right choices and execute them with confidence and ease.

I developed the SAVI System to help singing actors rise to the challenges of Sondheim’s state-of-the-art musical theater compositions. The ability to convey complex character and context with clarity and craft can be achieved with patient, purposeful practice, and SAVI gives you simple, reliable and effective tools and techniques to do that. SAVI will help you practice better and perform better in all sorts of musical theater styles, and they’ll help you shine when you tackle Sondheim. In the words of the man himself, “with so little to be sure of,” you can be sure of SAVI!


Now’s a great time to pick up a copy of The SAVI Singing Actor and a set of SAVI Cards to start building your SAVI skills. They also make a great gift for the singing actors in your life. Use the code SONDHEIM and receive a 20% discount on your purchases this holiday season!

“Keep surprising us.”

Illustration by Helen Green, from The New Yorker

In a recent New Yorker interview about the making of his film “Tick, Tick… Boom!,” Lin-Manuel Miranda recounts some words of advice he got from Stephen Sondheim. While working on “Hamilton,” Lin says,

I would send him what I was working on every few years or so, and he said, “Lin, with hip-hop, ten bars in I’m nodding my head and then I stop listening to the lyrics, because the rhythm is so insistent. So keep surprising us.” That was his big thing: variety.

Michael Schulman, “Lin-Manuel Miranda Goes In Search of Lost Time,” The New Yorker, November 14, 2021

I heard Sondheim make the same point over drinks after the opening night of “Assassins” at Classic Stage: variety is what keeps us engaged when we watch a play or movie. Whether we’re talking about songs or about monologues (like Sam Byck’s epic rants in “Assassins”), the element of surprise is crucial.

Variety is, of course, the V of SAVI, one of the four key attributes of effective singing acting. It’s a quality that was conspicuously present in the best of the video auditions I just screened for the preliminary round of the NATS National Musical Theatre Competition. Even the most gorgeous voice can only hold one’s attention for so long without some sort of variety, some sort of surprise to disrupt the incessant flow of cultivated tone.

Here’s my top tip for bringing greater variety to a performance onstage: at the beginning of each new phrase, ask yourself: Is what I’m about to sing or say just more of the same thing I was just saying, or is it something different? Chances are the answer is, a bit of both. Songs are constructed using an ingenious interplay of words and music arrayed in patterns of repetition and contrast. But if you’re savvy, you’ll focus on what’s different about each new phrase as you begin it. How does it contrast with (or build on or dance with) the things you’ve already said?

Once you’ve identified that, your job is to create behavior that makes us – your audience, your spectators – aware of that difference. That might be as simple as changing your focus, or adjusting your facial expression or your stance. It might be a shift in dynamics or articulation, or a careful enunciation of a key word in your text. When you “keep surprising us” by introducing something unexpected at the beginning of each new phrase, you keep us engaged and create work that is more meaningful and memorable.

I’ll be demonstrating some sure-fire ways to cultivate greater variety in your singing acting in an upcoming online workshop. Make sure you’re on my mailing list and be the first to know!

New SAVI article in MTEA Journal!

I’ve just returned from the Musical Theater Educators Alliance conference in San Diego, where over a hundred of the best and brightest educators from the field of musical theater spent three exciting days discussing the latest innovations and trends. It was an amazing experience, and if you don’t know about this terrific organization, click here to learn more.

One of the highlights of the conference was the unveiling of the latest edition of the MTEA Journal, which includes my article, “Navigating the Journey of the Song.” Click on the image below to download the article and read about how phrase-by-phrase analysis can serve you as a kind of “GPS,” providing turn-by-turn directions to help you create behavior that has variety and impact!

Paying close attention to each individual “turn” in the journey of the song is a sure-fire way to maximize the variety in your performance, and Variety (the “V” of SAVI) is a key attribute of effective singing acting.

A quick look back at 2019

The holidays are here and the year is coming to a close. It’s a time to savor the fruits of the harvest, to celebrate the accomplishments of the past year and do a little crystal ball-gazing into the months ahead.

This holiday, there’s an especially rich harvest for me to enjoy thanks to the publication of The SAVI Singing Actor and SAVI Cards last summer. It’s almost six months to the day since our launch at the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, NE.

This is me on June 21, opening the first box to come from Book Baby.
Team SAVI, open for business:
D’Arcy, Madison and I at our table in the exhibit hall at ITF.

