“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!