David S K Henson
RECENTLY PUBLISHED ARTICLE
In all musicals as the actor/singer we are required to look at the ingredients of the actual song and then bring our acting skills to the task of presenting it to an audience. As stated earlier the song ‘The Winner Takes It All’ sung as a pop song by ABBA has a completely different context to the way it is played within the actual show of Mama Mia. Always remember to explore the full potential of the lyric first and then create an environment and place for the song to have a full and purposeful meaning.
Singing the song for its own sake is not good enough in musical theatre!
THE BEGINNING OF THE JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY
- Select the song from the musical of your choice.
- You might like to check the song over by listening to it but please remember the song heard is that singer’s version not yours. You must not rely on the version you hear - you are now to be the creator of this song and a detailed acting process must be undertaken in order to create the spontaneity required to make your work shine through! (Having listened to the song – leave well alone!)
- Write out the words of the song ‘by hand’ do not type or word process - there is little or no connection within this activity. You must make a direct connection with each word of the song as you place them on the page – it will help you remember them as well! Write out the lyric in continuous prose without punctuation and reference to the verse structure if either exists!
BRINGING THE TEXT TO ‘LIFE’
Speak this monologue several times aiming to create as many different ‘attitudes’ towards the lyrics on each version of the performance. – please note all the differences by recording yourself performing these.
- Decide whether the monologue is about (i) your feelings (ii) telling your story or communicating a ‘special’ moment in your life (iii) expressing a lesson to be learnt by your experiences in life (teaching song) or (iv) an engagement with the audience of something that moves you and you want to share at the precise moment of singing.
- Continue to investigate the lyric as a monologue and discover a reason for being able to speak the first phrase at the beginning of the song. What inspires you to speak the first line?
- Ask yourself at the end of the song – are you thinking in the same way or has the substance and meaning of the lyric changed for whatever reason?
- Ask questions in every silence – why the pause? What thought is being encouraged?
- When you have made some decisions about the dramatic significance of the song. Look at the way the lyricist has written out the words and obey the punctuation marks as written. Do you agree or have all your performance versions been different? How does this impact on your performance decisions?
A NEW DIRECTION
- Perform the lyric again as a dramatic monologue obeying in every detail the punctuation and phrasing. Pay attention to every detail of the writing and any changes in direction of thought.
- It is important to remember that the lyricist and composer have already completed this work for you so you must respect this work and contribute something to the creation of the song chosen for performance – otherwise what are you really doing?
- Is it different now – how different?
- Every time you must record your work or you will convince yourself that there has been no difference at all between any of the performances given. You must also write down your responses. This is an ‘active’ way of learning for the actor-singer. The journey of discovery can easily be forgotten if you fail to give it respect and recognise change when it occurs or even why it occurs! This method of approaching the song will give you invaluable discussion material to have with your examiner when he/she observes and questions your performance decisions towards the end of the examination. Remember if you keep your mind continually active you will know what you are doing and why.
THE TECHNICAL ASPECTS OF THE SONG:
WHAT IS IT REALLY GOING ON?
- Having spoken the monologue and come to terms with the content it is useful to have a good look at the score and go through it whilst listening to a performance or observing a pianist playing the accompaniment. Listen out for such things as follows:
- How many bars are there before I start to sing?
- What is happening in the accompaniment whilst I am singing?
- Is it in a major or minor key – why?
- Does it change key – what impact does this have to the song – where does the change of key take place?
- What am I thinking while the musical introduction is playing?
- What happens throughout the song when I am not singing?
- How many pauses are there?
- What am I to think in each pause?
- At the end of the song do I sing until the end or does the piano finish off the song?
When you have considered some of the above details, and hopefully even more, you are ready to perform the song in a spoken delivery accessing the entire content, form and structure of the song. All too often performers are totally unaware of ‘when to come in’ or ‘how the music goes’ at the end of the song! It is your job as an actor to know what supports your work and honour the entire process not just the work of your own voice!
N.B. It would be helpful to make up your own list of questions in order that your performance work becomes individual to your own ways of working.
DEVELOP TECHNICAL ASPECTS WITHIN THE SONG
- An exercise to help this process would be to recite the song and clap the rhythm of the opening and the intervening passages where you do not sing! Consider the detailed map of the song and identify what you are to do within each one of the so-called ‘gaps in the music.’ This will really allow you to interrogate the qualities within the song and given you a sense of the internal rhythm driving the song. All too often singing unaccompanied reveals the true understanding of the song and the true ability of the performer. Do not rely on the accompaniment to ‘push’ you through.
- As a result of this work you will also be better prepared to make use of the first time you meet an accompanist or repetiteur to assist you in the learning of the musical phrases e.g. the notes of the song – the simplest and by far the easiest bit of the process!
PUTTING IT TOGETHER – FURTHER EXERCISES
Having learnt the notes / melody of the song you have now reached the exciting point at which you can put the work into the performance space and so bring all your hard work to fruition. However, first you must make sure that you are in control of the song not the song in control of you. An exercise to help you do this would be to speak the song with accurate attention to detail of rhythm and rests within the music by (i) walking in the rhythm of the song whilst speaking it and (ii) repeating the same exercise but this time walking or jogging in a completely different tempo whilst maintaining the ‘flow’ of the lyric as in the first exercise. Have fun! Again it would be useful to recognise and write down what you have learnt about this song when you have completed this work.
PHYSICALISATION OF THE SONG
- Now to understand the physicality of your character or yourself whilst singing this song – you must discover what habitual gestures you are not aware of? Consider these exercises as helpful to access this aspects of the work:
- Are there any clues as to your physicality within the lyrics of the song?
- How does the setting you have created for your song give a reason for movement or stillness?
- Do the movements have reference to the period of the song e.g. 20s / 60s?
- How does your specific interpretation impact upon the movement of the singer?
BACK TO THE TEXT!
Return to the text and underline the key words such as the subject and verb. This will help you understand the importance of certain words rather than be persuaded to reinforce the high note in the melodic phrase that is actually to be sung on the word ‘and’. Too many times we are aware of the beautiful melody but the meaning of the song has been lost at its expense!
MAKING THE SONG YOUR OWN!
DEFINING YOUR PERFORMANCE AND INTENTIONS
Now the thoughts have been determined you can mark your breathing points and the quality of creativity that is required to make sense of the words yet to be sung. THIS HAS TO BE DONE - as the quality of breath supporting the thought is paramount in this work – there can be no errors here! The technical work will finally ‘release’ the work and so create a wonderful ‘alive’ and personal piece of work – thus encouraging you to create an original interpretation of a ‘classic’ song.