Posted on July 26, 2008 at 10:06 pm

[Updates are at the bottom of this post!]

Summer has poured out and spread over Manhattan like pancake syrup. I sit at the piano in a sublet apartment on the Upper West Side with the air conditioner blasting in vain. I am trying to write a song about a football game. I have spent the last three summers trying to write a song about a football game. I couldn’t care less about football. My mind keeps skittering away from the page, my hands slapping away reflexively at the piano keys even though I’m not paying any attention. The sun rises, the page is empty; the sun sets, the page is empty except for three lines that I’ve crossed out. Clearly I’m in need of some distraction.

And so: The First Official Summer JRB Karaoke Competition!

I was zooming through my iTunes library when I came upon a list called Songs reh tapes. Upon closer examination, I realized what these recordings were: In preparation for the concert of Songs for a New World last year at Strathmore, I recorded the piano parts for many of the songs so I could send them to the soloists in advance of our rehearsal week in New York. Besides the fact that I made a lot of mistakes while playing, the recording technology was not particularly advanced – I placed my MacBook on a chair about three feet away from my piano and used the built-in microphone, compressed the resulting file down to an mp3 and emailed it off. Certainly not audiophile quality, but good enough to practice with. When you’ve got Brian d’Arcy James and Tituss Burgess and Laura Griffith and Alice Ripley, you can trust them to do their homework.

I’ve decided to use three of those accompaniments for this bit of interactive insanity. Anyone wishing to participate in the JRB Karaoke Madness will get to choose from “I’m Not Afraid of Anything”, “She Cries”, and “King of the World.” I suppose you could go nuts and do all three, but then you’ll probably be disqualified for being a psychopath.

Here’s how the competition works: using the accompaniment tracks posted below, record yourself singing the song of your choice.Then post that recording somewhere (YouTube? Facebook? Your own server? You kids know better than I do how to do this technological stuff) and put the link in the Comments section below along with your name or your nickname and your current hometown. DON’T POST THE VIDEO OR AUDIO ITSELF IN THE COMMENTS SECTION! JUST THE LINK! If you want to post video, that’s cool; if you only want to do audio, that’s cool too. If you did video but you only want us to listen to the audio, let us know and we’ll probably ignore you.

Once you’ve posted the link, the free-for-all begins. Anyone can watch or listen just by clicking the link you’ve posted. If they like what you did, they can click right here to send me an email, and fill in your name or nickname in the subject line. After August 5, I’ll count up the votes and post the finalists. Then I’ll figure out the next part of the contest, and there’ll be a prize of some sort and maybe you can take over as Elle Woods, but I’ll tell you more about that when we get there.

Anyone can submit a song. Young, old, professional, amateur, Equity, SAG, AFTRA, it doesn’t matter. If you’re eleven years old and living in Billings, Montana, you can participate; if you’re Sara Ramirez, you can participate. If you’re doing a Broadway show every night or if you’re in the chorus of a community theater production of 70 Girls 70, it’s all good. The more submissions, the merrier. Recording quality only matters to the extent that if we can’t really hear your singing, that will obviously work against you. Some people have recording studios in their basements; some people will have to set up wax cylinders and sing into a brass horn. (Let’s face it, the recording quality on the piano tracks is pretty crappy already; no matter what you do, it’s still only going to sound so good.)

The only rules you need to follow are these: You have to use my accompaniment tracks as posted below, and you have to sing the song as written – no parody lyrics, no mashups, no medleys, just the song I wrote with the accompaniment I played. Unless, you know, it’s really funny. ALL SUBMISSIONS MUST BE POSTED BY MIDNIGHT ON AUGUST 4, 2008. I’ll try to get the finalists posted within a week after that, though I have no idea what “finalist” means yet. Maybe I’ll do categories, like “Craziest Bedroom Decor” and “Most Interesting Interpretation Of Pitch.”

It may be that none of these tracks is in a good key for you. I’m sorry about that. You’ll have to wait for the next competition, if there ever is one.

