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Ambidextrous Acting: Moving Between Musicals and Plays

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"My life can be divided into B.D.B. and A.D.B.," says Kevin Chamberlin, currently starring in "Seussical" as Horton the Elephant. "That is, 'Before "Dirty Blonde" ' and 'After "Dirty Blonde." ' That's how much it changed my life."

Chamberlin may modestly credit the Claudia Shear-James Lapine show with elevating his stature in the New York theatre community, but the truth is he achieved his relatively newfound stardom the old fashioned way. He earned it. Anyone who saw him in "Dirty Blonde" last season, in which he fluidly shifted from character to character, must acknowledge that his performance was a tour-de-force. Obviously, the Tony Award nominating committee was impressed with his ability to play a roster of supporting characters, ranging from young to old and comic to tragic, and especially with his compassionate portrayal of the central role of Charlie, a part that, in other hands, might have been no more than a caricature of a nerdy cross-dresser. Chamberlin made each character real, and held his own against the stage-filling force of nature that is Claudia Shear—no easy task.

He only left "Dirty Blonde" to move to "Seussical," the $10 million musical juggernaut that is likely to earn him his second Tony nomination in as many seasons. It would not be entirely unprecedented for an actor to get nominated for a play and a musical in successive years (the late George Rose did it in the 1970s), but it is a rare accomplishment that speaks volumes about a performer's versatility.

Chamberlin has long been comfortable alternating between plays and musicals. His acting debut was as Huck Finn in a community theatre production of "Tom Sawyer," and during his high school years he played roles as diverse as Mr. Bumble in "Oliver," Sheridan Whiteside in "The Man Who Came to Dinner," and John Proctor in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."

He gained his Equity card in an unenviable way: playing Nicely-Nicely Johnson in a production of "Guys and Dolls" starring Donna Pescow and Joey Travolta, in Falmouth, MA, shortly before Equity "pulled the plug" on the theatre.

From there, Chamberlin trained mostly in straight plays, earning a B.F.A. in acting from Rutgers, where he studied under William Esper (with Calista Flockhart). "We didn't really do musicals," he says, recalling his college days, "except in student-run cabaret shows—really subversive stuff."

After school, he played in the then-popular play "The Foreigner" by Larry Shue. Not once, he says. "A lot." He also joined the resident company at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey, continuing to learn his craft under director Nagle Jackson.

His solid grounding in non-musicals, and his sight-reading ability ("I've never understood people in musical theatre who don't read music; it's a tool everyone should know") give Chamberlin a security when he plays a musical role, and even when he auditions for one. "I'm an actor who sings," he says. "I attack a song from an actor's standpoint. I never choose audition songs I can't act, where something doesn't happen." He doesn't worry too much about extending his vocal range, saying, "In my character type, there aren't many hard-to-sing roles. Nicely-Nicely maybe goes to a B-flat." Instead, he concentrates on bringing something else to a musical role.

"My belief is that everyone can sing," he says. "But not everyone can make you believe."

Seuss àla Molière

In "Seussical," Chamberlin says he is careful to avoid sounding excessively rhythmic. That may sound like an odd choice for a musical based on the writings of the late Dr. Seuss, who seemed unable to go more than four words without tossing in a funny rhyme, but, he says, "I compare Dr. Seuss with Molière. You want to de-emphasize the rhyme, not punch it up.

"As in Shakespeare, when you can hear the iambic pentameter—da DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH—you're not doing it right."

Although he sang in "Dirty Blonde," Chamberlin knows exactly why it is "a play with music" rather than a musical: "They don't sing their emotions," he says. "In musicals, characters sing their feelings. In 'Dirty Blonde,' we sang songs. It's different."

Whether in musicals, plays, or plays with music, Chamberlin just wants to keep performing. He knows he's lucky to be able to go from one form to another so easily, and has compassion for actors who aren't so fortunate.

"There are a lot of musical theatre people who are dying to do a play," he recognizes, "but this business tends to stereotype people and lock them into one thing." His advice for those trapped actors?

"Always consider yourself an actor first, and let everyone know it.

"Especially your agent."

Mike Salinas

Chuck Cooper is an actor who sings and a singer who acts. The talent and skills required for the musical actor and the straight actor, respectively, are interrelated, he stresses.

