All repertoire is not created equal, and that includes music theater songs. I have implied here before that this is the case, but I well remember a conversation I had many years ago with a classical colleague who professed to teach music theater that the really difficult music was classical and the other stuff was, well, less demanding. Oh.
In my experience some music theater songs are very difficult. Sometimes that difficulty is musical, sometimes it is vocal, sometimes it’s emotional but if you have a song with all those factors, you can face some serious challenges.
What kinds of songs am I talking about? Songs that are loud, high, and long are demanding — songs that are fast, frantic and repetitive are demanding — songs that ask you to be very emotional are hard because they run the risk of pushing the voice.
Are there classical songs that are simple? Of course. Many of the great art songs are not difficult until you begin to interpret them. They can have simple melodies and lyrics (if you are not singing them in a foreign language), but any good classical singer will tell you that just because they are simple doesn’t mean that to do them well is easy. On the contrary, sometimes the simplicity makes the songs very challenging.
Defying Gravity is difficult, Gethsemane is difficult, Take Me, Baby, Or Leave Me, is difficult, Aldonza‘s song is difficult, I Am What I What I Am, same. There are many more. Rose’s Turn is a killer. Don’t Rain On My Parade, likewise. I could go one, but you get the point.
Of course, if you don’t do them the way they were originally intended by the composer to be sung, and you just sing them however you do, then they could be really easy, but they would be WRONG. Doing the song however you please because you are you doesn’t work. If you are a highly skilled vocalist, the songs might be easy for you, but not for everyone, and that matters.
There are no books of graded songs for music theater like there are for classical repertoire, although some books do give songs for young people. Those books, however, are not looking at the songs as being necessarily easier, just age appropriate. Someone will come up with a book like that one day, and make a lot of money. In the meantime, if you assign songs to students, be sure you understand what’s hard and why, because if you do not you will blame the student for not being good enough or trying hard enough and that would be tragic.