Very Good, OK, Not So Good, Bad

I attended a benefit performance at Joe’s Pub last evening. The cause was breast cancer research (a very good cause), the producing group was Broadway World and the honored artist was composer Jule Styne. The performers were drawn largely from the Broadway community.

Unfortunately, the evening was very uneven. It was generous of all the performers to give their time but some of the singing was very questionable. One would think that all professionals would do better than “so-so” but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.

I am not interested in reviewing each vocalist by name, so if you weren’t there or you haven’t seen it on the web, you won’t know who sang what, and that’s fine with me. I am not looking to comment on the individuals involved but on their vocal presentations. That’s what this blog is about – singing.

The opening number, “Don’t Rain On My Parade”, was more or less yelled by the young woman singing. It carried with it today’s idea that loud is good, very loud is better and extremely loud without vibrato is best. There was little connection to the emotion of the song and no effort whatsoever to perform it. [This is what comes of being told by well-meaning but wrong-headed teachers: stand still and sing the song.] She needs to see Streisand’s film. The next number was sung by a seasoned Broadway veteran who is known for her loud rock style. She was clearly out of her comfort zone with “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry” but she followed this by a very flat rendition of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” while reading the lyrics, attempting to play the drums and basically throwing the song away. Clearly, she had given this evening’s performance zero forethought. She also didn’t know that Styne wrote the music, not the words. Gee.

Then we had several vocalists in a row sing with variations of wobble, pitch problems and no clear clue about style. These singers weren’t bad but they weren’t good, either. Why would you stand up in front of any New York audience and sing off pitch as a professional? “Three Coins In The Fountain” isn’t a difficult song. It’s not rangy, it’s not melodically complicated and it isn’t emotionally chaotic. Nailing the pitches ought to be a given, but I guess not at that performance. Point of view about the song? Beats me. “People” was sung nicely. That helped make up for “Three Coins”.

Ditto big belty numbers from Gypsy, Styne’s most well known show. When your vibrato covers a whole step, maybe it’s time to re-think your vocal production. Gutsy, yes. Committed, yes. Musical, not so much. Everything wasn’t Coming Up Roses. No.

Then, finally, someone who understood the song, knew how to sing it, gave a great performance and absolutely belonged up there. “All I Need Now Is The Girl” can be hard to do without the dancing but the fellow didn’t need to add anything to make the song come to life. It was a relief.

The evening was dominated by women, but another young man did a decent job with his first song, “Time After Time”. Very acceptable rendition. The second song was just a mistake to include. He accompanied himself (sort of) on guitar and seemed embarrassed to sing “Let It Snow” in May. Too bad. Charming young performer, though.

One of the  two “big names” also fell into the category of the earlier singers: loud is good and louder is better but really loud is ultimately the most impressive. If you don’t consider why the song wants you to get louder and where the breaths ought to go in order for the lyrics to make sense, you can only get so far on impressiveness for its own sake. “His Is The Only Music That Makes Me Dance” is a very lyrical, soaring song that needs to be sung, really sung. Uneven vowels and phrasing and indeterminate vocal production do not meet that demand. There was a big ovation as there always is for loud singing but I was quite disappointed. From this artist, in particular, this song should have been so much better than it was. In order for that to have happened, however, it would have needed to be deconstructed and re-examined as the fine song it is and done from a much more detailed, honest place. Being well-known can be a deadly trap.

Then, a younger woman came out and did a lesser known song about Jelly Roll Morton and was quite wonderful. Direct, clear, simple and with just the right amount of pizzazz. It, too, was a relief.

And THEN, we were allowed the great gift of hearing Anita Gillette (whose name deserves special mention) sing “The Party’s Over” and got to see what the real deal about that song and that cabaret evening was. It was in a class by itself and deservedly so. She redeemed the whole evening with that one piece.

Toward the end of the evening a lovely young vocalist came out and did a very sweet first verse of “Just In Time” from the same show, Bells Are Ringing. The second verse, though, turned into a kind of rock/pop/jazz version which made no sense, especially since the musicians stuck to a straight swing beat for the whole song. This artist has a great voice, pretty belty, but freely produced and expressive, but her musical sense was just off.

At the end we got to listen to some wonderful theater stories from Anita Gillette as she was answering questions. To finish the evening, the audience was invited to sing along on “Together” from Gypsy by someone from Broadway World who came out in an orange baseball cap. He was extremely awkward, embarrassing to watch and spoke much too long about things that had nothing whatsoever to do with the evening. In fact, beyond the fact that the banner about breast cancer research was up, nothing about that very important topic was mentioned at all. It was just weird.

There was a director of this show and a musical director, too. You have to wonder, what did they do? The whole thing had a kind of “thrown together” atmosphere, as if they did a talk-through with the musicians and then winged it. Too bad. People deserved better.

Just because someone has been on Broadway, you can’t assume they know how to approach songs they don’t normally sing, in a style they don’t typically perform and someone ought to be in charge of some kind of minimum standard for the performers who are going out before a paying public (in a packed house). I guess no one was.

I write this review because I often wax elegant about what is here in New York to hear, as if all performances were of the highest quality. That’s not so. I also write this because I want people who are not in New York to understand that even here, there are people who have had successful careers in the entertainment industry who really do not understand how to sing well, or maybe don’t care about singing well, even when they call themselves professional singers. It’s never a guarantee and it is always a surprise when they are not so good.

That’s why, when you find something terrific in all directions it’s pretty special, wherever you are. When it’s not, it’s best to “let it go”. After writing this, I am.



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