The Myth of “The Broadway Voice”

By Robert Weinert-Kendt

With permission from the blog The Wicked Stage

Charles Isherwood has penned a seemingly plausible bit of AllThatChat bait lamenting a supposed trend of non-singing celebrities in Broadway musicals, but his examples–the current How To Succeed in Business, last season’s A Little Night Music, the recent stunt-cast concert staging

Photo of stage actors Sam Levene and Vivian Blaine in the original Guys and Dolls

Sam Levene and Vivian Blaine in the original Guys and Dolls

of Company–not only strike me as weak examples of an incipient trend, the whole lament itself is ahistorical. While he concedes such infamous instances of Broadway non-singing as Lauren Bacall and Kate Hepburn, and mentions that My Fair Lady was built around Rex Harrison’s sprechstimme, the examples are in fact much more plentiful.
Zeta-Jones’ Desiree, for instance, which I’ll agree was no great shakes–but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the original Desiree, Glynis Johns, had such limited range and breath that Sondheim specifically wrote her big ballad, “Send in the Clowns,” in short phrases. Sam Levene, the original Nathan Detroit, was so tone-deaf that Frank Loesser had to write a number introducing the character in which everyone but Nathan sings (“The Oldest Established”), and for the one song Nathan does sing, “Sue Me,” Loesser generously included a series of lead-in notes (“Call a lawyer and…”) so Levene could work up to the pitch on the downbeat. Kurt Weill wrote the standard “September Song” for that great operatic baritone Walter Huston. Cy Coleman, the one time I interviewed him, recounted that his first musical was the Lucille Ball vehicle Wildcat; Ball, he said, “had a range of five notes. Then my reward was Little Me, for Sid Caesar–who had a range of four notes.”

And need I mention Fred Astaire–a great song interpreter, in fact, but with just about as thin a voice as could be brought to the task?

(continued….)

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The bottom line is that the American musical theater, though often treated with concert-hall reverence, has always been a thing of mottled, mongrel glory. For every Julie Andrews or Ethel Merman or Howard Keel, there has always been a Zero Mostel, a Jack Klugman, an Elaine Stritch. The great songbook is full of standards that were first introduced, and tailored to the talents of, opera singers, clowns, faded vaudevilleans, Hollywood stars trying their hand at Broadway (cf. much of the score of Follies). Admittedly, this last category may have proliferated in recent years, in both musicals and straight plays, but judging by the evidence of musicals currently on Broadway–fromAnything Goes to Book of Mormon–the pipes are all right.

ABOUT Rob Weinert-Kendt

Associate Editor at American Theatre magazine. He has written features and criticism for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Variety, Newsday, Village Voice, Time Out NY, The Guardian, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others. He was the founding editor of ‘Back Stage West’.

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