A key term in musical theatre training is learning to be a ‘triple threat performer’, which means the ability to act, sing and dance to a high standard. An example of this is Sutton Foster’s performance at this year’s Tony Awards, where she performed the title song from the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes – she belted out the song whilst also performing a tap break.
Now, as good a performer as Ms Foster is, there is debate about whether it is enough to be able to just do the three elements – maybe there is even the need to be a ‘quadruple threat performer’. The Lion King requires you to learn puppetry and even stilts for some animal characters, Starlight Express required performers to be on roller skates, and many shows now require you to be both an actor and a musician. It is this last group of performers, those who are both actors and musicians, that I want to focus on.
In 2008, Craig Revel Horwood directed a production of Sunset Boulevard where everyone except the characters Norma and Max played instruments on stage. In 2004 there was a production Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street which didn’t use an orchestra, but had the 10-piece cast playing instruments on stage instead – an idea that also transferred to the 2005 Broadway revival of the show. So the question raised is: do performers need to have an extra trick up their sleeve to secure work?
Katie Pritchards, who graduated from the same university as me and is currently working as a swing (someone who is an understudy for chorus parts in a show) in the West End show Dreamboats and Petticoats, tells me that “It wasn’t until I left uni that I realised that I could make a career out of doing my two loves – playing instruments and musical theatre. I saw it as a way into the industry. I figured that I only had a degree from Buckinghamshire, which is not a drama school, and that there couldn’t be that many actor/musicians out there, so I should be in with a good chance!”
This goes back to another age-old problem of making yourself stand out from the crowd. One of my close friends got the lead in Mack and Mabel during our second year because she is brilliant at tap. Even so, in the dance call she messed up, but did it in such a funny way that the director gave her the lead anyway. It’s not to say messing up puts you onto a winner, but in that moment she stood out and was perfect for that character. In a similar way Katie identified a way to utilise her extra skills to forge a path into musical theatre: “Once I had left Uni I used my music skills as a means to getting into the industry. I knew I was going to have a hard slog if I didn’t get some credits soon after I graduated, and I was struggling to get musicals because my training and agent weren’t considered the top of their game, so I snuck my way into the industry via the actor/muso door, and it worked – now I’m working as a swing in a West End show!”
Before I get too carried away with saying how four is the new three in terms of amount of skills needed, there is a cautionary tale. I asked Katie if she thinks it is required to be a ‘quadruple threat’ nowadays: “I’ll be honest, I don’t think it is required at all. There are some days I wish I didn’t play instruments, because then I would get seen for more leads, as the leads even in actor/muso shows don’t tend to be musicians, and bigger companies will save good musicians for the ensemble and instrument tracks, no matter how good they may be for a leading role.” Katie goes on to mention that there are only two actor/muso shows on in the West end at the moment, Dreamboats and Petticoats and Million Dollar Quartet, and the latter is closing in the New Year. So whilst there are shows requiring the actor/musician combo, there are more shows that don’t require it, so it isn’t a completely essential skill to have.
So to answer my title question, I believe it is enough to be a ‘triple threat’ performer, especially as the bulk of the musical theatre back catalogue doesn’t require you to do more than this. However, I also think it wise to heed Katie’s advice that having an extra skill such as musical instruments can open unexpected doors.
Image by rickz.