"The techniques that one uses to create a singing voice—breath, diaphragm, and voice placement—are the same techniques used to create a speaking voice on stage," he says. "And there's no way you can separate the emotional content from the technique in either singing or acting. Whether you're singing in a musical or acting in a straight play, you have to connect to the text and know what it is that you're trying to say. As an actor, I've learned the value of simplicity, trusting the words to say what they're supposed to. And that's true if you're singing lyrics or saying the lines in a play."

Cooper, who has appeared in all media, is best known for his Tony Award-winning stint in the musical "The Life." In regional theatre, he has done a fair share of Shakespeare. And his musical background, he points out, has stood him in especially good stead when he performs in the classics in general and Shakespeare in particular.

"Iambic pentameter is a musical form and you need to know when to take a breath. Generally, there's a musicality, a sense of rhythm in classical plays. Singing prepares you for that." He admits that, in contemporary plays, the connection between singing skills and acting skills is less obvious, with the exception of those modern works whose language is musical. Cooper cites the plays of August Wilson as an example. "His characters' speeches are like arias."

Always Listen

Whether an actor sings or speaks on stage, listening is the key, Cooper emphasizes. Yet, there are subtle differences. The way one listens (and to whom) shifts slightly, depending on genre and, equally important, the particular demands of the role. In straight acting, the need to listen to the others on stage is obvious enough. In singing, there are more variables, and perhaps more complexities.

"If you are singing a duet, you have to listen to the performer you are singing with," Cooper asserts. "If, on the other hand, you are singing a solo, you have to be especially in tune with the accompanist. Oftentimes, you get your pitch from the orchestra."

Cooper is first and foremost a classically trained actor. He earned his B.F.A. from Ohio University's professional acting program (Athens, Ohio). He started training in music only after his acting teachers "found that I could sing and sent me to the University's School of Music to study singing." Cooper trained in both singing and acting simultaneously, underscoring that, in his experience, "training is crucial to the actor's and singer's process. It shouldn't be short-changed."

Cooper's first professional theatre job was as a singing actor in the musical, "Mark Twain," presented by the children's theatre company, Performing Arts Repertory Theatre, now renamed, Theatreworks/USA. He notes frankly that he could easily have become typecast as a singer as opposed to an actor. But he has made a concerted effort for that not to happen.

"I don't want to be pigeon-holed and I do both—act in straight plays and sing in musicals. I have had the opportunity to move back and forth. I consider myself blessed!"

Simi Horwitz

If you missed actress Tovah Feldshuh starring as actress Tallulah Bankhead in "Tallulah Hallelujah!" at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre in New York, you missed seeing the versatile performer not only acting the role of the husky-voiced, bigger-than-life legend, but singing it as well—the perfect challenge for the multi-talented, award-winning actress-singer.

Feldshuh has portrayed other grand dames in the past, such as Sarah Bernhardt, Stella Adler, Sophie Tucker, and Katharine Hepburn. Her Broadway appearances include "Lend Me a Tenor" and "Yentl," and she has a recurring part on TV's "Law and Order." But her turn as Bankhead is the most fulfilling assignment of her career to date, requiring her to use all her talents.

"I wrote the play with Linda Selman and Larry Amoros, and the privilege of enacting that piece, both in cabaret form and on stage, was really unbelievable. The piece involved and harnessed everything I do, from cartwheels to musicalizing a text."

Feldshuh is also a frequent concert performer, so as the author of "Tallulah Hallelujah!," she made sure to include plenty of standards from songwriters such as Noël Coward, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Meredith Willson.

"This piece was spawned out of intimate, elegant cabaret. There is a tremendous amount of music in 'Tallulah Hallelujah!' Over a dozen standards from the American songbook were put in the show. I used music to propel the piece, and to make sure the audience shared a collective memory with me.

"So I sang a great deal, and it was hilarious. I sang like her; she didn't always hit the pitch, which was fascinating. I did everything she did, including sing badly. I eased up on that convention as the play went on because neither I nor the audience could withstand 14 songs sung like that."

Communicate Beautifully

The performer relates that, when a character can no longer speak and must break into song, the intensity of the piece rises. "To me, when you become proficient in this area, there is no difference between your dialogue and your singing. I think that inhabiting a song—really inhabiting the lyric—is the most important part of communicating it. Because it no longer depends on whether you can sing beautifully, it depends on whether you can communicate beautifully. Rex Harrison, Mabel Mercer, the great Julie Wilson, they're excellent communicators.

