While waiting outside for an audition, I inevitably find myself next to Someone Who Has Her Shit Together. Her sheet music is filed neatly into a one-inch binder with tabs dividing each song into its appropriate category. I compliment the owner on her meticulousness, and she demurs, claiming she's never this organized in any other aspect of her life. I don't believe her. Additionally, I'm certain we wouldn't be friends. If my book looked like that, I would fucking own it.
Alas, my book does not look like that. It's an aging binder at least three inches thick. It's decorated with badass quotes from bitches like Monique, Cher and Amy Poehler, cut out of an anniversary edition of Bust magazine. Sixteen to 32-bar sheets of music are stuffed in at random, with the remaining sections of the song stuffed into the front and back pockets along with headshots, resumes, monologues and flyers for various shows. I have even more sheet music arranged in alphabetical order in a drawer in a desk, a lifetime's accrual of audition songs never learned, learned and discarded, or songs I simply love. If the apartment caught fire, this drawer might be the first possession tossed onto the fire escape.
However, as messy as my book may seem, I know where everything is. And more importantly, I have a song for just about every occasion. As a musical theatre professional, you must have a 16 to 32-bar cut (read: one to two minutes) of a fabulous song for you in every type of genre. The time to update your book is always. Be on the lookout for a new pop or musical theatre song, always. The time to update your book is NEVER when you get the audition and realize you have nothing in that category.
If you come across some gaps in your book, fill them! VP Boyle offers an excellent class on Building Your Book. (Full disclaimer: never taken it, but hear wonderful things.) Jonathan Schwartz' show on NPR is a great resource for finding Sondheim and classics from the Great American Songbook. The New York Performing Arts Library is a great resource for finding (free) sheet music, as is www.sheetmusicdirect.com (not free). Write off a subscription to Spotify, where you can stream just about every musical ever recorded. Too cheap for Spotify? Use You Tube.
Basically, there's no excuse for you not to be able to learn a song in this day and (digital) age.
But whatever you do, do not learn a new song in the days leading up to an audition, unless required to by an agent appointment. (Obviously.) Even at that appointment, the creative team is very likely to ask you to sing something from your book, by which they mean something you're comfortable with that shows you off well, not the song they sent you 12 hours ago that you learned off the piano app that you downloaded onto your iPad. Have something appropriate. Have something fabulous.
While cultivating your book, you should also be cultivating a list of people you trust, that you can turn to in a pinch for coaching, piano playing, or just talking you off a ledge when you're overwhelmed by the 12 pages of audition material you have to learn by tomorrow.
These people will:
Be honest about whether this new song shows you off to the best of your ability.
Offer some changes to really make it unique.
Suggest other songs in the genre if your choice is a dud.
Tell you how great you are and how you're really going to shine as soon as you find the right song.
In turn, you will do the same for them.
In musical theatre you must make your audition material a priority. Even if you're the best dancer in America, the second best dancer is in there singing a High C. Who's gonna get the job? #rhetoricalquestion
If you ever watched American Idol, you know that all the idols are talented past a certain point. Song choice plays a big part in determining the winners. Cultivate your book like you would a garden. And plaster your heroes all over it, as inspiration to be the hero of your own story.