David S K Henson
SONG, STAGE ANDSCREEN V111:
‘What do we do when we do: Process and Performance in Musical Theatre’
Conference 2-4 July Central School of Speech and Drama
What do we do when we require students to access the ‘inner life’ of a song through an agreed physical, intellectually disciplined, creative and original method of approach to the teaching of sung text? By focussing on the work of major actor trainers from the twentieth century and their potential to respond to the variety of cultural and social change the intention is to explore how their work might contribute to the training of performers in musical theatre.
This paper will explore the relationship to be established between actor-singers and their text, character and finally, their audience. Perhaps, more importantly the discourse will centre on how a personal dialogue with the creator (writer/composer/lyricist) is established as a means of seeking truth and integrity in performance and so validating the artistic link between creator and audience.
What are the perils of imitation in a learning process which should be focussed on strengthening and defining the quality and intention of the training? Why is there an apparent obsession with validating ‘cover’ versions, which in any other academic subject would be considered plagiarism, and yet in general the world of theatre seeks originality and afresh approach to character in every performance? We are aware that to sing a song requires an artist to create in the mind of an audience a believable character that exists in both time and space. Do we encourage the actor who slavishly imitates a recorded performance, I think not! So, why then is ‘imitation’ becoming acceptable and often encouraged within the field of musical theatre?
Where to begin?
Having established the various ingredients essential for an undergraduate study in musical theatre such as historical analysis, cultural significance, various genres within this specific art form, acting, use of body, voice (spoken and sung) there is a need to agree, if only for this moment, that one of the most relevant activities in this study is to be able to interpret musical theatre material in performance.
In the first year of study in Higher Education I expect challenges are similar in both the UK, and the rest of the world. The tutor and the student are probably faced with many differing levels of understanding and ability due to the various qualities of musical theatre provision available within and external to the education sector. At present in the UK there is no Advanced Level qualification and in the past Performing Arts as vocational qualifications have struggled to remain as a valid qualification. I can remember fighting to keep the Performing Arts within the Vocational qualifications suite in the latter part of the 20 century. This is indeed a challenge for some of us and a moment of rejoicing for others! Many actor-singers do not have keyboard, additional instrumental skills or knowledge of basic music theory whereas others have a useful musical background knowledge in practice and theory. As a passing comment I have to say that I am often puzzled as to how this subject attracts so many of those who do not always wish to observe the detail of musical life and engage in these additional pursuits, even at an elementary level, yet want to sing for their supper for the rest of their life!
However, despite the wide ranging levels of knowledge from minimal to ‘enlightened’ displayed in this specific discipline area we surely have to be in some agreement that at the heart of this work there must be a considered performance element which requires the student to develop the ability to communicate sung text in an appropriate manner to the style of the composition and writing and choices relevant to the establishment of the character whether in or out of dramatic context. It is necessary for the actor-singer to comprehend that they are required to form a bond and relationship with creators who are often unable to be present to secure an accurate reading of their intentions. How is this to be done as part of the creative process, in order for the audience to understand and appreciate the final outcome?
Perhaps, before starting to talk about how to achieve this we should be aware of what faces us all as a common obstacle. The fact that ‘Everybody knows best!’ The ‘new world’ is filled with potential celebrities from the media phenomenon of X-Factor, The Voice, Pop Idol, In search of a star!, Britain’s Got Talent! or any other Reality TV show you can think of. Whereas this can be great for the industry as it gives chances and work for many people there is another side to this industry and that is that the ‘immediate’ and the ‘quick fix’ is of great importance and to be honest there is a tendency for poor (vocally) equipped students to possess ‘extravagant repertoire’ due to inappropriate content, vocal techniques and performance styles.