"So I think what you have to do is inhabit a character and communicate the song. That's your first obligation—not to sing it, communicate it. Learn your lyrics gently. Lie on your back, or in the tub, recite those lyrics until they enter you, explore the piece in its profundity. If you can inform a lyric with not only your intelligence and intuition, but the dimension of your insight, you will succeed."

The structure of "Tallulah Hallelujah!" incorporates an improvisational section with the audience, where Feldshuh is free to interact with theatre patrons. "It's a very dangerous and exciting piece. It employs every skill an actor has dreamed of using. Straight text, improvisation, the lyrics of our great composers. It uses comedy extensively, but, of course, there are many dramatic moments in the piece as well. And I loved it. It was the pinnacle of my life as an artist, up to now, creating and doing this piece."

Feldshuh actually began her artistic pursuits as a classical pianist at National Music Camp, but later switched to theatre and won the lead in "Little Mary Sunshine." "I knew there was promise somewhere in the arts for me. I said, 'That's it. I'm going to stick with acting!' And I did."

She attended Sarah Lawrence, and commuted into New York to study with Uta Hagen, her first acting teacher. Then Feldshuh received a McKnight Fellowship in Acting to the Guthrie Theatre. "I began my master's at the University of Minnesota while I was carrying spears and understudying all the size-seven leading ladies at the Guthrie." In her second season there, she was cast in a musical version of "Cyrano de Bergerac" starring Christopher Plummer, which ultimately ended up going to New York with her in the cast.

Feldshuh advises aspiring actors to strive for excellence above all else. "You've got a big conveyor belt in New York City, and when you audition, you want to stop the conveyor belt on you. And you want to do that when you're young. So good training is very important. I really have studied acting most of my life. I only stopped taking acting lessons a few years ago. But I studied with various private coaches. And I would never touch a part without going over it with a coach."

Elias Stimac

Opals, along with real money, peacock feathers, and Bibles, are traditionally considered unlucky on stage. But it's not just the different spelling that has made Nancy Opel immune to such superstition. In her case, it has to do with hard work and pure, unadulterated talent.

Opel's professional career began in musical theatre, playing Polly in "The Boyfriend" at age 16 in her hometown of Kansas City. Still, musicals were not initially part of the future she envisioned for herself. "I came to New York when I was 19 to go to Juilliard," she says, "I was in the drama division there. At that time, musical theatre was considered a lesser art form. It wasn't encouraged at all. I actually thought I would forswear my musical comedy roots and only do classic plays."

Opel credits her conservatory training as the foundation of her work as an actress. "We devoured Uta Hagen's 'Respect for Acting' and Stanislavsky. Sense memory was a big deal. We stared at imaginary coffee cups for months. We had classes in acting, voice, speech, and movement, like Alexander technique. The faculty put incredible pressure on us. It was definitely the tough love years at Juilliard. And it was great." Opel doesn't mean to imply, however, that conservatory training is a prerequisite to a career. "I think they are all things you can learn elsewhere; it just takes longer."

Ironically, Opel's first Broadway show was a musical. She was in the original cast of "Evita," and second understudy to Patti LuPone. She took over as the matinee Evita after the first year, and the role remains her favorite. "There was nothing like doing that part. I remember days I would get on stage with the flu or something and think 'I don't know how I'm going to get through this,' and still it never failed to be a fantastic experience."

Her next Broadway show proved equally memorable, though in a different way. In "Sunday in the Park with George," Opel played multiple roles, including Frieda, the cook, in Act I, and Betty, an artist, in Act II. "All in all, it was the most major kind of learning experience for me. 'Evita' had been presented in London, and a lot of the creative stuff had already been done. I was there on 'Sunday' from the beginning. We built that house from the foundation up."

Opel considers "Sunday" an atypical experience. "There was a lot of improv work, very unusual for a musical." In general, she says, there just isn't time for that. "One luxury of being in a play is the table work—the time that's taken to discover and work on the text. I'm not saying it's easier to do a play, but there's a lot more going on when you're putting on a musical. You have to learn the music and the dances or movement. So there isn't as much time spent on text."

