Acting Through Song
What makes a convincing and moving performance of a song in musical theatre?
Many singers seem to think this is about the perfect studio produced sound or some sort of vocal athletics that means you need a four octave range and use of your whistle register. They want to sing songs that are about topics that they don't and often can't realistically connect with because their favourite star is singing it. They don't know that the words and telling the story are the most important thing. And it's not shocking, given the rise of jukebox musicals where often nothing on the stage seems to have a coherent story.
I had singers say to me "prepare to cry" just before they launch into an over the top performance of "On My Own" from Les Misérables and the only thing that makes me want to cry is their lack of understanding of the song they are singing. They wail and beat their chest and sing prettily, as they know it's a sad song, but there is no journey and no understanding of the story being told through the song. The only words they seem to have thought through are the ones in the title.
I really do believe that in musical theatre how you tell the story, whilst you are singing, is more important than how beautifully you sing the song. That does not mean that you should ignore good vocal health and technique, but it does mean that having these is not enough. If you are going to sing "On My Own" you need to tackle it just as you would tackle a monologue that you have to deliver on stage. You need to know why you are singing, what happened in the moment before, your objectives, the intentions behind each line, basically you need to act.
I have been watching Hamilton on Disney+. Lin-Manuel Miranda's performance of the song "Hurricane" is incredibly moving. He tells the story beautifully. You can hear the emotions in his voice that the words in the song evoke and help to draw out. But if you are going to be really critically about his ability as a singer you can also hear his voice isn't always on pitch, places where it heads towards cracking, and weakness in the breath and melodic lines that you don't hear when he is rapping. But he is perfect in this role.
Judi Dench gives the best performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Send In The Clowns" that I have ever heard. It is heartbreaking. Perfect singing, no, but absolute perfection in story telling.
I am teaching an online summer course for TIP Youth on Sunday mornings on Acting Through Song. Let's hope I manage to share my passion for story telling in a way that connects and make sense.