When Derek Klena was 19 years old, he came upon a YouTube bootleg of Aaron Tveit singing “Goodbye” from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s Catch Me If You Can. Klena knew right then he needed to sing that song at his upcoming solo concert.
Shaiman found out about Klena’s rendition of the Catch Me closer and Klena not only landed his first big audition (for Catch Me If You Can’s Broadway bow), he made it to the final callbacks for Tveit’s standby. Though he didn’t book that gig, the song still led to his first professional job in New York. “Telsey said they had a couple other projects they were working on, one of which was Carrie,” says Klena. The actor joined the final workshop of the Stephen King-based musical, which led to the show’s Off-Broadway run. “It all stemmed back to this ‘Goodbye’ song and I still sing it for the majority of my pop-rock auditions to this day.”
Klena then created huge buzz as Eddie Birdlace in Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s cult favorite Dogfight, directed by Joe Mantello, which led Mantello to call Klena in for leading man Fiyero in his Wicked. A year after starring opposite the green girl, he bowed in Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County and now plays con-artist-turned-protector Dmitry in Broadway’s Anastasia—all from a repertoire book of five songs. Here, Klena sings through his book and reveals the key to finding the perfect audition material.
You found “Goodbye” in a YouTube video. Is there something about the song—aside from it fitting your vocal range—you latch onto?
Derek Klena: It means a lot to me now. I have a lot of history with it. It defines the type of role that I wanted to play and I envision myself playing. It’s just a good fit for me and the vibe I want to give off and my vocal style, and it fits a lot of different genres so I’m able to use it a lot. It’s a good go-to.
What are your other go-to songs?
“Marta” from Kiss of the Spider Woman, which was written by Terrence McNally—who wrote Anastasia and Ragtime, which is one of my favorite musicals ever. I sang it for a benefit honoring Terrence. I was asked to sing this song and fell in love with it. It’s a more traditional musical theatre song, so I use that in all the traditional auditions I go in for. That’s my go-to for that genre.
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It’s important to pick those songs that you can use for a lot of different things that you feel most comfortable in and that fit a lot of different styles of music. If I have to sing a straight-up rock song I’ve sang “Drops of Jupiter,” or “Faithfully” by Journey. For those few and far between country rock musicals, “God Bless the Broken Road.”
Do you add the songs that you’ve sung in shows to your book?
I don’t. That’s the thing about doing an original show. It’s amazing to have that opportunity to create the role, but I don’t think I’d ever be able to sing that in an audition. To me that would be like, “Remember when I played this role?” It automatically profiles me in that specific show. Since I was lucky enough to create it, I don’t want them to view me as Eddie Birdlace or Dmitry. I’d rather it be a blank slate and see their role instead of a previous role I’ve done.
What did you sing for auditions when you were in middle school and high school?
“Old Red Hills of Home” from Parade was a big competition song of mine. I sang “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods, “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin—I went through the book of stereotypical men’s songs.
What’s your philosophy in choosing the songs you use now?
I also like to pick songs that show off your range but don’t jump in your face right away. You should first pull their attention in the first couple bars and grow into yourself. That’s what I try to tell myself every time I prepare for an audition is to give them a little mini one-act play in 32 bars instead of the 11 o’clock number only.
Is there a song that you would love to sing in an audition that you feel is great for you but hasn’t been right for a role or a show that you’ve gone in for?
This is tricky because once you get comfortable with your songs you don’t want to stray. I wish I could sing “Something’s Coming.” That’s a role I would love to play someday and I always wanted to play. But it’s Sondheim, so that’s tough. It’s so tempo-dependent. Everyone has their own inner tempo and I’d rather not put an accompanist in that position.
You have to be super comfortable singing the song and you have to love the song. But you have to think about the other elements. Is everything going to sync up? An audition is so many different parts. It’s not just you. It’s how [the people casting] feel on the day. It’s who’s playing the piano. It’s who sang before you. It’s who’s coming in after you. It’s whether they’ve had lunch or haven’t had lunch. It’s crazy things like that. How many things can you take out of the equation so that it’s the safest and it’s going to put you in the best position for success?
Special thanks to Caleb Hoyer for his piano accompaniment in the video above.