For decades, I have advocated that we can sing in a number of vocal qualities without issue. I have stated and written about the ability for the voice to sing all over the map and remain healthy. I have also stated that some qualities do better with classical singing than others. There are boundaries. You cannot sing all sounds equally well in all styles at a professional level. This statement is based on over 40 years of teaching and 50 years of singing. It is life experience, not science, behind the statement.
We are now faced with a situation in which most new shows on Broadway that are financially successful are rock shows. There are different kinds of rock shows but the ones that are not rock based, like “Light in the Piazza” do not last long and do not receive the kind of critical and audience acclaim that the other shows do. “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark” was the most maligned show in recent decades. Virtually every review of this show was awful. Yet, it is now the top grosser every week on Broadway, due to two things: it is full of bells and whistles (spectacle and tech) and rock music written by a known composer and his collaborator.
You can see this an an example of where Broadway is at this time. Commercial success has very little to do with the “old” values people like me were raised to know and understand. Shows without glitz, shows that have only actors who sing and dance, with no special effects, don’t do well unless the leading characters are played by stars. At the moment, “How To Succeed In Business” is starring Beau Bridges and Nick Jonas, both famous from other places than Broadway. Without the celebrities, the show might have closed in December. Shows like “Chicago” have a reputation for putting celebrities in leading roles regardless of whether or not they can sing, dance or act. We went to see “Chicago” 15 years ago with friends from Connecticut neither of whom had the least bit of knowledge about music, theater, acting or singing. My friend leaned over to me and said (of Melanie Griffith), “She isn’t very good, is she?” Says it all. Doesn’t matter a bit, however, as the show is going strong with road companies all over. The very famous Christie Brinkley is now Roxie Hart I think in Boston. She is certainly known for her singing, dancing and acting!!!!! Well, maybe acting up.
On Tuesday, I saw an Off-Broadway show with four performers. It’s about being parents and the book was decent. It had lots of cute/funny moments. The performers were all in their 30s and were stellar. Really excellent. There was no set to speak of (static setup) and no real costumes (just street clothes of various kinds), and the three piece combo was behind the set. The pianist was conductor, and there was a bass player and a drummer. Pretty simple. The show isn’t doing too well, as it is aimed at the group of people who are busy taking care of the kids and who therefore do not have time or money to go to the theater.
The music, however, was pretty much awful. Banal, un-tuneful, and written by people who have NO CLUE about singing, singers or anything that you could call melodic structure. For the unschooled folks in the audience, I suppose it was no worse than many other shows, but for a trained and experienced musician/vocalist, it was agonizing. The songs had no real center, the lyrics were moving the plot forward but in a very haphazard way. Sometimes the tunes started out like they might actually communicate something but by the end, they all had that “hook” that is supposed to be necessary, and the thrust of the song went out the window in order to serve the formula. The pitch range was all over the place for all four performers but the women (as per usual) had the worst of it, in that they were being asked to belt up to Fs and Gs and also sing mix and, in one case, sing in a kind of “legit” sound. Above the staff, you couldn’t understand any of the lyrics (not surprising) even though it was amplified. The point of writing the music this way was that there was no point. It certainly did not make the songs more compelling. It didn’t make them memorable (the opposite, actually). It didn’t help make the performers sound good. It didn’t allow them to sing where their voices would have been comfortable. And, why, please tell me, would people who are in various stages of parenthood be screaming out loud rock lyrics to tell you about their experiences, especially when they were at the playground, in the kid’s school, or at the gym.
This is just CHEAP composing. The lyrics are convenient, not special. The music is generic and forgettable. The match between the two is haphazard. The lack of knowledge on both the part of the lyricist and the composer about voices, about harmony, about music beyond rock and roll literally screams in your face. Why bother to learn about any of those things when you are already geniuses? I mean, they made it to Broadway, right? Doesn’t that make them really good?
Given the fact that we have decimated music education in the public schools for four decades now, the average person knowns nothing of real music. They can’t tell good from bad from last night’s leftovers. They might think the music in this show is “nice” or “good” and maybe think the show is “fun”. It might make money on the road over the next few years because it will be inexpensive to produce (see above) and because it isn’t “off-color” (no swearing or lewd behaviors, although there is one song about having married sex).
It would be SO nice to go to a rock musical that had some semblance of depth to it. Perhaps the revised Andrew Lloyd Webber “JC Superstar” will meet that need. When he came on the scene, people looked at Lloyd Webber’s shows as being pretty banal and badly written, but comparing them to what we have today, he and Mr. Rice seem more like traditionalists who were at least in the ballpark than radical rockers who changed the world. I really disliked “Cats” when it first came out but after “Rent”, ten years later, it seemed almost symphonic.
I LIKE rock music. I liked Elvis when I was 5 and the Beatles when I was 14. Although I don’t know every single present moment rocker, when I hear people like Beyonce or Christina Aguilera, I am often impressed. I am not writing from some elitist point of view, disdaining the music as a style. I am writing because I actually care about rock music, about Broadway, about singers and about the audience. They all deserve better than most of what they get, but don’t think for a minute that it is going to get any better any time soon. In fact, expect the opposite. Music without rhyme or reason will go forth to make money because of PR and marketing. That’s all that matters. We are all caught between a rock and a hard place.