You can find the lyrics to all three of the songs posted right here on this website. I can’t post the sheet music online, but it is widely available in the Songs for a New World folio or various other collections – it’s a good idea for you to take a look at the written notes before you record anything, trust me on this. I also suggest familiarizing yourself with the amazing (and more or less definitive) performances by Ty Taylor, Brooks Ashmanskas and Andréa Burns on the original cast recording, which you can get from the iTunes Music Store. I don’t want anyone to do an imitation of those singers, and I don’t want a slavish fidelity to the written score, but there’s a lot of stylistic and dramatic information on the album and in the music that you should absorb before you take on any of these songs. For further reference, there are alternate recordings of the two male songs on this very website, and those will be useful as well.

Now, here are some helpful hints based on the thousands of performances I’ve seen and heard of these songs. These apply not just to these songs but pretty much to any theater song in the world.

1. There is a lot of anger and confusion in all three of these songs. That doesn’t mean you should be playing the anger and confusion all the time. The less you draw from that well, the more powerful it will be when you do.
2. All those rests and pauses are there for a reason, take advantage of them; don’t rush through these songs. In all three of these songs, a major emotional realization occurs in total silence. After “David loves me,” after “She opens the floodgates,” before “At least I used to be,” those are big goalposts. Don’t knock them over, trust them. (Since the pauses are already built into the accompaniments, you don’t have much choice, of course.)
3. All three of these songs unfold with a fairly clear structure: verse/chorus, verse/chorus, long bridge, final chorus. Make sure that each of those structural points has a specific and unique musical and dramatic energy. If you do the first chorus big and broad, the second chorus should be different – perhaps more legato, perhaps placed in your head voice more; make musical choices and follow through with them. And watch that transition from the bridge to the final chorus: something very important is happening to each of the characters at that point. What happened in the bridge? What did they discover or decide? You have to incorporate that information into your performance.
4. If you sang any of these songs exactly as notated, with every rhythm performed with metronomic exactitude, you’d sound ridiculous and the song would sound terrible. The point of all that written-out backphrasing is to make the lyric fall as naturally on the music as possible. These are wordy songs, phrase them as necessary to make the lyrics clear, and make music out of every line. The best singers understand that instinctively – make the song make sense to you when you sing.

All right, enough with the disclaimers and hints and rules, this is supposed to be fun. Let’s make with the singing!

“I’m Not Afraid Of Anything (Piano accompaniment: A Major)”
from Songs for a New World (1995)
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
JRB: piano, foot

“King Of The World (Piano accompaniment: C Major)”
from Songs for a New World (1995)
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
JRB: piano, foot

“She Cries (Piano accompaniment: F Major)”
from Songs for a New World (1995)
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
JRB: piano, foot

LEGALESE: These piano tracks are copyright Jason Robert Brown and cannot be used, duplicated, reproduced or published in any other form without the express consent of the publisher, Semolina Farfalle Music Inc.

Don’t forget to post your submission by August 5! Play nice!

1st UPDATE: Already several questions have come in, which I’ll try to answer here.
1. Apparently some computers don’t like the links above. (They aren’t Macs, I’ll bet.) My webmaster is working on it.
2. Hey Brits and other foreign types: use your native accent! I don’t need to hear Fake American, unless you’re competing for Worst Fake American Accent, in which case, carry on.
3. One of my commenters asked if I could work it so that there are different periods for posting and voting, so that people have time to get all their fans to vote for them. This is when I start thinking I’ve unleashed a monster, but for now, let’s say that while submissions must be in by AUGUST 5th, you have until AUGUST 10th to vote; I won’t pick finalists until after the 10th. It doesn’t solve every problem, but it helps a little, right?
4. SPECIAL PROPS TO OUR FIRST CONTESTANT! Lovely Charlotte Godfrey, of the British Isles, offers her rendition of “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” here! Send love and support, people!
All right, carry on. I’m sure I’ll be back with more updates.