Getting to launch day was the work of the first half of the year, hectic in its own way:

  • Finishing the book, with the help of editors Chantel Hamilton in the developmental stage and Jessica Hatch in the final stretch
  • Photographing the SAVI picture cards (Chris Loupos was the genius behind the viewfinder, and Aaron, Krystal, Jaz, Jelani, Yui and Angelina were all amazing models)
  • Designing the SAVI logo, the cards and the book cover (mad props to Sarah, Karrisa and the team at P’unk Ave for that)
  • Publishing the book and the e-book, accomplished swiftly and flawlessly with the help of Book Baby account rep Patrick Aylward
  • Taking care of business, with the support of our fabulous business coach, Jody Johnson, and her supportive associate Amanda Noboa

Chris Loupos (behind the camera) shoots Aaron Bell while D’Arcy, Karrisa and I look on.

Since the launch, the last six months have been especially busy for us:

  • We taught workshops in Philly, Lincoln and the Poconos
  • SAVI books and cards found their way into the hands of hundreds of serious singing actors and their teachers
  • I wrote an article for dramatics.org that was published in late summer and another one for the Musical Theater Educators Journal that will come out early in the new year.
  • We got compelling testimonials and five-star reviews on Amazon.
  • I taught a ten-week intensive workshop for students at Drexel University.
  • I was invited to present at the Musical Theater Educators Alliance conference in San Diego in January, and received a grant from the UArts President’s Fund for Excellence to help fund the trip.
  • D’Arcy and I will present at the South Eastern Theater Conference (SETC) in Louisville in February.

As the year comes to an end, I feel like I’m succeeding at the important task of helping serious singing actors Practice Better and Perform Better. Helping artists find their true voice and unleash the power of their authentic artistry is important to both D’Arcy and me, and though we know there’s much more to do, we’ve made a solid start and we’re proud of what we’ve done so far.

D’Arcy and I are particularly grateful to Madison Claus, our talented and capable executive assistant, who’s played a crucial supporting role in all our endeavors this year and  deserves a great deal of credit for the success of the launch.

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude when I think of the number of people who’ve joined the army of SAVI Soldiers over the past year: people who have embraced the ideas of SAVI Singing Acting, who’ve bought the book and tried out the SAVI Cards, who’ve added their names to the SAVI VIP email list, who’ve written a review or told a friend or a student. Thank you for your open-mindedness and your generous support!

D’Arcy, Madison and I have plans on the drawing boards to take SAVI to a whole new level in 2020. The plans include instructional videos, online courses, guest teaching and workshops, and members of the SAVI VIP list will be among the first to hear about them. Follow us on Facebook at @getSAVI and on Insta at @savisingingactor, and tell your friends to do the same. Help me spread the word about SAVI and reach the students, teachers and professionals who will benefit from it!

“Let’s try something different…”

Until a moment ago, you thought your audition had been going well. You were well-prepared, confident, almost a little cocky. But now, at the sound of these four innocent words, you feel your blood turning to ice water in your veins. 

“Let’s try something different…”

Different? I give you my best shot and you want something … else?

The words catch you off guard. After all, you’ve been taught to treat an audition like it was opening night, where your job is to deliver a carefully-crafted performance. To execute, not experiment.

But these are words you could very well hear in a rehearsal room, working with a director. Or in a classroom, working with a teacher. 

And that’s why you’re likely to hear them in an audition room, where the judges want to take the measure of your ability to collaborate, to be flexible and try new ideas.

In my experience, it’s not unusual for the auditioner to approach you with a new idea: “Let’s try something different.” I’ve done it plenty of times, as have my colleagues. How you respond in that moment is a key to your success in an audition.

It’s understandable that you might be tempted to panic and freeze. A ghoulish mob of anxieties invade in your head as your adrenaline surges and “fight-or-flight” mode kicks in. Your body tenses up, your senses diminish, you stop breathing, and you feel yourself spiraling downward into incompetence.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen students collapse like a card table at this request, or else pretend to embrace the suggestion and then deliver a performance that is 99.9% the same as before.

But this is your chance to shine, to show your creativity and your grace under pressure. With the right kind of preparation, you can sail through a moment like this in an audition, class or rehearsal. 

And SAVI Cards have an important role to play in that preparation.

Your prepared audition is like a calling card. Craft that presentation to showcase your skills and technical mastery. Practice it until you can deliver your song as impressively as Amazon Prime.

But then, take out your SAVI Cards and try something different. You can improve your flexibility and your creativity by choosing a couple cards you can use to steer your performance in a different direction. Don’t worry if the card prompts seem illogical: “This doesn’t make any sense! How am I supposed to do that?” Give yourself permission to be weird and wrong; after all, you’re just practicing, right? Let go of that presentation you planned so painstakingly and give yourself over to the suggestion on the cards.

The work you’ve done dividing the song into phrases will continue to serve you well here. Remember, the new card you’ve chosen isn’t necessarily going to be applied to every phrase in your song uniformly. You still want to be able to show the journey of your song; it’s just that you’ll be taking an alternate route this time. 

Do this work in private if it makes you feel safer. Shoot a little video when you’re ready to assess the results. Is your work SAVI? Can it be more SAVI? Go ahead, try again!

