To Cruise Or Not To Cruise
by Steven Jepson
Believe it or not, entertainment companies that hire people to work on cruise ships are looking for legitimate voices to complement their talent pool. As an opera/musical theatre performer who recently completed six months on a cruise ship, I can attest that there are benefits to a seagoing musical career, as well as some drawbacks.
In April 2004, I completed a seven-month engagement with Jean Ann Ryan Productions, one of the most respected companies in cruise entertainment, performing for six months on board the MS Norwegian Sky of Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL). We started in San Francisco with a repositioning cruise through the Panama Canal, then toured the southern and eastern Caribbean islands.
It all begins with something familiar to all of us: auditionsbut dont expect the typical suits and dressesits going to look more like an open Broadway audition. The important word is openexpect to be there for quite some time. My advice is to dress a little more casual than you would for a typical opera audition, spend your time going over your music, and keep out of the way of the dancers as they limber up.
The entertainment companies are looking for people who can sing, can move, and are easy on the eye. And since their shows include semi-operatic pieces from shows such as Phantom and Les Mis, as well as Broadway classics such as Carousel and Oklahoma!, they need singers with a strong delivery and a more traditional style. Dont come in with Largo or Vissi darte. If Ever I Would Leave You and I Dreamed a Dream are more what theyre looking for. As always, sing what best shows you off.
Dont expect to hear feedback soon. In the cruise entertainment business, you are being hired to fill an opening, not to stage a new production. The companies have a pool of singers, singer/dancers, dancers, and specialty acts they can choose from. If theres an opening and you fill the criteria, you could be hired.
Before you ship out
The cruise company paid to put up our troupe in a hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. We were responsible for all other expenses, including phone calls, food, laundry, and the like. You should receive a per diem to offset these expenses, but you may not receive it until you ship out.
We learned four shows to perform on a weekly basis: a Broadway-style show (complete with glitzy-tacky costumes, dancing, and showstopper numbers), a dance-heavy show (singing involved everything from standards to Ricky Martin), and a Cirque du Soleil-style show where the emphasis is more on spectacle than singing. We also prepared a welcome to the cruise number. All this was memorized in three to four weeks.
As always, work begins with rehearsals, but even though the entertainment company hired you, you are contracted to (and paid by) the cruise line, and must pass a physical exam. Its a good idea to get a thorough exam from your physician before you go, and bring a copy of your records, to be on the safe side. The cruise lines are very strict about drug use, so make sure they know if you are taking any medication, and have an explanation from your physician.
After the exam, rehearsals begin in earnest. This is not an AGMA or Equity house, and its going to feel like theyre running you ragged. Rehearsals can start at 9 a.m., go to noon or 1 p.m., break for an hour for lunch, and resume in the afternoon until 5 or 6, with the occasional night rehearsal thrown in as needed.
When they say youll be moving, they mean dancingstage-style dancing. As a principal singer, youre not required to dance as much as the other people in the troupe, but if you can move, youll be a step ahead. Get used to stretching before rehearsal. Most of the limbering-up is more akin to an aerobics class, so if youre not in shape when rehearsals begin, you soon will be.
Prior to the rehearsals, I received CDs of the music and a book with my part and my part onlyno piano-vocal scores here! If youre a solid singer and a good musician (playing the piano helps), you may be able to make a few extra bucks as the groups music captain.
On board the ship
In a post-9/11 world, expect security to be tight. After filling out a lot of forms, you will be given a crew badge (with your picture) and a nametag. You often need both to get on and off the ship at ports of call. If you lose these, life can get very difficult for you. Many of the ships use your crew badge as your room key, and it takes time to reproduce them. Shipboard security frowns on people who chronically lose things, and sometimes it can be grounds for dismissal.
Learn the rules on board and live by them. Remember that your job can be cancelled at any time for any major infraction (drug or alcohol abuse, absenteeism, rudeness to passengers, etc.), and you will find yourself in a foreign country, bags in hand, waiting for an airplane to take you home.
When you get on board, you finally see the space where youll perform, likely a concert-style stage seating anywhere from 200 to 600 people, depending on the ship. Some of the mega-ships, like the larger Royal Caribbean ships (or if youre lucky, the Queen Mary II), have more traditional, proscenium-style theaters that seat more than a thousand. The stage on average-size ships is multi-purpose, featuring everything from bingo and other acts to group meetings.
