Acting Chops or Singing Chops – Which Matter More? // by Ted Shen

Composer Ted Shen battles against himself in the search for The Perfect Actor.
“Acting chops or singing chops – which matter more?”

Jack Cummings III, our director, Nora Brennan, our casting director, and Deborah Abramson, our music director, await my answer as we prepare for our final audition callback to begin for the part of Benny in Broadbend, Arkansas.  But I am still internalizing this debate between my writer self and my composer self.

Writer self: “He’s got to have the stage presence to sustain audience interest throughout his 45-minute nonstop monologue with no other actor to provide relief or a safety net.  Therefore, actor.”

Composer self: “It’s a musical monologue, so he’s got to have a compelling singing voice to sustain interest through its 45 minutes of continual back-and-forth shifts between spoken word and song.  Thus, singer.”

W: “He’ll have to pull off the tour-de-force portrayal of three distinct characters (Bertha and Julynne in addition to himself) interacting with each other, two of whom are squabbling older white women.  Actor.”

C: “The score is jazz-infused and requires considerable musicality not to sound ‘square.’  Singer.”

W (sensing advantage): “He’ll have to make the brutality and violence of the 1961 Freedom Riders journey come to life for the audience members by vividly conjuring the scenes without the help of sets, projections or props as well as by immersing them in his own experience of the Freedom Riders’ encounters.  Actor!”

C (somewhat petulant): “Well, there’s the high G he sings in ‘The Park Hotel.’”

W (annoyingly pedantic): “And he absolutely must make the audience care deeply enough about Benny as a human being to maintain his through-line to the denouement of Ruby’s Act 2 monologue.”

At that moment, Justin Cunningham walks in.  First, he awes us with his quiet power, warm humanity, and humor in performing his speaking part, and then he blows us away with his beautifully rich, musical voice in performing his extremely demanding song assignment.  We knew he had heavy-duty actor’s training at Juilliard, but we didn’t expect such virtuosic musicality given his lack of any formal musical training.  During the show’s run, Justin would thrill us over and over again with both his acting and singing chops, unfailingly exceeding the highest aspirations of both my writer self and my composer self.

Direct interactions between composers and actors mostly concern technical matters (song keys, high notes, tempo, dynamics), but because Justin’s remarkable vocal range and discerning ear enable him to master just about anything even without reading music, the issues we addressed together were deeper in nature.

For example, in the Freedom Riders section of Act 1, in which the music is often complex and dissonant to reflect the brutality and violence of the narrative, Justin was able to articulate the relationship between his emotional experience of a particular non-singing scene and the orchestral undersupport that might best help him express it to the audience in his spoken words and physical movement.  His insights helped me immensely in rewriting the underscoring in several sections to provide clearer context for his actions.

Because of the seamless intertwining between spoken and sung segments, Ellen Fitzhugh (the Act 1 librettist and lyricist), Jack, and I periodically considered switching from one mode to the other, but we always relied on Justin’s observations about which felt more comfortable or appropriate to him before making changes.

As a more specific example, it was solely Justin’s brilliant idea to sing the pivotal “Truer Words” song in free tempo rather than to a set beat.  That extra freedom to convey his emotions in real time made this a much more deeply revealing and musical moment than I had ever envisioned while writing the song.  I should also note that Justin’s suggestions were always made respectfully, collaboratively and with an open mind to consider all sides of an issue.

It has been not only a pleasure and privilege to work with an artist of Justin’s natural gifts and professional depth, but also a learning experience due to the generosity and trust he is willing to commit to the collaborative process.  He is so multi-talented that his career can and will take off in many directions, whether in theater, television, or film, and I can’t wait to follow the exciting journey that lies ahead for him!

About the author:


Ted Shen is a musical theater composer, having retired in 1999 from a 30-year business career to return to his music roots developed as a jazz musician and composer in high school and college.  In 2002, through The Shen Family Foundation, which he founded and oversees with his wife, Mary Jo, he began supporting development of new musical theater works by a select group of exceptionally original composers, and in 2005 established the Shen Curriculum for Musical Theater at Yale University, of which he is a graduate.  His own debut musical, A Second Chance, for which he wrote book, music and lyrics, premiered at Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA, in 2011 and was produced at the Public Theater in 2014.  Ted is the composer of Broadbend, Arkansas and provided additional lyrics for its Act II, entitled “Ruby.”