It’s Just Singing

Apparently the idea has grown on Broadway that singing is somehow the third step sister of the triple threat skills. This is a stronger belief now than it was years ago.

I don’t know why this is so, but it probably has to do with money, as what doesn’t? Many of the producers are business people who have money to invest. They like theater, but they may not know much about theater (either straight plays or musicals). They do not understand the crafts involved. They are impressed with the same “circus act” things that wow most people. That may be good for the bottom line but not so good for artistic values. Still, they have clout. They hold the purse strings.

If a dancer is injured, typically you can see that. A limp, a crutch, a bruise, a limit in movement. Acting skills can’t be injured, but the actor can be. His movement capacity or his ability to speak or sing can be decreased. Once in a show you have to be able to speak, but you don’t necessarily have to be able to sing. If you lose your voice and are in the ensemble you can just move your mouth. If you have a solo, and it has been previously recorded, you can mouth the words to your own voice. If you have a big part, you can perhaps manage with increased amplification, but if you have severe vocal problems, you just have to let the understudy go on.

Producers (the people who pay the bills) consider that you can learn to sing “in a few lessons” and that if you can “carry a tune” you can do the job. They don’t really consider the importance of vocal technique because they do not know what it is. The casting people may know and the music director surely knows, but maybe not anyone else who is doing the show knows, including the director. If he or she comes from film or TV, they may not know a thing about singing and that’s a problem. How can that be a good thing?

There are thousands upon thousands of actor/singer/dancers here in New York City. Many of them are not employed at any given time. It seems nearly impossible that the right combination of singing, dancing and acting for any specific role cannot be found, but sometimes that is the case. Then, an individual could be given a part even when they don’t really fill the criteria well. I have seen this done more times than I care to remember. The reasons given for this kind of decision are all over the map but they never make sense to a singer because I know what I hear in my studio. I know, too, that if the decision were left up to me, I would cast the person with the strongest ability to sing regardless of “the look” or the “type” they have.

I remember seeing Michael Hayden in Carousel at Lincoln Center years ago. Halfway through the show two elderly ladies behind me started whispering. One of them said to the other, “Don’t you think they could have found someone to play Billy who could sing?”I nearly turned around and agreed, because Mr. Hayden was a terrific actor but his singing was just above dreadful. Didn’t matter. He was applauded and lauded by everyone.

There are quite a few people on Broadway and Off who can barely sing but get by well enough. Sometimes the show doesn’t ask for really skilled singers. Sometimes the show doesn’t want really skilled singers (a rock show may not want a trained voice). Sometimes the show includes singing as an afterthought. (Oh, yeah, there are some songs in this show.)

If you come to New York City to be on Broadway and you have a really fine instrument and are very well trained, but you are only a so-so actor and can barely dance, you will not do well against someone who is terrific actor, who moves well but can barely sing. That person will get the job before you 90% of the time. Should not be so, but it is.

If the training programs in colleges took that into consideration, there would be equal amounts of dancing, singing and acting in all music theater degrees but that is clearly not the case. Each school, each degree is unique. The only way to discover if what you learn was what you needed to know is after you get here and go to auditions for real work. Then, you find out in a hurry, what you know and what you have and what you missed.

Here, unfortunately, you will find that much of the time, “It’s just singing”, and it’s no big deal. I think that’s a loss all the way around, but the Producers aren’t asking me for my opinion.

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2 thoughts on “It’s Just Singing”

  1. Perhaps the priorities of the producer reflect a general musical illiteracy in our cultures as well (a topic that I know if near to your own heart).

    In my first year teaching Intro to Western history, I used to use music as a way to talk about various historical, philosophical and religious developments (Renaissance: look it’s polyphony! Suffering of Christ: listening to these wrench moments from the St. Matthew Passion! Post-War anti-foundationalism: Schoenberg!) But I quickly stopped, because I realized that to my students any and all classical music sounds “relaxing.” They really can’t hear the difference between Gregorian Chant and the Mozart Requiem, both are equally relaxing.

    I felt so frustrated by their musical illiteracy, but also sad. The ear has to be trained and cultivated from childhood, and today’s young people (and apparently middle-aged people) just don’t have this kind of ear.

  2. Dear Sarah: You are correct, there isn’t much in our population in regards to sophisticated listening — to anything. Most people’s ears are tuned to top 40 radio stations and that’s about all. I, too, am sad that this opportunity (to learn about all things related to culture, including music and art) has been sacrificed. It is a terrible loss and adds to the decline of our society overall.

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