The biggest thing to get used to: the ship is moving while youre performing. Until you get used to it, you feel like youre singing with a hangover. Depending on the weather and the ships speed, the movement can be anything from a gentle rocking to pitching and rolling that rivals a roller coaster. Believe it or not, its hard to stand still and sing while the ship is moving! If seasickness is a problem, the ships medical staff can furnish you with Dramamine or anti-sickness wristbands.
Backstage room varies per ship, but its usually small (the larger ships have an area where costumes can be stored). Be aware, however, that the sometimes lightning-quick costume changes will require you to strip to the bare necessities next to people you didnt even know a month prior. If youre someone whos easily embarrassed, youll have to get over it quickly.
We did an introduction number (lasting about five minutes) in conjunction with a welcome on board show at the start of each cruise. Main performances lasted about an hour and were at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, there were other acts, from singers (ranging from good to really bad), magicians, and comics.
Passengers dont pay to see the shows, and cruise ships offer plenty of other things to keep them busy (such as casinos, mini-malls, other performers, and the constant array of food). I have seen a packed lounge empty to only 25 people as a performer bombed. So the shows are fast-paced, with no intermission, and segues you have to experience to believe. All the featured singers used mics during my tour, a requirement to cope with the sometimes overpowering accompaniment and the fact that the theater wasnt the best for voices.
It is possible to do additional singing other than just the production shows (you are not paid extra for doing this, howeveryou are paid only for the work in the production shows). Your opportunity to sing solo may be anything from a few numbers in a piano lounge to a complete set in a small lounge/theater. Make sure you bring the music youll need.
Most of the pianists working on cruise ships are lounge pianists, and are usually not willing to spend time learning your opera arias, since opera is not their forte. Show tunes or standards are best, and the pianists will use their version if they know the piece. Know the keys in which you sing the songs, because lounge pianists work that way. If you want to sing with the show band (if ones on board), youll need charts of your music for instruments. Youll also need permission from the entertainment director (usually the head of the show band) and the cruise director.
NCL likes to have the entertainers available to the passengers, so dont be surprised to find yourself pressing the flesh with people on an excursion on shore, or making some friends wholl sit on the front row and cheer you on. Dont expect to be discovered on board, however. Most of the passengers are not in the entertainment business, and rarely have any connection to opera. I will say, however, that I met some wonderful people on board who have attended some of my performances back in Chicago.
As a principal singer, you have your own cabin, but cabin size and availability varies from ship to ship. You should have a TV hooked up to the ships satellite system, but what you get depends on where youre sailing. Expect a lot of international programming. Use your computer to pick up baseball and American football scores, if thats your interest. Its smart to bring a small stereo, or even better, a digital media device (like an iPod) and speakersremember that you have to lug everything you brought (or bought) off the ship.
Bathrooms and showers on board cruise ships are notoriously smallimagine showering in a phone booth and youll get an idea of what its like! But youll have a steward to vacuum your cabin and change the linens. We made a habit of tipping them weeklythey dont make a lot, and if you treat them well, they will help you out with such niceties as dry cleaning and delivering fresh fruit to your cabin each week (and letting you back into your cabin if you leave your key card in your cabin!).
You can either have the ships laundry do your laundry (itll cost you) or you can do your own, but be prepared for long lines. The Sky had just 11 machines for 900 crewmembers! Stay with your clothestheft is not a problem, but having your clothes left in a wet heap on the floor is a common occurrence.
Ships are equipped with a crew bar and disco, where beer is served at a low price. Some cruise lines are more strict about alcohol use, and if an officer finds you having more than you can handle, you could be off the ship at your next port. Alcohol in your cabin is another no-no, although its a known fact that its not enforced much. Use your judgment and common sense, and youll be fine.
Principal singers are given passenger status to a point and can go anywhere on board a passenger can go at any time, including the ships restaurants, with the exception of the casino (if the ship has one). Singer/dancers and dancers are required to ask permission from the troupes on-board manager to eat at the restaurants. There is a chain of command, as in any organization, and the final say in all matters pertaining to entertainment ends at the cruise director, who is usually very amiable.
