You Sound "Too Broadway"

Recently Betty Buckley, great diva of much Broadway fame, slammed Randy Jackson of Idol about his use of “you sound too Broadway” as a putdown. She was, rightly, outraged that this man should assume that “sounding Broadway” was in any way bad.

Broadway includes all styles and has for quite some time now. A great many of today’s shows are rock oriented and it takes a lot of skill and experience to sing rock music, full out, eight times and week, while being someone else. You have to sing it in the keys the production allows, you have to do it with an orchestra and a conductor, so there isn’t much room for improvisational change. You must sing with a body mike, not a hand held mike, and there are no monitors. You must make all your “marks” for staging on time and you have to wear what the character wears, not clothes that suit your fancy (al la Lady Gaga or Madonna). There aren’t too many of the singers on Idol who could go into a Broadway show and not self-destruct unless it was someone who had already been in a musical or had had training to deal with those parameters as a performer.

What makes Idol so awful (and yes, it is awful) is that it is SO limited and that there are no judges there that actually understand SINGING. This is a reflection of the lack of cultural education across the board now for several generations of Americans, but it is fed by the judges who seem to be just about as uneducated and unsophisticated about vocal expression as the audience. Maybe they know what “sells” but that’s not the same as understanding the capacity to sing.

If we lived in a culture that wasn’t built on “he who makes the most money wins” as a mentality, and had some clue as to what makes life worth living (certainly, getting rich and having a lot of stuff isn’t high on that list), we would have respect for a wide variety of singers and singing, representing a broad appreciation for music and culture. That our most popular form of vocal music has been reduced down to a limited number of elements is just sad. I truly believe that Aretha Franklin would not have a career if she were starting out today. She was overweight, plain and unsexy and had little “PR” spin to her. She was only good at one thing, and she was better at it than anyone else has been for a very long time. She could dance but she wasn’t a dancer. She could capture and audience but it wasn’t by wearing next to no clothing. She just stood there (or sat, if she played the piano) and SANG. She still does that all these decades later.

The few current pop singers who have something substantial to offer are truly wonderful in many ways, but even these people do not understand what it takes to be in live theater, without electronic modification (except for volume) depending on your throat and body alone. I wonder what Beyonce or Rihanna would be like in Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar or Next to Normal?

I stand with Betty Buckley on this one. The world might be a better place if more people appreciated the singers on Broadway just exactly because they are who they are, doing what they do.

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4 thoughts on “You Sound "Too Broadway"”

  1. I have to disagree on a couple things here, Jeanie. Although I admitedly have never performed in a Broadway Musical, I do believe that all the cast members most likely wear In-Ear monitors today. I know that when I did a large local/regional show in 2000, all the leads wore them. I would have to think that advancement has made it to Broadway for sure.

    Also, although all the styles sung on American Idol are of the pop variety, a great many styles of CCM singing are represented. Pop, Rock, Country, R&B, Gospel, and yes, even more theatrical sounds like Adam Lambert. So, to say that American Idol is very limited, isn’t completely correct.

    The problem with it is that it is still a mass popularity contest. In fact, many times the judges actually “get it right,” in my opinion when America “gets it wrong” by the way they vote. Case in point… Adam Lambert was simply too over-the-top to capture the “middle school girl vote.”

    I do agree, however, that Randy was out of line with his comment, which showed his ignorance of what Broadway singing really is. Which is basically anything and everything. Heck, an AI alum is currently enjoying success in Rock of Ages. That’s a Broadway show.
    Jeff Costello

  2. Dear Jeff:

    Sorry to say, but this time you are wrong. Just to be sure that I am not incorrect, I went to a Broadway conductor, and he, too, checked with some else who would know. This is what he said:

    Regarding the in-ear monitors, I believe you are correct, but I checked with a sound designer friend to make sure. He said that, while such monitors are commonplace in pop music performance, they are rare in musical theatre, even in rock shows. The only exceptions tend to be if a singer is inside of some encumbering contraption that interferes with their hearing (e.g. the plant in Little Shop, or the dragon in Shrek). Otherwise, they are just wearing mics.

    So, this time Jeff, you have to let the Broadway expert be what she is.

    And, it’s not that the Idol winners can’t manage a Broadway show, it’s that they have to really adapt. My guess is that if we checked with them, they would say “I had no idea!!”

  3. Jeanie,
    I am very surprised to learn this. Virtually every touring act playing to anything more than 200 seat venues uses them today, including my rock band. I would have thought that Broadway theaters would have been onboard by now. Surprising. I wonder if it’s a physical space issue given the fact that space is at a premium in Manhattan.

  4. It has nothing to do with physical space, Jeff. It has to do with old traditions, with theater and with the nature of live performance. No one really wants to see a microphone while someone is on stage performing as a character in a musical play. I’m sure they are quite capable of using stage monitors as well as in-ear monitors, but it’s just not done.

    Tradition in theater is very powerful. Things are the way they are because they have been and that’s that. I don’t think it will change anytime soon.

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