If there are two patron saints of musical theatre actors who have to finesse their singing, they are Rex Harrison and Elaine Stritch. Harrison was famous for suavely delivering songs in a manner that suggested singing but was much closer to talking, though with a trickier cadence. Stritch, whose gravelly voice inspired Gerard Alessandrini to whip up a Forbidden Broadway parody of her style—sample lyric: "I was classy as Dee Hoty, now I always play a throaty bitch"—is a triumph of technique over tools. Director Randy Brenner, who is currently working on Stephen Schwartz's new musical Snapshots, notes, "Elaine Stritch is not a great singer, [but] she can sort of scream on some sort of musical pitch, and she's such a great actress that the voice becomes secondary." It's an extreme case, but inspiring, in a way. It turns out you don't have to have a magnificent voice to be in a musical; you just have to figure out how to use the one you've got.
"For me, singing is sustained speech," says Gerald Sternbach. His duties as music director for L.A.'s Reprise! Broadway's Best series, as well as for various benefits at which the celebrated lend their throats, have brought him into contact with many performers called upon to warble when it might be something they have either never done or made a point to avoid. Sternbach continues, "I really don't think that singing and speaking should be separate or come from separate organic mechanisms." To him it's about trying to get people comfortable with speaking in the tone. If you give it energy and sustain the pitch, you're home free. Many a time has the tremulous performer claimed an inability to sing only to be shown the error of the assumption. "I definitely have had [the] experience of people who were afraid of certain high notes…speaking in the tone and then blowing people away," Sternbach says with no small pride.
Voice coach Derek Graydon—who can be reached at (323) 656-9356—who has worked with Barbara Feldon and Dame Judi Dench when they needed to prepare for a turn on the musical stage, says, "I believe anyone can sing"—provided one takes the time to work on the voice. Most people are comfortable in the middle part of their voice, so that's where Graydon begins to tune the instrument. By taking his students up and down the scales, he works on getting the breaks out—those places where the voice makes a noticeable change in tonal quality. "When you even out that voice, the range will give more on the top and the bottom," Graydon explains. "And that's the way that I work. You learn as you teach, and I learned a lot." There's more to it than that, but Graydon has honed his technique, described by him as "bel canto…but I used a bit of Graydon," over many years—and he's not about to give away the store.
"Fear cripples," says award-winning director and actor Nick DeGruccio (www.nickdegruccio.com), who considers himself, as a performer, to be a package of which singing is a part but not his strongest point. Lack of confidence is one of the biggest stumbling blocks an actor can encounter when it comes to singing. DeGruccio recalls an experience when he was directing The Laramie Project for the Colony Theatre and the Laguna Playhouse. "I had a group of actors: Some of them could sing, a couple of them couldn't," he says. "And I put a hymn in the show. I wanted them to sing a hymn and do it in harmony." It turned out not to be as simple as it sounds. "I had a couple of guys who were—it's like I put them on a firing squad. They were horrified…coming in to learn how to sing, and they could barely get their voices out." It was apparently the first time any of the actors had sung onstage. In a bit of directorial sleight-of-hand, DeGruccio presented it as an acting problem, asking, "Why are we singing this hymn? Why are you standing here holding a candle singing this hymn and for what reason?" He explains how framing the situation differently produced the desired result: "As soon as you adjust to that, you're not afraid anymore. You're there for a reason, you want your voice to be counted for a reason. So that's where they went. By the time we opened, they were out there and singing and getting the part."
Sternbach has had more than his share of recalcitrant songbirds. "My belief is that most people sing better than they think they do," he contends. "I really don't believe that people are actually tone-deaf. I've worked with people…who thought they were tone-deaf, but they aren't. It's just really about listening, and listening is an integral part of communication, as well." This makes it sound a lot more like acting than singing. He elaborates, "If you have an objective about what you are singing, then if you make that your job, make that your objective, then you have no time to be afraid." This has often proved to be the key. "I definitely feel that it always wins," says Sternbach. "And I think most people, if they can get to the objective of what they're communicating, they can forget about the fear, or at least release the fear as much as they can."
It also helps to have some sort of background in music. Rhythm and timing should not be foreign concepts, and if you have learned to play an instrument, and thus to read music, so much the better: That musical savvy will be required for what is to come.
It's a Team Effort
Director, actor, and acting coach Joshua Finkel (www.joshuafinkel.com) emphasizes that the actor is not alone but working in tandem with the music director—a person who can work all manner of minor miracles. "Everyone wants the show to be the best," he says. "No one wants the show to suck." The music director and, if you're working on a show in development, the composer have a vested interest in creating the best possible production. "Even in working with the most famous of composers, I have never been in a situation where they won't work with the skills that show off the actor," says Finkel. "If they have this group of actors and that's what's available, it's useful for them to have their score show up the best it can in that particular group." He notes that the musical powers-that-be can "alter a chord transition or two if they want the newly transposed or altered key of the upcoming solo or duet to fit the preorchestrated setup in the score. That way the song is done in the actor's preferable key, and no one will really know the difference from the smooth lead-in to that solo." Music is written in song, not stone, and can be finessed to fit the performer's voice if necessary.