This can be a heart stopping moment in the first few sessions when you are exploring these works and assimilating the quality of your students within a classroom situation. So often the students are influence by cutting edge, show stoppers or high riffing, high belting numbers. Forgive me, but God help us all when Leah from The Voice gets her first CD out– everybody will be riffing and sounding like Yma Sumac (does that date me?). Why, because she is the latest vocal sound heard by the audience of today and so everyone will want to imitate rather than admire and allow her to be a performer in her own right! For those of you in the audience too young to know who I am talking about Yma Sumac was a singer famous for her extraordinarily wide vocal range of slightly over four octaves from B to C♯ (approximately 123 to 2270 Herz). For reference one of the best examples of her vocal prowess is to be heard in the performance of the song Chuncho (The Forest Creatures) (1953).
We also have to face the online world of YouTube with its various performances of much of the current repertoire – legal or illegal. The temptation here is to imitate these performances which then puts at risk the actual process of learning as students become more and more fascinated with the final result rather than the more desirable journey of discovery. Perhaps it is here that we need to suggest that to be a performer is merely the starting block. The final artistic goal is being the interpreter.
Ultimately these challenges have to be faced individual by individual but I do believe there is way of working from these preconceptions and encouraging students to not only have a better understanding of self but also of the art form in total and thus realising the integrity of this subject as a worthy subject within higher education. All too often we are in search of the answer(the final result) rather than begging the question and rejoicing in the discovery and discarding of ideas.
All too often, the singer in training aims to replicate every possible nuance of a recording and colours the performance with vocal qualities that remain personal to the original creation rather than to their own performance. They may, for example,sing the song with an American accent for no reason other than their having heard a Broadway recording. By relying on recordings as a source of material are we also happy for songs such as ‘I Like it This Way’ from The Wild Party by Andrew Lippa or ‘Losing My Mind’ from Follies to be sung by a young girl who has no experience of those worlds or of the emotions being played?
However, if we are to exclude particular material at certain stages we must ask at what point does it become appropriate to put these songs into the repertoire of the training actor-singer? We might also ask where the choice of highly contentious repertoire stops being abuse and inappropriate behaviour on the part of those who have the power to advise and support the development of each young person training in this field.
Before I continue I know there are great benefits from listening and admiring the work of others – there is much to learn from this act alone. It is an appropriate way of coming into contact with new repertoire. However, the slavish reliance on ‘imitation’ is often the result of a lack of skills in the application and learning process. Why is this constant demand for immediacy, success and perfection paramount within our lives today? We need to find a way to encourage both musician and actor, no matter how easily they can get to the sung text, to be given opportunities to fail in their journey and by doing so begin to demand a disciplined approach to the learning process in order to interrogate and establish the truth of that text. In this way we firstly honour the actor within the process rather than the vocal quality of the singer?
I suppose in its most simplistic manner some would suggest that the words have been written, the composer sets the words as inspired by the context of the words. What is left but for the singer to perform the work of these two creative artists using relevant acting techniques? This is surely not the entire picture!
What are the pitfalls in this work? Why do we not intervene in this process and demand originality and confirmation of understanding and truth? Why do we accept the ‘performance’ and the quality of the vocal sound as being sufficient to satisfy the demands of the audience and sometimes preconceived performance ideals? Why do we not urge the performer to become an artist in their own right creating the third dimension to the creative work of the composer and lyricist and so enabling the technical prowess to be the empowerment and engine of the artistic output of the actor-singer?
When listening to a performance of a song and where I am in doubt as to its originality in the phrasing, use of vocal qualities and general interpretation I often ask the singer to return to speaking the first few words of the text. This is often very revealing as the words are often inaccurate, paraphrased, sometimes even unknown and there is little understanding of the sentence structure and the written phrases as indicated by the lyricist. This surely indicates that the process is misunderstood and the attraction to perform rather than the learning being uppermost in the mind of the actor-singer. I often wonder whether the student chose the song because they were drawn to the lyrics or because the actual melodic line would make them sound fabulous. There are many examples of this and if you listen to some of the melodies in ‘The Book of Mormon’ you are drawn to fantastic melodic phrases but the actual lyrical content in my humble opinion is not so powerful or engaging. Of course this is an understandable state of mind as all will want to perform and do well in front of an audience but I fear it is our duty to educate in the process and not be beholden to the demands of the student’s ego.
