Friday, April 15, 2011

Are Musicals Losing Their Voices?

Charles Isherwood posed that question on the New York Times blog, citing Neil Patrick Harris, Catherine Zeta Jones and Daniel Radcliffe as evidence:

He writes:

Are we entering an age when being able to sing to a high standard is no longer a requirement for making appearances in even first-class musical theater productions? The unhappy answer is probably yes. The casting of movie stars has been de rigueur for revivals of classic plays for some time now on Broadway, but in the past couple of seasons we’ve seen the trend encroaching on musical theater terrain, too...

At a time when the hugely popular “American Idol” has enshrined a fine voice (of a particular flamboyant kind, it’s true) as a prize-worthy endowment worthy of national celebration, it seems a dismaying irony that Broadway should be moving in the other direction, relegating the possession of a solid singing voice into the optional category, several notches below celebrity on the list of necessary requirements.

He makes a good point, but there are two celebrities who started the whole trend. They are:

1) Marlon Brando: That's right. When Marlon Brando famously mumbled his way through A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, it caused a revolution in acting styles. From then on, audiences have come to expect a naturalistic, conversational style directly at odds with the peel-the-paint-off-the-walls impulse of a musical. True musical theater talent have to make their name in Hollywood doing exactly the opposite of what they're good at so they can come back to Broadway to use the muscles they haven't been developing.

Even when stars aren't cast, shows seem to shy away from big voices. I've seen reliably employed Broadway talent with voices so small they couldn't be heard behind a wet newspaper.

2) Elvis Presley: When rock 'n roll took the country by storm, Broadway struggled to keep up. Indeed, the first show to integrate rock music was Bye, Bye Birdie, a satire of Elvis going into the army. To do rock-oriented shows you need amplification. Once you get a mike, you don't need a big voice. It's an arms race - the band gets louder, the mike gets turned up, the singer can whisper and the star of the show is the sound guy.

One of the reasons Merman could be heard all the way to the back row was the orchestration. Listen to those old recordings - she's not competing with the brass. She's her own brass section.

Isherwood asked if anyone else shared his anxiety. My answer is yes. So I'm glad he's talking about it.


Oregon Equestrian said...

Oh man! My father and grandfather were professional musicians in Portland. They played every Broadway musical that toured through town while they were active in the Local 99. "Oliver!" and "Fiddler on the Roof" were the last musicals my grandfather (violinist with Portland Symphony for 49 years) thought were worth the price of a ticket. I don't care for the current "pop" style of singing -- if you have to go all over the scale to find the note then sit down and be quiet. Why do singers today have to swallow the mic just to be heard in the third row? It's bad enough that the movies hide the real singers off camera. Ack! Don't get me started.

Bob said...

Excellent points, Marc. And now even teeny-tiny musicals in teeny-tiny spaces have their actor/singers miked, probably because they need to be to be heard over the electrified orchestras.

For me, Brando almost single-handedly destroyed the movie version of one of my favorite musicals, "Guys and Dolls," because he just couldn't sing. At all. (Talk about a guy who needed a mike!) Fortunately, the rest of the cast COULD sing. And Sinatra made the switch from saloon/dance hall singer to musical-comedy singer effortlessly, plus the man could act: a sterling Nathan Detroit.