Who knows, you might discover some variation on a phrase or passage of the song that you like even better than the version you’re currently using. How cool would that be?

And you’ll be growing more accustomed to the important work of making adjustments based on outside suggestions. If you can be comfortable about that, it’ll make your audition experience a whole lot less stressful.

D’Arcy and I will be demonstrating this technique on Saturday, November 16 as part of the SAVI Sixteen Bar audition workshop we’re offering at the Arden Theater Company’s Hamilton Family Arts Center. Register now to get the early bird discount, available through November 1.

New in Dramatics: sharpening your skills as a singing actor!

Have you seen this article that just dropped in the online edition of Dramatics? “Practice Better, Perform Better” is all about the SAVI way to sharpen your skills as a singing actor. If you (or your students) are striving for peak performance on the musical stage, you’ll find some great ideas here to help you level up. Check it out!

D’Arcy and I will be at EdTA in New York City later this month; this terrific organization supports theater artists and educators worldwide. We hope to see you there. If not, please join us for a SAVI Card webinar – details coming your way soon.

“Free and easy” – cabaret and jazz singers

The latest New Yorker has a great piece by Michael Schulman about Marilyn Maye, an American chanteuse now celebrating her 91st birthday.

Singing in a cabaret or nightclub is a particularly intimate form of musical theater performance, and it requires the singer to have especially strong skills of communication. Schulman describes a master class in which Maye encourages her students to sing directly to the audience:

[S]he interprets the Great American Songbook with an unfussy warmth that feels transported from a less ironic age. “I’m a little different animal than a lot of performers,” she said the other day. “I sing to you, not for you.”

Cabaret singers choose material to which they feel they have a strong personal connection, and present those songs in a way that feels like a conversation or even a confession. A hand-held microphone offers the performer the option of using an intimate sound without sacrificing audibility. 

Exercises like speaking the lyrics of the song as a monologue or paraphrasing the text in your own words help the cabaret singer build the quality of Authenticity that is so essential to success in this idiom. At the end of the article, Schulman describes Maye performing for her students.

The piano started, and Maye launched into the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune “Getting to Know You,” singing in a soothing near-whisper. When she got to the line “Getting to feel free and easy,” she stopped herself. “It isn’t ‘Getting-to-feel-free-and-easy,’ ” she instructed. “No. ‘Getting to feel free’ ”—inhale—“ ‘and easy.’ See, there are two thoughts there: free and easy.”

Recently, D’Arcy and I saw a performance by an up-and-coming jazz singer named Veronica Swift. Singing jazz in a club has a lot in common with cabaret singing, since the successful jazz singer also relies on direct audience address and personalization of the material. However, a jazz singer is more likely to incorporate displays of musical virtuosity in her performance, and Swift’s set featured inventive arrangements, up-tempo scatting and intricate “vocalises” (original lyrics fitted to intricate improvised melodies). What made the evening a standout for me, though, was the close attention she paid to the lyric. Her delivery incorporated strong diction and phrasing, as well as choices of focus and gesture that brought clarity and variety to her performance. It was as SAVI a jazz set as I’ve ever seen.

In the parlance of the stage, we talk about “delivering” a performance and “putting over” a lyric, words that suggest that a song is an experience to be imparted to the listener. Marilyn Maye is a mature artist in her nineties, while Veronica Swift is in her twenties, but despite their generational differences, they share a strong commitment to singing as an act of communication.

SAVI Saturday = Success!

SAVI Saturday, the workshop we held on Saturday, June 15 at Music Theatre Philly, was a huge success! 

The young participants pictured here are engaged in a series of exercises using SAVI Cards, the unique practice tool I designed to be used in tandem with my book, The SAVI Singing Actor. Saturday’s workshop was the debut appearance of the newly-redesigned Premier Edition of SAVI Cards, which are as effective as they are attractive!

That dynamic woman in the snappy blue shoes is my partner-in-crime and producer of SAVI Singing Actor. Singing onstage ain’t for the faint of heart. Musical theatre performance is a full-body challenge, and D’Arcy really helped to put our trainees through their paces!

SAVI was created to help singing actors practice better and perform better. You know how they say, “Practice makes perfect?” Well, it’s true! The SAVI Singing Actor and SAVI Cards give serious singing actors new ways to practice and prepare a song for performance.

Thanks to the time we spent together at Music Theatre Philly, these young artists now have a leg up on their skills as singing actors. Now the SAVI Team is off to Lincoln, NE, home of the International Thespian Festival, to offer two workshops — “Practice Better to Perform Better” and “Ding It Before You Sing It”— and introduce the Thespian community to the magic of the SAVI System. Their theme this year is “Your place to shine,” and we’re ready to do just that!