From the Outside In

Opel has done five plays by David Ives. In one of them, "Mere Mortals," she used her musical theatre training to nail a difficult part. "I was playing David Mamet and addressing the audience. It was totally presentational—like much musical theatre. I was afraid of it, because there were some naughty words and naughty thoughts, and I'm playing a guy, who doesn't speak the way I do, doesn't act the way I do. I couldn't think of any internal route. There was no way I was going to find it from the inside out." So she came at it from the outside in. "The musical theatre technique of being out there, and not being afraid to just be out there, helped. Sometimes it's great to say 'Okay, I'm going to just put it out there and see what happens.' "

That's not to say she doesn't use her Juilliard training when performing in musicals. "Hopefully, whether you're in a play or a musical, you're dealing from a basis of truth. No matter how large or small or presentational, there's always a truthful core to what you're doing."

She stresses the importance of listening on stage, but considers it more difficult in a musical. "It's one of the hardest things in the world to be on stage while someone is singing to you. It can be very difficult to feel natural and stay in the moment. After all, it's rare that someone spends three minutes talking to you non-stop without you saying anything. You can fall into the trap of waiting your turn in a musical."

Opel thinks actors are still too often typecast as being "musical" or "straight" actors. "I have two different circles of friends, those in musicals and those in plays. People read my bio in the playbill and say, 'Oh, I didn't know you did that.' A lot of people think of me as David Ives' monkey, in a little pink dress holding a banana. They say, 'Do you remember that girl who ate the whole banana in just one bite?' What a way to be remembered!"

Erik Haagensen

You might say it all began with "The Flying Sunflower." It was 1968, and eight-year-old Lonny Price joined some 90 other children in a "huge, trippy, psychedelic show" sponsored by the New York Parks Department that gave this once and future actor and director his first taste of the stage.

Today, it's been nearly 20 years since Price's breakthrough Broadway season in 1981-82—first originating the role of Charley in the musical "Merrily We Roll Along" and then opposite Danny Glover and Zakes Mokae in Athol Fugard's "Master Harold…and the Boys." Until his recent hiatus from acting in the last few years, Price had long segued easily from plays to musicals, whether starring in "Rags," the Charles Strouse-Stephen Schwartz-Joseph Stein musical, or in the Lanford Wilson play "Burn This."

Physical demands aside, Price believes there are no emotional differences between acting in plays and musicals. He cites the technique of David Craig, who prepped Jack Klugman for "Gypsy" and Alexis Smith for "Follies," among others, as providing the foundation for his work.

"David taught you that acting is all about subtext," Price says. "He also taught that, when you are singing 'I love you' or 'the moon is round,' you don't just illustrate lyrics…you are playing a scene in the song. That's why he was so good with so-called non-musical actors."

As for a favorite role, he says, "It was playing Charley in 'Merrily.' That was the culmination of all of my dreams as a kid because, clearly, the show itself is all about dreams…being true to who you are, life on your own terms, not being seduced by anything taking you off the track as an artist."

Unfortunately, the hot start to Price's acting career came, he says, at a price. As he began maturing, the wide range of roles previously open to him as a young male character actor began to gradually diminish. Like many actors, he found himself typecast—in his case, he says, as "the nerd Jew accountant in the corner"—so, without missing even a beat, Price quickly shifted his focus to directing.

An Actor Turned Director

Today, the director of such plays as "Visiting Mr. Green" and such musicals as the Off-Broadway revival of "The Rothschilds" and the upcoming "A Class Act," vigorously imparts this cross-genre belief system to his actors. "For me, I know I don't respond to just a voice, but to other actors; that's why, in a musical, I cast actors who act as well as they sing." ("A Class Act" also stars Nancy Kathryn Anderson, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Donna Bullock, Randy Graff, David Hibbard, Patrick Quinn, and Sara Ramirez.)

Ultimately, Price says, while musical actors may exercise some physical skills that other actors may not—different breathing techniques, for example, or even a heightened awareness of formal meter and rhythm—Price believes that technique emphasizing truthfulness and subtext "always gives you tools for a performance."

Ironically, the original plan was for Price only to direct and co-write "A Class Act," which began life in readings at Musical Theatre Works, where he is also artistic director, and then return to his tenure to develop new work and tackle new projects. Sometimes, however, life has other plans, as Price discovered three days before the start of rehearsals at the Manhattan Theatre Club, when he found himself bereft of a leading man. Having already played the lead role of Ed Kleban in readings ("A Class Act" celebrates the work of the late composer/lyricist), MTC's artistic director Lynne Meadow suggested Price jump in, insisting that his chops were just as good as anyone's. How does he feel about being on stage again? "It's pretty complex, that's for sure. But I'm thrilled…being on my own terms, and also on stage with these extraordinary actors."