We have to encourage the student to be an essential part of an overall process and become a proactive part of the creative team rather than just a presenter of factual information already prepared by others e.g. composer/lyricist. To possess the ability to develop a ‘meaningful’ relationship with the often unseen/unknown collaborators in order to bring to life the original intentions of the song to the mind of the audience. This can only be done if the actor-singer has a meaningful part to play in the overall creative process. How can this be achieved by the actor-singer in order that their various skills can be put to best use in a positive and creative manner?
I would suggest that the creative process of preparing to sing a song has to start with the text and not the melody. The ability to bring the text into the world of reality and engage with the meaning of the speaker is of utmost importance to both composer and performer. If we engage actively with the text we are then able to make a significant contribution to the creative process by having an understanding of how it feels to speak the words and embody them within a performance language. The art of bringing something into ‘being’ is considerable in itself and is able to be achieved by all, even at a primary level, by speaking the words clearly and effectively. In addition this then allows all students to engage at the same level of technique and skill by using language common to all and allowing the text to have a personal resonance with the words spoken. Each speaker has distinct vocal qualities and it is useful to suggest that this should then develop into the sung voice so that imitation does not become the ‘norm’ but the distinctive quality of each voice is celebrated through both the spoken and sung performance.
This challenge alone requires respect for a work of art and the detail of structure within each phrase being encountered. This, left-side of the brain, thinking process relating to the specifics of language, the mechanics of the voice and the actual craft of speaking/singing is essential to the development of technique, the ability to interpret and the desire to express the essence of the words spoken or sung. The culmination of this process is where the right hand side of the brain comes into full force and lends itself to the resulting artistry where all the questions asked are answered within the final outcome of the performance.
The fact is that we have to realise that in order to be consummate artists within musical theatre we must first embrace every stage of understanding our technique before we can become truly creative in our performance. Too often the work is hindered by preconceptions created by previously heard performances. I am confident that by encouraging students to approach the work in a clean but precise way we will have the result of an original, unique and personal interpretation. I am not trying to suggest that ‘imitation’ should not be referred to when considering performance but when we are dealing with an actual learning system that we can replicate with artistic credibility and satisfaction we can hardly applaud the copying of other artists and indeed plagiarising their hard work. Artistry is nurtured by a strong technical discipline – nothing else will do!
The ability to then make this text relevant to the listener and so allow them to understand the situation, character, emotion or action is indeed more complex but has to be a requisite development for the student of musical theatre before embarking upon the melody of the song. The quick fix and the acquisition of melody is only part of the process to be undertaken and should always be at a later stage in the work not at the very beginning as it sometimes is.
There are alternative ways of thinking about the issue of imitation and ‘covers’ that perhaps also need to be discussed within the process of learning. The main issue is raised when considering the crossover between musical theatre and ‘pop’. So often having a musical theatre approach is not appreciated by panels on voice programmes and vice versa. You often hear such comments as you have a great voice but you are more suited to singing musical theatre than ‘pop’…….what does this actually mean?
In terms of listening and learning from others clearly the ability to recognise the qualities of other singers is a good thing especially if you have a training that increases your ability to be discerning and so recognise good from bad technique. The other issue is, as a colleague, pointed out that copying is in fact an ‘act of tribute’ and so to use the word copying or even plagiarism was a little harsh. However, I still stand by the fact that although listening to other artists is an excellent way of learning and developing vocal skills there is still an essential ability to define what is good and bad that many students do not appear to possess and until that is possible it is perhaps a dangerous journey to undertake...
There is also another issue that needs to be recognised within this work. All too often famous songs from musicals are made popular by recording artists especially songs from Disney musicals. For an example let us consider Reflections from the film MULAN sung in a theatrical context and then the version sung by Christina Aguilera in the form of a popular song. What is the difference I hear you ask? Well, it is quite interesting – it is in the actual text that the difference is apparent and so we come back to the important notion that if the text is understood so will the song become fresh and unique according to the voice and thoughts of the singer. Let us take just the first few lines of this song from both versions and see where the differences lie.
