Broadway

I have been deep into research on casting for Broadway musicals going back to 1974. The research is for a presentation that will be given in Philadelphia in early June at the Voice Foundation Symposium: Care of the Professional Voice. It is intended to give voice science researchers a better view of Broadway’s criteria so they will be inclined to ground their various studies in real world values. Especially for those who do research in foreign countries, there is no easy way for them to find out what the theater world is like here in New York. It really is its own universe.

There are some things that you only learn by hanging around this community. It’s the same in jazz or in opera. You learn by being in that specific musical world. Theater people are traditional, they are superstitious, they are competitive and kind hearted. Much of what goes on in that world isn’t written in any book but is well known to those who live in theater. It a surprise, each time, to discover that what is obvious to insiders is hardly known to those who are not in the loop.

The words used in Broadway casting notices are descriptive. For singers, sometimes there is a specific explanation of what the voice needs to be, what pitch range it will cover and what the style of music being sung will be. Sometimes a description also includes aspects of the character’s personality or motivation that will be reflected in the songs.

Let me state emphatically that after going through hundreds of casting notices for professional (union sanctioned) musicals that go back nearly four decades at no time did I encounter the use of the descriptive word “twang” to describe belting. The word used most often was, and is, brassy, like a trumpet. I repeat, the word twang is NOT used on Broadway. It is used in Nashville. A recent album of  George Strait’s, called “Twang”, starts with a song that begins with the lyrics, “Gimme little bit country, gimme little bit twang”. If you teach belting using the word twang, and people do, it is an inaccurate term.

Let me also say that words like belt, mix, and legit continue to appear, alone and in conjunction with other words, here and there in casting notices all along, right up to the present moment. These words are traditional, they have a meaning in sound and they are accepted as universal descriptors in the theatrical community. Which, for those who don’t know, is commercial theater. That is contrasting with not-for-profit theater. Both are artistic endeavors of the highest order, only the legalities are different.

If research is to be done on CCM styles as found on Broadway (and I certainly hope it will be), then it is important to know and accept the criteria established by that community for itself. It is not for outsiders to decide what it is or isn’t. Research conducted on college campuses or in laboratories far from the theatrical world is like research done on animals in zoos or labs — not particularly useful. Animal behaviorists go to the animals’ habitats to study their behaviors in their natural environment. Voice researchers studying singers, not so much. Too bad.

And, as a sidebar, Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts has music categorized in terms of genre. They are: blues, country, gospel, hiphop, jazz, metal, musicals, pop, R&B/soul, rock, US folk, electronic. Others are Latin-pop, raggae, raggaeton, salsa, world. (Classical music is organized as opera and non-opera. (I love it). There’s also instrumental music that’s classical).

If the greatest music library in the world says that there are these different styles and organizes its vast musical resources this way, I think it is fair to say that the idea that there are lots of Contemporary Commercial Music styles is not so strange. And, for those who say “commercial” is something bad, come to Broadway and see for yourself — you don’t know what you are talking about!

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