man singing into microphone

How to sing musical theatre – style and techniques

By BBC Maestro

Do you dream of performing on Broadway or the West End? Or do you want to take your hometown theatre by storm? 

Whatever your aspirations for getting into musical theatre, there’s one skill you’ll need to master: singing. So, with that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about how to sing musical theatre, to help you win your next role and wow your audiences.

Male Preacher alone on Stage with Overhead Lighting

Warming up for musical theatre singing

First things first, it’s crucial to ensure you’re properly warmed up before you even attempt to sing a musical theatre song. 

Physical warm-up

Start with a physical warm-up – it might sound unnecessary, but singing is a full-body activity, especially in musical theatre. You’re unlikely to be standing still and singing. Rather, you’ll be moving around the stage, and you may even have to dance during your song. Begin by releasing the tension in your body through gentle stretches such as:

  • Neck stretches, gently tilting your head from side to side for a few seconds at a time on each side
  • Shoulder rolls: roll your shoulders forward in a circular motion for 10-15 seconds, and then spend the same amount of time rolling them backwards
  • Cat-cow stretch: on all fours, alternately arch and round your back
  • Chest opener: interlace your fingers behind your back and straighten your arms, then lift your arms slightly as you open your chest and squeeze your shoulder blades together
  • Forward fold: stand with your feet hip-width apart and slowly hinge at your hips, allowing your upper body to fold forward and letting your arms hang freely

Breath warm-up

Good breath control is crucial for any great musical theatre performance. Try a simple sustained note exercise to practise your diaphragmatic breathing. Choose a comfortable note for you, and sing it for as long as possible using just one breath. Focus on maintaining a steady pitch while carefully controlling your airflow. Then, as you get more comfortable, you can start to vary the note and even add in short phrases for more of a challenge.

Vocal warm-up

Of course, you’ll also need to warm up your voice for musical theatre singing. It’s a good idea to gradually ease into vocal exercises, starting with humming or lip trills:

  • Relax your face and keep your lips loosely closed
  • Breathe in through your nose
  • Begin to exhale air through your closed lips, allowing them to vibrate
  • Your lips should be making a noise, but your vocal folds won’t be – making these trills ‘voiceless’
  • You can then start to add sounds to your lip trills by choosing a pitch that’s comfortable for you as you exhale
  • Once you feel comfortable, you can try lip-trilling a song, aiming for a steady, consistent sound production between different pitches in your vocal range.
  • Begin at the lower or higher end of your vocal range and smoothly transition to the opposite end, continuously. This will help to warm up your vocal folds across your entire range.

Musical theatre singing techniques

There’s no one particular musical theatre style or technique, as there are so many variables in the world of musical theatre. It depends on the musical, your character and the type of song you’re singing.

One of the most important things to remember in musical theatre is that you’re acting through song. Sir Tim Rice explains this concept in his BBC Maestro course, Writing and Performing Musical Theatre

“‘Acting Through Song’ is a phrase you hear a lot in musical theatre. It highlights the importance of an actor being able to not just sing a song beautifully, but be able to find the truth and believability of the character through a good lyrical interpretation.”

So not only do you need to be able to sing beautifully, but you must also be able to convey the emotional depth of the song. Tim Rice elaborates further:

“The skill with acting through song is taking the time to really understand how it works together, and focusing on not how you might sing it, but on how your character might communicate it. Know the context of your song, its circumstances and the stakes for the character within their conflict at that moment.”

Breaking your song down into chunks, and taking the time to understand the story and the motivations of your character, can help you to effectively act through song. Then, you can practise singing the song as if you were telling a story, using facial expressions and body language to enhance the performance.

And when it comes to singing, there are several techniques you might want to consider, depending on the song and the musical:

Clear articulation

In musical theatre, clear articulation is incredibly important, as the audience needs to clearly understand the lyrics in order to connect with your character, and with the wider story. When singing musical theatre songs, try to clearly sing every word, paying particular attention to consonants which can contribute to the clarity of words.

Belting

Belting is a specific style of singing that’s very common in musical theatre, where a singer mixes their lower and upper voice to create a powerful, resonant sound. Not all musical theatre songs have to be belted, but some songs do call for it. It will ensure the entire audience can hear you and can add emotion and depth to your singing.

Singing as speech

Singing as speech, also known as speech-level singing, is a technique that focuses on staying natural and relaxed, allowing you to sing with the same ease as speaking. 

Start by observing your natural speaking voice, paying attention to the pitch, tone and rhythm you use every day. Then, when you’re singing, aim to mimic your natural speech patterns. Singing in this way can help to create a more authentic sound that the audience can easily relate to. It can also minimise vocal breaks when moving between registers and help you maintain proper breath control.

Different styles of singing

You may also want to approach musical theatre singing differently, depending on the type of song, whether you’re preparing it for an audition or practising for a show.

Ballads

Ballads are one of the cornerstones of musical theatre. As Tim Rice explains:

“As a performer, you will need to perfect how to sing ballads if you hope to properly play any kind of protagonist character in musical theatre, as they nearly always have at least one big ballad number in the show.”

Ballads can be daunting as a musical theatre singer, as the focus is all on you. Often, the musical accompaniments are quieter during ballads, and the lyrics usually have emotional depth, so you need to be able to convey a lot through your voice. If you’re performing in a well-known show like Evita or The Lion King, then, it could be tempting to simply copy the version of the iconic ballads that everyone knows and loves already. However, Tim Rice advises against this, saying:

“It is important that whenever you approach these characters and sing these songs, you should still be focusing on finding realism and truth in the lyric and in your physical performance. This will require you to actively not copy the recording, but instead, look deeper into the words and the character’s world and find how you interpret the story.”

As well as getting to know the story and character, it’s important to focus on your singing technique for ballads. You’ll need to be able to sing long phrases and hold notes for long periods. Therefore, it’s important to practise breath control for ballads – and maintaining proper posture will help with this, too.

Duets

Like ballads, duets are often big, emotional moments in musical theatre. They explain to the audience how the two characters connect to each other, and sometimes they also explore how the two characters are connected to the world of the story.

It’s important, then, that you think about the complexities of duets, both in terms of storytelling and in singing. Plenty of practice with your singing partner will help you both to tune into each other’s characters and styles – but sometimes, you’ll be asked to sing a duet in an audition without much preparation time. In this instance, the most important thing is that you focus on finding chemistry with your scene partner.

Comedy songs

If you’re playing a comedic character, the thought of singing a comedy song can feel overwhelming. However, it’s important to remember that even though your character may be larger than life, you still need to try to connect with your audience – and hopefully, the lyrics will help with this.

Tim Rice has some advice for those who have to sing comedic musical theatre songs, saying:

“Finding the heart of the performance as you would with any other song, and then focusing on which traits that character possesses, and which could be heightened, is a good place to start when trying to perform this kind of song.”

That means breaking it down to try to understand what story you’re trying to tell, and what it says about your character. Then, you can apply all the same rules of singing as you would with any other type of song – and you’re sure to give an outstanding, relatable performance.

Find out more about performing musical theatre

Singing musical theatre takes practice – but practice makes perfect.

If you want to find out more about different styles of singing for musical theatre, sign up for Tim Rice’s BBC Maestro course, Writing and Performing Musical Theatre. In 23 lessons, he’ll teach you everything you need to know about what it takes to write, produce and perform in a hit musical.

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