Sunday, March 27, 2005

Has Broadway lost its voice to American Idol?

Ben Brantley of the NY Times writes >this spot-on analysis of today's Broadway vocals.

But he gets the source of the problem wrong. It is not American Idol (of which I'm a big fan) that started this trend toward big, loud, fancy, but generic is Andrew Lloyd Webber. American Idol has only been on 4 years now. But loud, pop-style pop-belting has been a staple on the Broadway stage for almost 20 years.

The problem started when everyone thought they had to sound, or find singers that sound like Elaine Paige. Webber's original pop belting diva had what was at the time a unique sound: a clear, strong, break-free voice...the kind that sounds like a bell, but not particularly human. And she was playing iconic characters...Grizabella, Evita. Look, I don't recall anyone ever raving about her acting talent...she just sang the hell out of things. (Note: I've never seen her live but have loved many a recording.)

For a while people sought the Paige-style of voice, but could handle more idiosyncratic performers...Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, even Frances Ruffelle (original Eponine)...these women were not bland or homogenous. But female "stars" of late seem vocally indistinguishable. That "signature" pop-belt sound, is no longer any one person's signature. Somewhere in the last 5-10 years the individual charms of a performer became subordinated to simply getting the vocal effect. Brantley's comparison of Idina Menzel vs. Kristen Chenoweth, for example, is absolutely perfect.

I think it's a mistake to look outward to American Idol as the cause of Broadway's retreat from performing into mere singing. Broadway should look inward: why is every big number written in a key that requires full-on belting, as just one example? Let me tell you as a belter, if composers write a song to rest in the B, C, D range, they are going to be limited to casting women who have exactly the kind of pop belt that supposedly we're tired of. Sure songs can pop up there: Ethel Merman's money note was up there in the B or C range...her money note...the big note at the end. But the songs sure as hell didn't rest up there. That takes an entirely different kind of singer and different style of singing.

So, I agree there is an old vs. new Broadway singing...I just disagree it started with American Idol (exacerbated by it maybe.)

Lastly, I want to give Brantley (and America I suppose) credit for recognizing that last year's American Idol winner, Fantasia, had her own unique sound and approach to singing. She actually was the sole singer last year who could sing within a wide range of dynamics...soft and loud had equal support and quality. She approached every song as though it was her own personal story to tell. I have always used Bernadette Peters as an example of singing with subtext. Watching Peter sing you always knew there was something very specific and very substantial going on beneath the surface of every song. You didn't necessarily have to know what that something was, but you felt that she was telling you something deeply personal. Fantasia has the same ability. When she sang Always on my Mind or Summertime there was a depth to her performance that no other AI contestant has ever achieved. In fact she was so head and shoulders above the crowd, in a way it's surprising she won! She's almost a throwback...more like Bernadette than Whitney! Well, OK, a very Aretha kind of Bernadette.

Anyway, Broadway, know thyself.

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