Inside Broadway's First A Cappella Musical
There's a groundbreaking musical powered entirely by the human voice. In Transit is Broadway’s first a cappella musical, boasting a creative team that includes Frozen songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez and contemporary a cappella guru Deke Sharon. The show’s run is an exciting development for proponents of vocal music, and a prime showcase for actors with unique a cappella singing talents like James Snyder.
But even for Snyder, an alum of one of the nation’s top collegiate ensembles, the SoCal VoCals, combining the demands of a cappella and Broadway was a whole new ball of wax. “I grossly underestimated just how hard this was going to be,” he admits.
“I’m used to singing tenor parts, but in this show I'm a baritone, tenor, and then I cover bass parts at a couple points,” says Snyder. “The limits of my range are pushed as far as I can go, and I am challenged to the furthest degree of my musicianship. I've never sung in 11-part harmony.”
Snyder spoke about his journey to and being part of the show with communications manager and fellow a cappella singer Mike Rowan.
You say you grew up as a “band geek.” How did you get into singing?
JS: I always sang—my parents and grandparents encouraged me to sing around the house. I grew up with a lot of barbershop. My grandfather was an actual barber in San Jose who had a barbershop quartet with his brothers. I was one of the few people who would know what you're talking about if you mentioned SPEBSQSA (The Society for Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America, the acronym for Barbershop Harmony Society's original moniker). My dad has all these SPEBSQSA awards on his wall.
I played the trumpet and clarinet in high school, and then I was in a musical my freshman year. The drama teacher was also the choir teacher and she told me about the jazz choir, and I thought that was great. Then I auditioned for the all-state honor choir. and then continued to cut my teeth doing musicals. As soon as I found the singing element, I knew it was more my speed because it let me express myself on a whole other level. I really took to the art of interpreting a lyric.
How was your experience in collegiate a cappella important to you?
JS: I got a BFA in acting, and most of my teachers poo-pooed musical theater. They wanted me to learn how to act first. And so the SoCal VoCals were such a wonderful outlet for me. I got to focus on the acting in school, and then I got to step out and sing to my heart's content.
How did you wind up being a part of In Transit?
JS: I had worked with the director of In Transit, Kathleen Marshall, previously in Ever After, the musical based on the movie. I got a call that an audition for this a cappella musical was coming up, and I immediately told my agent, "I have to do this job."
For my audition, I used an app to loop my voice, and sang the tune over myself. I thought it was pretty cool, but the music director of the show stopped me and said he just wanted me to sing, a cappella. So I sang a musical theater number. He ran me through some arrangements from the show with nonsense syllables, which I could do in my sleep from my four years in college. And I said "Oh, by the way, I can do vocal percussion." I beatboxed for them, which they were surprised that I could pull off. I said, "I told you, dude, this is what I love to do." And I think he was impressed enough that I managed to get the job. It's something that I never thought I would ever use again, and here am on Broadway using everything I picked up from every choir I've ever been in.
Can you tell us a little about the show?
JS: In Transit is about 11 New Yorkers all trying to get somewhere. Not just physically in the subway, where it's largely set, but also in their lives. They're in transit with their love relationship, or with their work—there are these interweaving stories of people just trying to survive and make it in the city. In their journey to get to where they think they want to go, it's about learning to be where you are. Or, you could also say it's kind of like Love Actually on the New York City subway.
It's one of those shows that people don't know what to expect when they hear about it—they see "a cappella" and they think, is it a concert? And then they see that it's a great musical comedy that just happens to be completely sung. It's an element—like many good orchestrations, where sometimes the less you notice it, the better we're doing our job.
What about this show is a unique challenge that you haven’t experienced before?
JS: I think the amount of discipline each actor has to have is what sets this show apart from others. To give one example, Chesney (Snow, one of the show’s beatboxers) told me he spent eight hours a day for three years practicing beatboxing. Everyone has to be a quadruple threat. You have to approach it as an actor, a singer, a dancer, and then also as a musician. You can't get lazy with your vowels. Intonation is the most important thing to supporting the other actors. It's crazy how sharp we have to stay.
The producers and directors gave us an extra ten days on the front end just to rehearse music, which was really important. This is the hardest I've ever worked and the most I've ever rehearsed for a show in my life. Having to rely on each other created this instant bond. When you harmonize with people, it works on so many levels. We immediately gelled as a group, and I think that helped form—and inform—the story.
It's an hour and forty minutes of singing (with no intermission). I get two songs off, and the rest of the time I'm singing. And there are some people who don't have a single song off. It's also the craziest backstage I've ever been involved with. People are singing while they're changing clothes. There's a constant barrage of people coming off stage and still singing while grabbing props. You could sell tickets to the backstage antics.
How do the technical aspects of performing a Broadway musical solely with voices work?
JS: All 11 of us have in-ear monitors. We each have our own individual mix, which is mixed by a person backstage. In my monitors, I put the lower-middle sustained voices that I'm harmonizing with in my left ear, and the bass and the more rhythmically active upper voices in my right ear. Then we have piano and a click track in both ears. Throughout our tech process, we were all honing in on what we needed to hear in the mix. I can say, in this song I need more soprano and alto at the beginning, but at the end I'll need more bass. And our sound engineer will write in a cue to adjust the balance, and she does that for everyone's individual mixes.
When we come to a song, our music director will play the chord and start the click track, which comes through in our monitors. We'll hear "3, 4" and then we start singing. That alone was very technically complex and took weeks of us pulling our hair out. It made me think, this is why no one has done an a cappella musical on Broadway before, because it's crazy. Who on earth would try this? There was a certain level of having to hand it all over and just trust that everyone's musicianship would take over. I'm so proud of this show that we created. It's been the best and most challenging experience I've had in my career, hands down.
What has ensemble singing taught you that has allowed you to be successful?
JS: The most important thing is listening. I'm a better singer when I’m not focused on my own voice. When I think about the times when I've truly felt connected, fully expressive, and at my best, it's when I've been listening to people. Be it in acting or in life, the giving up of one's ego allows so much love, compassion, and artistry. All the good things that exist in this universe are possible when we listen to each other, and singing in choirs is the epitome of that.
Are there any other thoughts you want to impart about your career?
JS: I'm still constantly learning. And I'm so grateful for every person out there who is running a high school music program. I learned who I was because of that. Bobbi Wilson was my choir teacher my freshman and sophomore year, and then Christian Bohm after that. They helped steer me in a direction that changed my life, and I'm so grateful for everyone who taught me. The bottom line is that in a country that keeps cutting funding for the arts, we just need to keep up the fight. This world needs harmony more than anything. The people that give us that provide a service that's invaluable.
In Transit premiered on Broadway on November 10, 2016 at Circle in the Square Theater, and ran through April 16, 2017.