The Sound of Money

Many of you will have watched last evening’s Sound of Music on NBC starring Carrie Underwood, Stephen Moyer, Audra McDonald and Laura Benanti.

Regardless of how you feel about the movie with Julie Andrews or the original play with Mary Martin, this production was a big deal, drawing 18 million viewers, making NBC very very happy. It matters not a bit how the production was perceived by the critics, as the only thing NBC was looking to discover was “who would watch”. Given these numbers it will be considered a “smash hit” by the TV Execs and that’s all they care about.

The artistic quality, of course, is something very different to discuss and it can be argued both ways – that it was an artistic achievement of quality or that it was artistically a disaster of rather big proportions. There were plenty of both of these opinions on the blog-o-sphere. Carrie Underwood is a very good belter, but she can only belt. No one seemed to care much about that, but I certainly did.

Belting as a vocal quality is loud, especially above A440. This quality arises out of powerful energy associated with passion, drama, declaration, and intensity. It can also be frightened or angry. It isn’t generally associated with tenderness, refinement, dignity, old-fashioned femininity, intimacy or purity. Hmmmmm.

We are enured to loud singing. It no longer represents “human” qualities, it represents loud singing for its own sake, as an end it itself. It no longer has any qualities associated with it, although “in real life” those qualities still exist, and it doesn’t carry any impact insofar as the volume because everything is controlled by the engineers. If the sound is loud, it can be softened, and if its soft, they can make it louder.

What the technical people cannot do is make the vocal quality be different. Only the vocalist can do that. There were a few times last night when Ms. Underwood sang in what would have had to have been called a head register quality so it theoretically exists, but she did not use it where it would have been expected. Instead, Maria became a belty little thing, brassy and bold like a cowgirl from Oklahoma mostly sans the accent.

The people who surrounded her, especially Ms. McDonald and Ms Benanti, who can sing in ANY vocal quality, were far superior in both acting and singing to Ms. Underwood, but sadly, they are nowhere near as popular or well known. Even Ms. McDonald, who has been on TV, is mostly known only to Broadway audiences/fans. An artist of her calibre, or of Ms. Benanti’s, standing alongside a newcomer who is making her debut in front of 18 million people, live, has to be both secure and kind hearted. They made Ms. Underwood look bad simply by being so experienced and professional. No one cared. Mr. Moyer was there, too, and he was OK, his singing was acceptable. The music he sings doesn’t ask for much, but he sounded the way many of them typically do. No obvious changes. (How about Michael Bolton as von Trapp?)

Mark my words, we have heard the very last of “legit” sounds for all Marias to come, particularly in a big, serious production. This TV show will change Maria forever into a belty role and the show will go on, in both forms perhaps (TV version and live theatrical show) to find new fans. The lack of appreciation in the general public for a well trained voice will continue to decline overall due to the lack of music education in school. Audiences just don’t know the difference. In fact, in ALL of the reviews and comments, absolutely no one mentioned this belting difference. It was of no importance to anyone, and that is a loss.

Maria wasn’t a washer-woman. She was not Ado Annie. She was sweet, naive and perhaps innocent. She was devout enough to want to enter a convent where her belting would have stuck out like a sore thumb.  Oops. Not important, not anymore. Too bad. Why was this ignored, aside from the above reasons?

Go back and take a look at what I wrote here two summers ago about “Annie Get Your Gun” at Glimmerglass, starring opera diva Deborah Voigt. Equally bad casting in reverse. Ms. Underwood would have made a fabulous Annie Oakley and maybe Ms. Voigt might have been a decent (if slightly older) Maria. She was able to get her voice to be lighter, but she just couldn’t belt and Annie was written for the quintessential belter, Ethel Merman. A country bumpkin in buckskins. Made sense that she was singing in that sound.

Quite some time ago, Donna Murphy played Anna in the last revival on Broadway of “The King and I” with Lou Diamond Phillips. Her acting was wonderful but her singing was beyond dreadful. (She has gotten better). She talk-belted her way through the entire role a quarter tone flat. It was truly awful. Again, Mrs. Anna was made to sound like a washer-woman. Given that she was a highly educated, dignified school teacher in that period of time, she would have sounded very different than someone from the lower social classes. Mr. Rodgers knew that and wrote music for the role which was expected to sound cultured and refined.

It kills the character to use the wrong vocal quality, but the people involved don’t care or don’t know (which is worse to contemplate). Why, actually, would they change a well-known role such that it makes it hard to accept the actor’s choices, no matter how strong they are?

It’s called PROFITS. It’s called “prime audience segment” (18 to 49 year olds). It’s called the Sound of Money. Ka-ching.