"A Class Act" is set to move to Broadway in February, giving Price fresh reason to re-examine the differences between acting in plays and musicals, given his directing experiences since his last Main Stem stint. "I think, somehow, it's always been easy for straight actors to go into musicals, but not easy for musical actors to move into doing straight plays," he muses. "It's really an unsaid prejudice that musical actors can't act…and when I think that a lot of musical actors never get a chance to do plays…well, that's just wrong."

Leonard Jacobs

Tony Roberts' college training was as an actor. "But I was always musically inclined, and loved to sing. I was in the chorus of the High School of Music and Art. One of the most valuable things that I was taught was sol fettio, the art of sight reading, the study of scales. And I was able to sing a melody off a sheet of music the way you could read a sentence off a page. [People] were usually surprised that someone who was primarily thought of as an actor and not a singer could do that.

"Although I sang in musicals at Northwestern [University], I was mostly in plays. When I started making rounds in New York, I began taking classes in movement for actors with Anna Sokolow. I was lucky to be exposed to things like movement and breathing and to be told how to do things right in those areas."

Roberts doesn't feel his technical training in musical techniques translates into his acting in plays. "I don't believe musical phrasing has ever crossed over to my line readings. I don't think you can apply that process to a play. Training in movement or breathing or body awareness may unconsciously have some effect in my work in a play, but all unconsciously. Because what you're trying to do is fit the character into the play and actually get past your consciousness of movement and vocal self-awareness.

"Neither do I think musical theatre techniques, in terms of size and stylization, should carry over into a play. They're two different worlds. A musical is a heightened form of storytelling that's very stylized and unrealistic. As soon as you have music playing from some place, you're in another world, and it requires bigger imagination.

"That leap that lets you go from talking in dialogue to going into a musical convention is embarrassing if it isn't somehow seamless. And you have to bring the reality of the dialogue section of things up to a level where singing is only a stone's throw away, or else that leap into a song is comical."

External vs. Internal Preparation

Roberts' approach to a musical role starts with physical preparation. "The first thing I do is to get my instrument working well. I go back to voice classes and start doing exercises to limber up my throat muscles and make my cords stronger. When I started, you didn't have microphones, so you really did have to strengthen your voice to be able to sing over the orchestra. And then I begin to learn the music for the show.

"The kind of preparation I might do for a play would be to keep reading the material over and over again, trying to invent some subtleties and complexities about the story that will help you as you're acting in it in the future."

Roberts finds some similarities in approaching a musical soliloquy, like in "Carousel," and a spoken soliloquy, as in Shakespeare. "Chances are they're both what David Craig, my teacher, used to say were 'vertical statements,' as opposed to 'horizontal statements.' Horizontal statements advance the plot, tell you something about the story and the events that are going on. A vertical statement reveals the emotions and inner conflicts or desires of the character.

"Whether you're saying a soliloquy or singing a song, you have to prepare yourself. First of all, who are you saying it to—are you saying it to yourself, are you saying it to God, are you saying it to an imagined other person? You decide who it's being said to or sung to, and then prepare just like you prepare anything else.

"There's a story that exists—a back story—that prompts it, that you invent in your head if you can't believe the story that's on the page in front of you. You personalize it, you make it meaningful to yourself, and you go with it.

"[What's] different in a play [is] you're in free form as far as time is concerned. You're free to go slow or fast, or to pause, so as to interpret it completely your own way. In a musical, there's a man standing in front of you with a baton leading 25 people and you have to stay on his tempo, and do it as quickly or as slowly as the music. That's much more of a confining form."

And speaking of all those people: "When you go into a theatre and there are 25 musicians getting their instruments ready, and 25 dancers stretching on the stage at six o'clock for an eight o'clock performance, and you hear the energy coming out of the pit when the music starts—whether you're on stage or in the wings or still in your dressing room—it's a situation that's very, very different from a five character play, when you come in and you don't even see anybody 'til you walk out on stage. That may be the first time you see your co-star that evening, and you start the play.

"It's totally an energy thing. In the long run, [a play] isn't less fulfilling or less satisfying, but it is as different as night from day."

Ira J. Bilowit

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