Vocal Ease: Acting While Singing

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"I had been looking for a long time for a book I could recommend to people," says David Brunetti in the midtown Manhattan studio he's moving into, where the vocal coach will continue working with 25 to 35 singers weekly. Fortunately for those looking to learn how to act while singing, he couldn't find one. So he decided to write one himself, and he calls it Acting Songs (reviewed in Back Stage's Aug. 23 issue).

But that doesn't entirely explain why the slim but packed-with-pithy-info volume exists. "There's another reason I wrote the book," says Brunetti, who studied music and acting at Carnegie Mellon before acting in New York in his 20s. "Over the years, I would work with [coaches] who would say, 'Be more honest. Be more authentic. Be connected.' They were telling me the result they wanted, but they weren't telling me how to do it. I think there's a lot of coaching like that. I wanted a practical step-by-step thing. I say, 'Here's how to do it. Here's how to think. Here's how to work on it.'"

When he switched to full-time coaching, he recalls, "actors would come to me who wanted to audition for musicals. I could see they could act. Then they would get to a song, and the acting would drop away. They would just stand there and make a sound. I thought, There's got to be some way to connect to the song."

The solution came to him when he realized that the restriction melody puts on natural expression is akin to an actor being given a line reading. "Some directors give you a line reading and you have to do it that way. Actors hate that, in general. They take your freedom away by giving you a line reading, and that's what a composer does." He expresses that analogy to wanna-sing actors, telling them that acting a song is like personalizing a line reading. " 'You have to justify it emotionally,' " he tells his charges. "'You take what the composer has given you and justify it emotionally.' Actors love this. They say, 'Oh, that's what I know how to do.' "

A Three-Step System

Brunetti breaks his system down into three steps. The first, working with the lyric without the music, is the hardest. "The great singers in our world are actors first," he says. "The first issue is dealing with the text as an actor. The songwriter is a dramatist. What a song is is a moment in somebody's life where there's some kind of conflict. Some big emotional thing goes on. That's what people write songs about."

He does an exercise in which he asks the actor to imagine that the song is in a show, and the creators come to you and say, "We have to cut the song. We need one line of dialogue to replace it." He says, "Any good song you can do that with. Then I say, 'Who are you talking to and with what objective? Every song changes something. There's a conflict here that the song will resolve.' " He asks the actor to set up a one-act play: "I actually have them get on their feet and speak it without the music. I ask them to imagine a place, a person to talk to, a conflict, and an objective."

In the second step, Brunetti has the actor "do the text on the rhythm without the melody. That's the big, breakthrough step.... In life, situations get heightened emotionally. People do bizarre things with their voices both rhythmically and melodically. You have to justify speaking at that tempo."

Step three — the melody step — "is usually easy," he says. "When you speak to people in life, you're really singing, in that you're using pitches without really thinking about it. Justify the melody as a person talking. When I watch my favorite singers sing, it's like they're talking. That's the experience they're having in extremely heightened situations. I always give the Alfred Hitchcock quote. He said, 'Movies are life with the boring parts cut out.' I say that's what songs are."

Actors Versus Singers

"People that are trained actors in the American method of acting get it immediately," Brunetti says of the response to his technique "They're trained to use their own inner life in their work, be alive emotionally in their work. That's the only thing you have to offer, really, that's not a cliché. Sanford Meisner calls it 'real living in imaginary circumstances.' So these guys already can do it. A lot of singers aren't really in touch with their own inner life when they sing. They put on a mask. Nobody wants to hear that. Nobody wants to hear you sing. They want to see you live. Who are you?

"Every genre has singers who work this way," he continues. "Mahalia Jackson was a totally connected actress. Dealing with the text, that's what I mean — living the text, not just the music." To substantiate his point further, he cites Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas, Teresa Stratas, Barbara Cook, Bette Midler, and Frank Sinatra as singers who give text primary importance.

Actors wanting to sing constitute about a third of his clientele, which means the rest are singers working on their acting. Their reaction to Brunetti's approach is often different. "Singers hate this," he says, referring to being asked to interpret the lyric without the music. "They say, 'It's so vulnerable; it's so naked.' And I say, 'You think you're going to be able to act the song without knowing how to do that? This will deepen your work. When you get to singing it, you'll love it.' People hide behind the music, and that's not so interesting. Liza doesn't hide behind the music. Bernadette Peters doesn't hide behind the music."

Show Me Who You Are

While writing Acting Songs over a period of a couple years, Brunetti interviewed showbiz mavens — including directors Scott Ellis and Rob Marshall, composer-lyricist David Friedman, and the songwriting team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty — to include substantiating quotes from them. "It was very gratifying to talk to those people in the business," he says. "They all told me that what they cared about was the acting. All of them said text comes first. Singers are a dime a dozen. People who show you who they are are rare. They all said they would cast people who were less better singers than better actors. Rob Marshall said it over and over again. They all said, 'Show me who you are.' They said they would rewrite for people who had vocal limitations."

Thinking about showing who one is while singing, Brunetti goes on to say, "There's a whole thing about 'Don't you feel it; let the audience feel it.' I don't really go with that. On the other hand, I don't want to see somebody who's just trying to feel. There are actors who do that. It's a form of showing off. Good actors don't worry about what they feel; they worry about what they're doing. They let their feelings come along for the ride. That's my favorite kind of acting. Feelings are the byproduct. Know who's important to you in various ways: Who do you want to kill? Who do you want to kiss? Your feelings will come alive if you use who matters to you."

Brunetti remembers a particular outpouring of feelings that happened when he was rehearsing the Billy Strayhorn song "Lush Life" with Eartha Kitt, who was close to the late songwriter. She reduced herself and Brunetti to tears. "We were in one of those rehearsal rooms that used to be on Broadway in the 50s," he says. "It had windows looking out on Broadway. I started to play and she started to walk. She wasn't thinking. She just walked to the window and looked out on Broadway and sang the song looking out the window, the tears pouring down her face. It was stunning acting and singing — with that Eartha Kitt voice, but totally connected to the deep pain and tragedy of that song. What it showed me was that's how deeply you can go. That's how great the acting can be with a song."