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.