Finkel recently participated in a reconception of the musical Amour for Goodspeed Musicals, in the role of the Painter. The lyricist, Jeremy Sams, was present, as was composer Michel Legrand, though to a lesser extent from across the ocean. Finkel says it was a creative period during which "we were trying to make these exact kinds of transitions, and we were playing with keys all the time." When it came to his solo, "The Street Painter's Song," Finkel says, "We tried it in three different keys, and the one we settled on ended up being down a half step from the score." It was the best decision for all. "It was just one of those things where I could have sung it up a half step, but where the song fit in my voice, coupled with how I was blocked [sitting on a box for the majority of it], I was so grateful to know that I could relax into it and not panic. It knew it would be in my voice; I could count on it. I could totally float the end instead of having to kind of be in my head and think about it. I really recommend that process and thank any composer and director that's willing to work with the actor…so the moment is what is important and what shines."
Things were a bit different when it was somebody else's song, however. Working with the leading lady's solo, they changed the key to fit her voice, which brought the previous quartet song, in which Finkel was singing, up a half step. It put Finkel, a baritone, into a tenor range—a tad high for his voice. "I found a way to finesse it," he says. "I found a way to hit the note instead of sustaining it, sort of hit and speak it on pitch, instead of holding it for four beats as it was written. I chose to hold it for two beats instead and then lay into something where my voice shone. No one knew the difference, and the chosen altered rhythm totally fit the percussive madrigal-like style of the quartet."
This is the bête noir of the actor who sings: that big high note you know you're going to have to stand on a stage and hit, preferably with your arms raised so people feel they're getting their money's worth. "The most common problem is the need to feel like you need to sing when you can't," says Brenner. "And of course if you do, you're going to sound terrible. And you actually have to say to the person, 'Thank you for the attempt of trying to sing that note, but, to be honest, it doesn't sound good, and I'd rather you talk it than sing it.'" And so one gets to employ certain tricks, which, in the right hands, come off as rakish charm. "There are certain notes that actors can't hit…that technically should be sustained, but you'll just have them hit and it and get off of it," Brenner says.
Though the actor may skillfully execute this bit of musical legerdemain, chances are the orchestra has not made the same stylistic choice. "If there's music [afterward], you have to give [the actor] business to do to fill that phrase, or you have them make some sort of vocal sounds or laugh or something," Brenner explains. "You'll find that a lot of nonsingers will do that; they'll hit the big note, then go, 'Hah, hah, hah! Hah!' And that sort of finishes out the phrase."
Finkel used a subtler bit of fudging when he was cast as Curley in his high school's production of Oklahoma!. His voice was not the trained dynamo it has since become, and the high F Curley needed was not in Finkel's range. "So the end of 'People Will Say We're In Love' has a high F-sharp, and normally Laurey sings it. She's a soprano so she had it, then I sing it, and normally I just sing the end, she sings it all the way through, sings the solo, and the end of the song is me singing all the way through, and I end the song," he recalls. "And what we did was, on the last phrase, that included 'They'll see it's all right with me, people will say we're in love,' she joined me, she took the high F-sharp, and we found an alternate harmony. It still worked dramatically for what was happening, and it was beautiful harmonically. Who cares?" He then qualifies that last statement: "You certainly have to worry about and know in advance what is flexible and what is not. Certain shows come with [a] "you-may-not-change-a-note-of-this" score. You hopefully don't get into kind of legal battles that way."
If you are cast in a musical, it is assumed you will work hard and take care of yourself: get lots of rest, drink lots of water, cut back on visits to the wine aisle at Trader Joe's—that sort of thing. But if you find your best efforts are falling shy of the mark, avail yourself of a vocal coach. If you don't know one, your music director can likely suggest a few. It's not cheap—Graydon charges $100 per hour and says that's reasonable for the field—but much can be achieved, probably in less time than you think. Graydon says he can start getting the breaks out of a voice within half an hour and is no stranger to the singer who comes in with the wrong training. He recently coached a woman with opera training who within one lesson said she "couldn't believe the difference," and it was the opposite of what she had been previously taught. In another instance a young actor came to brush up when he was cast in a musical, and after the initial struggle—ego, it turns out, is one of the male singer's primary problems—Graydon told him to just shut up and listen. Within two lessons his fellow actors were remarking on the improvement.
When DeGruccio was in a production of Working, he found he had to stand alone on a stage and sing a ballad. "I worked hard on that one to train my voice, because it was high," he says. Still, it took only three or four times with a coach to nail it. "But I would take the tape home and work through[out] the week in my car or whatever. It's a muscle, so it's like working out…. And there is a response. Your vocal cords respond. A note that I couldn't hit three weeks ago I was hitting."
"It's all about the moment shining in the show and serving the play and whatever it takes to make that happen so that everyone's comfortable," Finkel says of the experience of being a part of a musical production. "And everyone's working hard: The actor's working to stretch his range and hopefully easily sing that portion of the score; the musical director's working hard to make it work; and hopefully the composer's willing to compromise some transitions and keys to have the show shine. That spirit of collaboration and compromise will definitely serve the play, and that ultimately is the most important thing. That ease of a seamless and powerful piece is what the audience will remember, not that he sang it down one half step."
Oh, and one more thing. Janet Miller, whose extensive career as a director has brought her into contact with a few musical theatre leads whose sole qualification was a pulse, shares this bit of hard-earned knowledge: "Make sure you learn your first song well. Once the audience loves you, they'll forgive anything." BSW