Mulan the musical – Disney [Movie version]
Look at me,
I will never pass for a perfect bride
or a perfect daughter,
can it be,
I’m not meant to play this part,
Now I see,
That if I were truly to be myself,
I would break my family’s heart.
Mulan the musical – Disney [Christina Aguilera]
Look at me,
You may think you see who I really am
But you’ll never know me
It’s as if I play a part
Now I see
If I wear a mask I can fool the world
But I cannot fool my heart
The student unwittingly listens to the popular version and imitates the singer thinking that this is a legitimate version of the actual song and because there is no challenge as to what the words actually mean the student or the theatrical input the singer is left in limbo never being given the opportunity of deciding how this song actually works.
Surely the film version actions a narrative, produces clues as to who is singing, why and where and even in the first three lines we have character and choices to make. In the Aguilera version the singer is the song and the lyrics are all based around the immediate persona of the singer. Agreed the singer has ‘made it her own’ but firstly at what a cost to the original and secondly why do we want another version copied when we already have her version of these lyrics? Is this something that we should interrogate and consider when working within this genre? Shouldn’t we be demanding the legitimate lyrics to endorse the dramatic nature of the work and the integrity of the song?
I find it very interesting to note that classical versions of musical theatre material such as Cabaret sung by Judie Dench, Glen Close and Sunset Boulevard and even Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady are not imitated slavishly in the same manner that other artists such as Liza Minnelli and Barbara Streisand are. Why is this? It surely has something to do with the sound and the enhancement of the persona by singing big phrases and belting with little regard to vocal technique and pure personal satisfaction and ego.
Clearly it becomes apparent in many cases such as the song just discussed ‘Reflections’ or songs made popular to promote the music from such musicals such as Sunset Boulevard or ‘Music of the Night’ from Phantom of the Opera. Here the words are re-written to create an almost anthemic ‘feel’ and to lose the context of the song to make it more universal.
Within the study of musical theatre there must be an understanding that the pop lyric is oblique in its thought process as it deals with aspects of sensuality, aesthetics with little distinction of narrative and context within the text. There is no material for the singer to work against and so create a truly dramatic reading of the lyric in connection with the journey of the character. Pop songs are full of half thoughts and often never conclude – how is this ever to be married with the study of musical theatre as an academic and relevant study if we do not interrogate this understanding of the industry and the actual craft of writing material for a variety of audiences?
Perhaps this work needs to be considered more formally especially if we are to prepare students for working within the field of new writing, which hopefully will be the saving grace of this industry.
Students need to be aware that in the speaking of the sung text they are shaping the words aloud and are experiencing the mechanics of speaking both consonants and vowels. Surely singers need to be aware of this skill above all others! To be able to recognise the inflections of thought and to ask questions rather than make statements is also a necessary skill that appears to be lacking in young performers today. The fact that we should ask students to face the lyric in its essence before embarking upon melodies that enhance the thoughts further is surely a necessary exercise of some worth. How often do we avoid this journey and concentrate on the student’s ability to sing the song. Perhaps we should encourage actor-singers to sing the text before even approaching the actual music.
We surely are to create thinkers who have a voice to speak and sing and yet are equal in the triumvirate of the creative process where we meet the (i) the creators – lyricist and composer, (ii) the‘re’-creators – singer-actor and finally the (iii) the receptor e.g. audience and listener. What we should be anxious to do within the classroom is to identify a common route through which the journey of discovery is secure and available to all in order to encourage an active conversation at all stages of the learning process. This in turn will support the artistry in the work of the actor-singer and so they will inevitably feel involved in active decision making throughout the work and thus make their work original and unique.
I have started to use folk song as a starting point for musical theatre exercises to avoid all of the above issues and so establish a 'tabla rasa'. The folk song has a story to tell, the melody is simple and repetitious and yet the words move the narrative forwards. This requires of the student some considerable skill in appreciating the quality of the lyric and yet at the same time the quality of the words are more important than perhaps the melodic line. This at least establishes a chain of ‘learning’ events that can then be transferred to more detailed work in musical theatre repertoire at a later date. The principle has at least been achieved and understood.