You will find that youre a lot more conscious about health than youve ever been before. A cruise ship is a closed society, and if someone gets ill, its likely that everyone else will get sick as well. You may have read about cruise ships being quarantined at ports, with most of the passengers and crew stricken by the Norwalk virusfever, chills, vomiting, diarrheaits not a pleasant experience.
To fight shipboard illness, many cruise lines provide sanitizing wipes or lotions at the entrances of mess halls and buffet stations, as well as when you come back on board. Its smart to carry some hand sanitizer, since youll be shaking hands with passengers who are thrilled to meet you. Stay well, and youll be happy.
Money managing tips
The big benefit of doing a cruise gig is the money. As a principal singer you can make more than $1,300 in two weeks (after taxes), depending on the company. If you plan on having money put in your account in the States, youll need a way to get access to it, so opening up an account with a local bank is a smart idea, or open one with a large international bank (such as Citibank) and have someone at home transfer money for you, so you can avoid ATM fees. It is usually less expensive to buy things on shore than on the ship; look for discount stores (such as Wal-Mart or K-Mart) at your ports of call.
Your time on shore is your own. If possible, take some shore excursions available through the cruise line. Usually, the company will offer you a discount for the excursion, or sometimes you wont have to pay at all. Depending on where youre stationed, you may be able to get some great deals on clothes, electronics, and liquor. But you wont be able to enjoy any liquor you buy for a whilemost cruise ships bond any liquor you bring aboard until the end of a cruise. That goes for passengers as well as crew.
Some drawbacks to consider
It sounds like a great life, doesnt it? No rent, free food, free medical coverage, travel to places you never thought youd visit, and constant performing, with the possibility of some solo work. Well, every dream job has its drawbacks.
One issue is age. Most people who work cruise ships are one to five years out of college and have plenty of wild oats to sow. Maturity is not a big selling point.
Another problem can be boredomwhen youve already visited the ports and the restaurants, then what? This can be a good time to study roles, learn a language, and work on getting or keeping in shape (the crew has a gym, and as a principal singer, youre entitled to use the passengers fitness facilities). The only practice room will probably be your cabinthe places on board with a piano are usually busy all day.
Another downside: missing your life at home. Youll be out of the audition loop for the course of your tour. If you have a relationship, that can suffer, too. Your significant other might not be available when you need to talk, or sometimes the satellite setup wont work, making instant messaging, e-mail and open cell for your phone unavailable. Most cruise lines make discounted cruises available to the crew, so you might be able to bring a guest on board for less than half of what normal passengers pay. (Sometimes those fares are available only for a short time, so your guest would need to hop a flight to your homeport with only a few days notice, which isnt always possible.)
For those who can live the lifestyle, working cruises can be a great way to work. I met some singers who have been working cruises for more than 10 years, with a post office box as a permanent residence and their belongings in a storage locker. If the company that hires you finds you are willing to do another cruise, they may have another job waiting for you within a month of finishing the one youre doing. It wont lead to the Met, but its a great way of getting out of debtor, if youre burned out with the audition scene, trying something new.
Jean Ann Ryan Productions
308 SE 14th Street
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316
One of the premier production entertainment companies in the cruise business, JAR works with Norwegian, NCL America (you must be a U.S. citizen to work with NCL America), SilverSea, and other cruise lines. JAR holds auditions around the country; you can send materials with a videotape directly to the company.
Casting Department: P.O. Box 45348
Los Angeles, CA 90045
(310) 957-5757, ext. 412 (hotline number)
Stiletto handles entertainment for Holland America cruises. Its website has forms and tracks available for download. The company recommends you have the tracks down cold for auditions, which it holds around the country. You can send video demos to Stiletto.
Contact the following cruise lines directly and ask for the Entertainment Department:
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines:
Carnival Cruise Lines:
Celebrity Cruise Lines:
go to About and look at Careers
Cunard/Seabourn Cruise Lines:
Princess/P&O Cruise Lines:
Also check out this site for more information on cruise line entertainment:
Critics have described baritone Steven Jepson as a cavalier talent, a top-notch musician, and a diamond mine. He has extensive credits in the Americas, Europe and Japan, showcasing his talents in opera, musical theatre, and symphonic and pops works. Along with singing, he teaches privately in the Chicago area. Upcoming engagements and more information on Mr. Jepson can be found on his website, www.sbjsings.com.