Scott Siegel's Broadway Unplugged series is proving to be one of the most important annual events for anyone interested in how musicals are offered to the public. Its primary meaning is, of course, as an unamplified entertainment during which 17 (this year) of the Great White Way's performers reprise memorable (sometimes not so memorable) songs from tuners through the decades.
But there's a larger implication to the affair, involving the entire approach to amplification and what its absence suggests about singing, not only from a Broadway stage but in cabaret rooms. Put succinctly, Broadway Unplugged is positive proof that amplification is unnecessary — certainly in theatres the size of the acoustic-perfect Town Hall and other venues similar to it where instruments aren't electrified and therefore in danger of drowning out the human voice.
Singer after singer stepped on the Town Hall stage to give the lie to the oft-held belief that today's Broadway and Off-Broadway performers are ill-equipped vocally to project more than 15 feet beyond the footlights. Aaron Lazar set the standard with his opener, the operatic "Stranger in Paradise" (Alexander Borodin-Robert Wright-George Forrest) from Kismet. That he has one of the most gorgeous sounds produced from stages today isn't at all explanation for his being heard throughout a hall.
Indeed, with Lazar's delivery, the question instantly became not would he be heard, but would he act the song as well as sing it — which he didn't. Truth to tell, a few songs went by before Bill Daugherty arrived to sing Mel Brooks' "Betrayed" from The Producers and infused every syllable with humor while belting the amusing 11 o'clock number to every blessed row.
Skeptics might jump at that comment and say that belting is one thing but quiet ballads totally another. Julia Murney was one of several performers putting the kibosh on that argument. Yes, she extracted all the high-wattage anger in "Wherever He Ain't" from Jerry Herman's sometimes underrated Mack & Mabel score, but when she returned in the second half (which I watched from the balcony's last row), she dimmed that wattage for the ruminative "Will He Like Me?," which Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock ran up for She Loves Me. She could be heard throughout — especially on her beautifully modulated final note.
All evening many of the accomplished warblers who'd answered impresario Siegel's casting call implicitly demonstrated today's unnecessary microphone reliance. Matt Cavenaugh's subtle interpretation of "Sometimes a Day Goes By" (Fred Ebb-John Kander) from Woman of the Year clicked, and he's another one who saved his sweetest, tenderest note until last. William Michals — like Lazar — has an operatic voice and presentation, which lent great weight to both "If I Can't Love Her" (Tim Rice-Alan Menken) from Beauty and the Beast and, with Daugherty, "Lily's Eyes" (Lucy Simon-Marsha Norman) from The Secret Garden.
Ashley Brown proudly strutted her non-Mary Poppins stuff with a belted "I Happen to Like New York" (Cole Porter) from The New Yorkers and a low-key "I'll Know" (Frank Loesser) from Guys and Dolls, Lorinda Lisitza scored with a volatile "Pirate Jenny" (Marc Blitzstein-Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill) from The Threepenny Opera, and Ron Bohmer all but out Robert Prestoned Robert Preston on "Trouble" (Meredith Willson) from The Music Man.
Actually, every one of the above singers raised a question worth considering: If they don't need mikes in 1,500-seat houses, why are mikes needed in cabaret rooms? Mull over that one for a minute.
Presented by Scott Siegel at Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St., NYC. Nov. 17.