Safán-Gerard an artist and philosopher indicates four stages of the creative process in the creation of apiece of art. They are as follows: (i)perception, (ii) experimentation, (iii) expression and (iv) verification. I will try and indicate how we can proceed effectively using this model of thinking with the intention of encouraging us all within the curriculum of musical theatre to embrace a tighter and more comprehensive display of technical control over the creative process rather than relying on the natural talent of the performer to display qualities that are inspired mainly by innate talent, listening and repetition. There is so much more to be considered than this! How do we ever achieve a set of tools for further investigation if we do not start to agree that there must be some ‘method’ and philosophy that is connected to the work within this art form? For too long the work of the singer has been left to the whims of the individual and of a specific training. It is time to strengthen our cause and so establish clear lines of agreed thinking and start to work together rather than in a variety of different ‘schools’ of thought that sometimes even contradict or confuse. That is another topic for discussion!
Another point worth noting in the actual teaching of musical theatre is the fact that some tutors are able to access ideas quickly whereas others are under pressure to identify certain truths from the given text and have other important skills for the student to access. Many a time a student has said to me in class– yes, I can do this now because you are here but I don’t have you on my shoulder asking me these questions when I am on my own. How do I do this on my own? This is perhaps why our training needs to educate students to be able to work on their own and we should give them the methods to analyse and argue with their own thoughts in order to evolve an exciting and genuine response to both song and indeed the final performance of both music and text.
Perception – This is where the student must seek to divorce the text from the musical and approach the words as a monologue. Every acting ‘method’ to be considered gives adequate advice as to how to proceed and to challenge and action the thoughts within the text. At this point it is not appropriate for me to give a demonstration of how this can be done. However, in order to ascertain how the actor-singer can be part of the discursive process and contribute to the overall process I would like to suggest this aspect of work in some detail in order to demonstrate the conversation to be had between singer, composer and lyricist. Write out the verse as prose with no punctuation or indication thereof. This is very important as every effort should be taken to remove the poetic ideas such as rhythm and rhyme from the actual text. It is important, when dealing with the text as prose, for the student to action the thoughts and to discover personal pauses in thought. When this is completed the actor-singer will be able to interrogate whether these patterns are part of their normal speech pattern or are driven by thoughts within the text. Having decided where the pauses and stops in thoughts are it is useful to return to the musical score and identify the actual punctuation used within that specific edition.
The ability to compare and contrast personal thoughts with those of the lyricist is very interesting and will raise an imaginary debate between singer and writer as to why they are to now be observed in a different or similar manner. The conversation should be realised by the student in their reflective practice and in recognition of their journey within the song. Perhaps there are now more quick thoughts rather than extended thoughts in the personal interpretation. More questions than statements or vice versa. Many extended phrases within a complete thought. These all need to be accounted for and understood as to why they are now different. It is too easy just to accept what you are given and become just a performer rather than the essential interpreter.
You will have to 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.
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.
Within this work you are required to make decisions such as:
- 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?
- By performing 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 indirection 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.
Experimentation – this is where the time absorbing work comes and the student must allow time for these aspects to be fully explored. A simple exercise that I often use after working on the text in isolation to the musical score is to combine them and to speak the text whilst hearing the accompaniment to the song. Behave as if a voice-over artist for a film score and identify visual images in your mind as you speak. Where a pianist is not readily available then a pre-recorded piano accompaniment, of which many are available in several editions would be possible. Try to find times when to start and speak different thoughts. Where do the words need to be spoken faster or slower louder or softer? What is happening here is gradually realising the different tonal qualities of the words and how they are reflected within the harmonic and melodic texture of the words spoken. This is where you start to create a relationship and contribute to the overall ideas made by both the composer and writer. You are continuing to be part of the creative process again. You are also receiving subliminal messages from the music about the mood and colour of the thoughts and you are becoming involved in a dynamic relationship of creativity.