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10 thoughts on “The Sound of Money”

  1. I have been waiting for your review of the Sound of Music since it aired! I had to turn it off half-way through Carrie Underwood’s opening number, so I missed the stronger members of the cast. Your article gets at the heart of the fact that belting versus “legit” (I hate that term. Is belting illegitimate?) should be an intentional artistic choice that enhances our understanding of the character.

    If you’re right that this is the end of head-voice dominant Marias, that is beyond sad. But I suspect that the movie will live on, while this current incarnation will fade away fast.

  2. My thoughts exactly. And this production is just a single example of what we see everyday on Broadway. Is it any wonder that Kelly O’hara works constantly in show after show and is considered unique because she tends to largely avoid just this type of singing.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Jeanie. I’ve always had difficulty explaining to non-singers why vocal quality and style matter in singing, because it seems like people get automatically defensive in response to a critique of a singer that they like. (See also any of the tots that can sing “O Mio Babbino Caro” on TV programs.) As you’ve stated, no one should be saying that Carrie Underwood can’t belt well–of course she can. Belting just wasn’t what was needed in this case.

  4. This post popped up in my Facebook feed. I strongly agree.

    In fact, in ALL of the reviews and comments, absolutely no one mentioned this belting difference. It was of no importance to anyone, and that is a loss.

    “This belting difference” was exactly the thing that grated on me as I watched the trailer, and it’s part of why I didn’t watch the show. I haven’t reviewed it because I didn’t watch it, and I didn’t watch it because I knew from the trailer that I would have a hard time sitting through it. I’m not part of the big machine that makes these things happen, so maybe it doesn’t matter much. But I’m with you in believing in the importance of suiting voice to role. 🙂

  5. Only time will tell, Sarah. You never know how the TV show will go on……and what long term effects it will have. And, it’s true that “legit” positioned against “belting” makes belting somehow seem illegitimate, and that is probably because long ago, when the terms were coined in theater, that was the thought. Belting was a kind of shouting and not “real” singing, so in some way it was not legitimate. We should probably have a new terms but what would they be? Classical and non-classical? That never worked. Belting and non-belting. Hm. Loud singing and not-so-loud singing? Only time will tell, truly.

  6. What about head-dominant and belting? Or head-dominant and chest-dominant? Or maybe that doesn’t work since legit can be chest-dominant in the lower registers and belters use head voice sometimes.

  7. This may or may not provide information that might change anyone’s opinion, but: the original stage version was written for Maria to have a lower range. In fact the difference was (is) a full interval of a fifth. The version for Julie Andrews was especially transposed to fit her voice and it costs an enormous amount of money to rent the royalties for that part. I’ve never known a theatrical group to be able to afford it. The only “real” soprano role for stage was for the baroness and she wasn’t even a singerin the movie. In fact, the actress who played her in the movie just passed away a few days ago. It may be hard to tell sometimes, but I believe that Carrie Underwood, as a contemporary recording artists is an expert at using the much mis-defined “mix”, which is the ability to use the head voice register and make it sound like the more powerful chest register or belt. It’s taboo in classical teaching but very profitable in pop recording circles. Those who have mastered it almost NEVER have vocal problems. The majority, however are plagued with vocal problems and usually fade away quickly.

    1. Carrie Underwood is not singing in mix most of the time. She is always singing as a belter, a very good one, but a belter who can get lighter as necessary. Mix implies that the sound is more like Kelli O’Hara and Julie Andrews above B5 (the one next to A44) in that it takes on a different overall quality or texture. Even Audra goes to head mix at about about C6. Singing a lighter belt sound does imply that there is less pressure on the vocal folds and that the sound is correctly produced, but the long (implied) closed phase of the full depth of the vocal folds, coupled with the high transglottal airflow (support) generates what is still a speech oriented vocal production, and is therefore chest dominant. As such, it isn’t head register (or the upper edges of the vocal folds) that is influencing things, it is the combined components of vocal tract configuration and open/closed phase. This confusion, which is typically a big juggernaut for classically trained singers, catches people all the time because they confuse “bright” resonance with head register when it is, in fact, the chest register component in the sound that comes from the open/closed phase of the folds and the sound pressure level and not so much from the vowel sound configuration (although in a good singer that can also vary).

  8. Wow, Jeanie.
    Not only were you right about others doing it this way (belting) from now on, but it has happened incredibly quickly.

    Kelly Clarkson is currently belting her way through My Favorite Things on her NBC (coincidence?) Christmas Special right now.

    It’s quite “80s like” when folks sing high for the sake of singing high, in my opinion. Everything was over the top in the 80s, including the over abundance of high notes. It does seem as though the 80s styles and sounds are coming back around.

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