Cheeseburgers A La Mode

How can you know about Broadway and about music theater on Broadway if you have never been in New York and never seen even one Broadway musical?


That sentence boggles my mind.

I guess if you have seen a good professional quality “Broadway” show in your closest big city or town, with a cast that has substantial credits from New York, LA or London, or perhaps from Chicago or some other big city, then that would be better than nothing, but if you have never BEEN IN such a show yourself or at least been in a show with someone else who was, you wouldn’t be privy to the “lore” of theater. You wouldn’t know “what’s done” that isn’t written in any book. You wouldn’t have the experience of learning by being in the world of theater people (a special and unique experience). As is true in any field, when you “live the life” you pick up things by osmosis. You hear things and see things you couldn’t encounter anywhere else. Is there a substitute for that? I don’t think so. School, however, absolutely does not qualify.

These days, because there is so much influence from “outside” throughout “show business” and “entertainment”, you can easily find people directing, producing, and yes, “starring in” musicals even on Broadway who have NO experience of any kind in music theater, and likely no training. This is supposed to be a good thing, bringing in “fresh ideas” and “new audiences”, but only once in a while is that true. More often than not these people have no clue what’s good and what’s lousy because they have no background. They stick out and the productions they effect stick out as being less than wonderful. Chicago, for example, cares not who walks on that stage, so long as the person has a “name”. I’ve seen some pretty awful performances in that show, but it makes money, so the producers don’t care. Other people in the business, however, have very different opinions. It’s as if you ask people who have grown up exclusively eating cheeseburgers and cokes to create the menu in a gourmet restaurant. Cheeseburger a la mode anyone?

I have seen musical productions here in the New York City area, at some of our institutions of higher learning, where students were being trained in “music theater” programs, where most of the faculty had little or no music theater experience, and I have been unsurprised, but nevertheless disappointed, to find these performances very lackluster, unmusical or just plain unprofessional. If you spend upwards of $200,000 to send your child to a four-year training program that professes itself to be professional in calibre and your child was directed in a musical by someone who couldn’t sing, had never sung, didn’t know music, was not musical, and had no experience being in a music, but was nevertheless the person in charge of the program, would you be happy about that? Cheeseburger a la mode anyone?

If you are someone who has never bothered to come to New York City or go to London to see a genuine, real, actual Broadway or West End musical, and you also teach music theater songs to your students, I strongly advise you to get on a plane and get to one of these two places with enough money to see as many musicals as possible right away. I also urge you to purchase all the DVDs of Broadway performances that you can find and watch them. You can’t count watching movie musicals unless they are actual replications of the show (like “The Producers”), as they bear little or no resemblance to their staged counterparts.

All the telltale marks of those who do not know show up in the performances of their unfortunate students who come to New York not knowing they have been trained inadequately. The vocal and musical behaviors that belong in professional music theater could be completely absent. You can tell these students immediately, as soon as you hear them, and you will know right away — “teacher was classical”. Over-pronunciation of the consonants, very abrupt pitch changes at all times, more emphasis on vocal production than on conveying the meaning of the lyrics, singing a song in head register that was meant to be belted, standing absolutely still from the shoulders down, as if the singing came from the neck and head alone, etc. I see this over and over. If you actually GO to a Broadway musical, even just an “Encores” presentation that has no set or costumes, you will not EVER see these things or hear them, in the people up there on stage.

Some people have never seen even one musical on Broadway, and THEY TEACH MUSIC THEATER!!!

No, I don’t like cheeseburgers a la mode.

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4 thoughts on “Cheeseburgers A La Mode”

  1. I keep loving your posts despite the severe “classical-bashing”. The bad unmusical teaching or preparation is rampant in Academia period, not just relative to Musical Theater training. I’ve taught in several of those schools which is why I never will again. I fear you lose the point when you blame it on classical though! There was a time when great musicians understood style, when the same singer could sing an aria and turn around and belt out a musical theater standard. Nowadays we get unmusical singers on Broadway and at the Metropolitan Opera both. Look, great theater is great theater whether it’s a stunning production of Verdi’s Macbeth or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Kiss me Kate or Taming of the Shrew. However great “Music Theater” (whether opera or musical theater)depends on people who understand the marriage of words and music in a theatrical context. Theater people were not meant to be so specialized. We were meant like good Vaudevillians to be versatile and understand every aspect of the production. Now we have opera or musical theater directors who do not read music, and singers who know nothing about the composers or lyricists they are attempting to interpret. Bernstein, Sondheim, Bock, Rogers, etc, were/are classically trained composers. I think we have a lot of common concerns. And I’ll say again, particularly in this ridiculous economy, we have a chance to put our efforts together (Music Theater people of all ilks) to reform the academic training process, hold university programs responsible for the piss-poor product they are putting out and the industry for its money-driven artless and superficial drab that they refer to as professional productions. We will get nowhere if we are still in-fighting about the merits of classical music theater vs. Musical theater. Never forget that what we know as Musical Theater has its roots in Opera.

  2. I look forward to your posts and am usually 100% in line with your thoughts. This post is a little different. I’m one of those who has not been fortunate enough to have the resources to see a “real live Broadway Show on Broadway”. I have seen some excellent National Tours and I have devoured Original Cast recordings. I’ve been in some excellent community productions directed by folks who did have professional NYC experience. It’s second hand knowledge, but for some of us it is the best we can get. I think your point is that some of us don’t even try to understand various genres, we just assume our take on them will be fine. I’ve never been to the MET but I’ve listened to the live broadcasts ever since I could dial them up on the radio. One of these days I hope to experience the real things….a great play, a great Broadway musical, a great off-broadway show, a real cabaret act at a real club……Till then I’ll keep listening, watching videos, reading reviews….
    Keep those posts coming!

  3. I have to say.. i linger on the “classical-bashing” Jeanie! (it’s fair, honest and long over due. However in the vocal pedagogy world, there will ALWAYS be more than one opinion!
    I was more impressed by the fact that Jeanie is a world traveler and continues to mention OTHER musical theater training and musical theater locations, such as London, etc. Indeed New York is Musical Theater central, however there is MORE than just New York and the U.S. Great stuff Jeanie – always thinking out of the box in EVERY way. This woman is the BEST.. No wonder the whole world knows about her!
    Keep those brilliant post’s comming.

  4. The people in Champagne, France are suing the people in California about their use of the term “Californian Champagne”. The French believe that the only real champagne can come from that specific region in France and that everything else, even if the same grapes are used, is just a copy.

    The people in Las Vegas built an Eiffel Tower that is an exact replica of the one in Paris. If you are an American visiting Vegas, I guess you could say you know what the Eiffel Tower looks like, as you saw it’s miniature, but that could not possibly be the same as going to the real one in gay Paree.

    You can’t substitute something else for the original, even though the substitute may be very good. You were either at the World Series game when your team won or you weren’t there and saw it on TV. Is it the same thing?

    I’m sorry, as I know I make everyone outside New York City angry by being geo-centric, saying that “there’s NYC and then there is the rest of the country”, but I can’t help that this is just what’s so. You can’t put Yosemine in Manhattan and you can’t have Broadway in Texas. It’s not meant to say that what is out there, all over, isn’t good, but if you are going to teach French cuisine and you have never ever been to France, do you really understand what you are trying to give to others? It’s worth the thought, at least.

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