This trial and error factor allows the actor-singer to make artistic decisions and to gather information without being under pressure of using exhaustive singing techniques to achieve the musical effects requested in the actual score. However, you are becoming more and more aware of the demands to be made upon the human voice when all these elements are to be put together. This work must surely increase the musico-dramatic expression of the eventual interpretation despite the fact that a note has not yet been sung. To follow it has often been an interesting experiment to allow the actor-singer (who enjoys using their voice) to make up their own melody above the harmonic accompaniment. Surprisingly enough, on many occasions the actual melody is discovered by the actor-singer before even confirming the accuracy the notation. I have had many wonderful moments sitting at the keyboard and hearing a young student create their own melody to the words now clearly understood and then realised they have been so close to the original that it gives them a sense of creative spirit and that they have actually contributed to the process without being there at the birth of the song. Of course there is more to identify within this stage of the process but rest assured it works and gives the students a clear idea of how to prepare for a class without any necessary enforced ‘note bashing’ of the actual tune.
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 tothe 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?
Make up your own list of questions in order that your performance work becomes individual to your own ways of working.
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!
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!
Expression – This is where there has to be a close relationship with the other artists involved within the process and the actual notation has to be understood, learnt and communicated to the audience. We are more aware of this process as being sometimes where some students actually begin their work. However, if the above work has been completed then this process can be rewarding and creative at every moment of discovery and the actual tensions understood in the speaking have already been communicated to the performer. This is where the conversations and dialogue had with oneself can be revealed to others in the decision making and the response to physicality, mood, thought, pace and styles of interpretation.
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 the following exercises as helpful to access aspects of this 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?
Verification – This is such an important part of the work as to understand why something has worked is essential. In all probability this aspect is referred to at all the various stages but as a culmination of the work there is something impregnate to be considered. Too often on the part of the performer there is a need for praise and this is only really appropriate if the decision is to suggest that the interpretation is the agreed final statement. If you are still on your journey then there will be many opportunities for verification to be a pre-requisite of further performance. I do have some points to consider about this process as I often feel that actor-singers need to be given support in how to receive criticism and feedback before it becomes a worthwhile activity. Suffice it to say that to receive feedback and criticism is an art in itself! What clearly is important is the ability of the actor-singer to be so aware of what they have been trying to achieve to actually request of the audience/tutor an objective response to the clear intentions of the ‘given’ performance resulting from the work undertaken within the rehearsal stages. This will enable a clear sense of objectivity to inform the comments and have much more purpose in the defining of the final interpretation. After all, despite all the work undertaken within the preparation and learning process it is the actual song that has to be adhered to in finite detail in the final performance.
At the beginning of this talk I probably set ‘shock waves’ though your minds when I spoke about interpretations, listening and imitating performances. Quite clearly much can be learnt from the expert but it is in the recognition of this that it is important. There are in addition to good performances bad ones and so there is little control or policing over these events within the training of the student. All of the above attempts to give the student the opportunity to engage fully with the process and to become an effective interpreter rather than just a performer. However, there are moments when other methods will have to come into play to support the needs of specific students.
Finally, as a word of gentle warning. The method of training indicated above encourages the students to make decisions regarding the objective use of text and then the music before putting the song into its own context. There is a danger that some singers, through this process, are requested to employ personal emotional journeys within their song narrative and although it may be good to bring something of oneself into the work it can also be that to involve psycho-emotional issues can sometime be the destructive force within a song and cause the singer to ‘close up and actively encourage vocal faults and personal issues. Surely it has to be understood that if the song is to be sung at the point at which speech is no longer sufficient to express the thoughts of the character then we are at a dangerous part of the psyche and we are nearly in the territory of the psychophysical actor-singer. This has to be considered with a lot of care and objectivity when making demands upon the younger student. As a way of getting around this I often refer to the work as being captured in a ‘day dream’ where anything is possible in your imagination. This does then release your students from very definite behavioural responsibility and is less threatening allowing characterisation, the actioning of text to become more within the student’s reach. Again, a topic for much greater research and commentary.
Hopefully, in this paper I have tried to define how we should judge a musical theatre performance and how a performance analysis should contribute to achieving the desired levels of authenticity and originality in the work of our students.
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. I suggest that although ‘it takes time!’ we should always remember to explore the full potential of the lyric, speak it and 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!