05/12/2011 07:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Performers: Rock Your World

Rock musicals are now a mainstay on Broadway. Shows such as Rock of Ages, Sister Act, Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia, Rent and Spring Awakening -- to name just a few -- have revamped the traditional musical.

For musical theater actors, that's a big wake-up call. To properly train a new generation, Sheri Sanders, who has performed in Hair and The Full Monty, created a master class: "Rock the Audition." Since 2004, she has taught performers at Pace University, Syracuse University and the Paper Mill Playhouse to treat the rock musical audition with the same care as legitimate musical theater.

And it's working.

Her students are currently in the Broadway, touring, or regional productions of several shows, including Priscilla Queen of The Desert, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, Sister Act, Shout, Mamma Mia, Wicked and Rent.

To reach a wider audience, Sanders has written Rock the Audition -- How to Prepare for and Get Cast in Rock Musicals, debuting this month. It covers everything from picking the right song to vocal techniques, body language to interpretation. Sanders shared her insights about this evolving art form:

Why are rock musicals so distinct?
Rock music is a wildly different form of self-expression than legit musical theatre. Rock songs (meaning anything not legit: pop, R&B, blues, disco, folk and country) were meant to dance to, make sweet love to. They were never intended to move a plot. If there is a jukebox musical, existing pop songs are strategically placed into the context of a script to tell a "musical theater story."

If it's a new musical with music specifically created by a famous pop artist, like Elton John (Billy Elliot) or Bono (Spider-Man), these songwriters craft "emotional moments." The storytelling in a rock musical is different, too. The songs stop time and capture the feelings of a character.

Why are rock musical auditions different?
The actor is responsible for figuring out how to pick, cut, arrange, vocally style and interpret a song off the radio for the audition. They don't have to do any of that for legit musicals. That's why I wrote a book -- to teach performers how to do it. It's a totally different way to perform.

Can any musical theater actor do it or are the vocal demands specific?
Any musical theater performer can sing popular music for an audition. But in order to really succeed at it, the actor has to research and study the eras of pop culture because people expressed themselves differently in each.

For example, if you are auditioning for the musicals Memphis, Jersey Boys or a regional theatre production of Hairspray, one can't just sing a song from the mid-'50s or '60s with a contemporary voice. You have to be able to transport the creative team into the era. You have to style the music and interpret the song like you actually live in that era. People, and the music they sang, were crisp, clean and innocent. So your voice, body and storytelling have to reflect that. It's very different from the late '60s to the mid-'70s, where people, because of the Vietnam War, became raw, loose and poetic. And so did the music. The best way to learn is to study all kinds of popular music, and watch videos on YouTube to see what people and life was like.

Are rock musicals an effort to target younger audiences or just the traditional musical in a new guise?
We are taking rock music and trying to fit it into a traditional musical theater form.
Rock musicals have been on Broadway since the early '70s, starting with Godspell. Hair served up classic rock. But Rent appealed, for the first time, to the younger generation. It was bringing this generation to the theater because for them, these characters were real. It wasn't our parent's music. It was ours. Keep in mind, Rent, American Idiot, Spider-Man -- these are contemporary rock. We also have shows like Baby, It's You! , which appeal to the adults more than teenagers. They are all considered rock musicals.

Rock music is less about voice, more about the personae. How does that influence auditions?
I had to write a book about this because most musical theatre performers think it's about the voice. It's like what Beyonce does. She becomes Sasha Fierce. She is a very shy person. But Sasha is commanding, sexy and fabulous. She's in the groove, in the pocket ... That's a contemporary pop personae. Contemporary rock is brooding, internal, raw, with an ache in the voice. It's not about being a great "singer"... most recording artists aren't necessarily great singers. Madonna is not a great singer, but boy can she sell a song. She's a great performer. That's what matters.

Rock The Audition, Hal Leonard Books