As professionals came together at the John F. Kennedy Center the weekend of November 22nd, across the spectrum of music styles, two ideas came to predominate in the program American Voices.. One was that with singing first comes passion then comes the business. The second, related to the first, is that all artists who want to be professionals from pop to opera have to chart a personal course between which sound and materials are aligned with their passion and which, sometimes at odds with the first, will build them a career with multiple and lucrative opportunities. In that struggle, singers must define what is success and decide at what cost. Nowhere is this more evident than the world of the American musical, which has become synonymous with the Broadway musical.
Sunday morning, the hopeful stars of tomorrow’s Broadway began lining up, many with their mothers in tow. A lot of these young artists, mostly girls and young women, had first discovered the rush of performance in high school musicals. Some were still living in that bubble.
All were waiting to view a Master Class and the chance to be in the presence of megawatt star Sutton Foster, the Broadway babe of Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Anything Goes fame.
Sutton came on stage dressed in what I would suggest is the current costume-of-choice for a New York stage audition: jeans and a sweater ruffly-ragged and overly long sleeves. (Pop singer Sara Bareille had adopted the same look along with tight woolly cap pulled over her head.) Everything screamed “Don’t look at me — no wait, look at me. I’m serious. I’m here. I’m likeable. And I’m ready to work my butt off.” These are qualities you have to sell in 16 bars or less, and the clock starts ticking when you hit the stage.
Sutton stood, prepared with a steno book and a pen. She had been cast in the role of Master Class teacher, and she’d done her homework. She called the singers on stage, asked them their names before they arrived at the microphone to announce their name as they’d practiced.
She likes them. She really, really likes them and smiles – God, what a smile! The kind you hope she’ll be your friend. She knows all too well what these hopefuls are going through.
Nicole Elledge, a twenty-year old from Catholic University’s music theatre division had chosen “Willing to Ride” from Steel Pier. She’d got some good advice about selecting the material, but neither Sutton nor I knew the piece, and the singer didn’t make the situational conflict clear in her singing.
Sutton approached the coaching by sharing the way she prepares, leading each student through a series of questions for every song. What’s the song about? Who are you singing to? What do you want? What’s the obstacle? How do you feel?
Betsy Stewart sang “Wonderful Guy” from South Pacific. She had some problems associated with vocal tension and wide unfocused vowels, and you could see this twenty-one year old’s throat muscles strain as she laid into the song. Instead of tackling any of what appeared to be pretty serious habits, Sutton plugged away with her theatrical questions. She asked Betsy to tell her what love means to her. I think it was to help the singer discover the separate images in the song, but it was hard for Nicole to think on her feet. The emotional work didn’t help make the voice come into focus.
By the time Miles Mykkanen hit the stage, I was getting worried we might indeed have burst blood vessels on the stage. He launched into “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story. I immediately knew this was a voice in whose presence I could just sit back and enjoy. He demonstrated that he could hit the back wall of a Broadway theatre with his sound but he could also draw us in by pulling back and sounding intimate.
Was it too prepared? Too polished an execution? Sutton paused then asked him “What’s it about?” Then she asked him to do something crazy. Run up and down the two steep aisles of stairs then start singing. He did, risking life and limb, and he practically slid into home plate on stage. Without pausing even a second he went for his first note. He sang the whole dang piece. Okay, it was less polished and his tenor high note cracked on the last note. He laughed at himself. But he had communicated breathless anticipation, and he’d shown us he was willing to take risks. He’d discovered another layer now available to him to incorporate into a performance. Wow!
He was asked to sing another song and gave us “Finishing the Hat” from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. He’s good for Sondheim, because he can handle the complicated phrasing and rhythmic changes. He can also think through a song, discover the moments.
Last in the session, Isabelle McCalla gave us “Colored Lights” from The Rink. The song starts in both range and phrasing close to vernacular speech and this young singer, musical theatre major at the University of Michigan, got the quirky intro just right. However, when she went into her big belt, it sounded like she had cloned herself after Patti Lapone.
Sutton stayed throughout super positive about these singers. Her most important question, “Do you want to do this more than anything else?” Therein lies the answer of whether a young singer should “go for it.” No one should try to make the decision for them.
Renée Fleming brought onto the stage David Caddick, Musical Director for many Broadway shows and cast albums; Joan Lader, a highly sought-after voice therapist and teacher who works with singers from many musical styles; Broadway casting director Tara Rubin; and David Lai Senior Vice President at IMG who seems to have worked with everyone. A surprise guest joined them, Broadway baritone Norm Lewis, whose work wowed audiences as both Porgy in the recent Porgy and Bess and as Javert in Les Miserables, had proved to be one of the stellar performers in the concert the night before. These luminaries sat with Renée and Sutton to discuss the world of the musical.
Renée led off with the what to every opera singer is an incredulous fact, “Eight shows a week?!” Sutton owned that her life is far from glamorous. “It’s a 24/7 job.” She has to conserve energy, prepare when she is not resting, and step up for every performance.
“But how do you keep it alive?” asked Renée. “I sometimes get crazy after the five or six performances scheduled for opera.” Norm admitted that sometimes he might feel mad or not even want to go into the theatre. “But when the lights go up, I feel the responsibility.”
“And not just to your audience but to the others in the ensemble who look up to you if you’re carrying the show.” Sutton got a laugh when she added, “And you want to get hired again.”
Renée kept on probing about the process of training and getting work and to understand the differences from the world of opera.
Tara urged singers to try and get into a great training program. These panelists advised that New York still offers the most opportunities. David described the open call auditions, known as “cattle calls” because of the sheer numbers. But Tara assured the audience, despite the competition and the horrible-sounding ordeal, for every show there is at least one person plucked from a cattle call who gets the big break.
Norm gave us a good giggle while making the point. “I showed up for everything. Unless they specifically asked for blonde hair, blue eyes, and tits, I showed up.”
Tara provided some insight about what happens on the other side of the casting table, “What we’re really looking for is to get to know who you are. I love the ‘messy people’ who show me what it costs to tell their story. It’s our job to put you in the right show.” So, if not this show, maybe an artist gets put in a file for another one that might be a better fit.
A big theme of the weekend is that the performer’s job is to stay fit and in training. Broadway shows no longer have the luxury of having separate singing and dance choruses. Now an artist has to present the whole package.
Joan said that the vocal training opportunities are just so much better now than when she started because there are professionals who take the demands of different styles of music seriously, and so much more is known about the physiology of the voice. Every singer needs an individualized approach, and often they come after problems start. Sutton admitted she had arrived in New York with a big voice, but she had never received training. She had to learn how to use and how to protect her instrument.
With the trend on Broadway and what is being composed for musicals consisting of big amplified scores, this puts even more stress on singers’ voices. We were let into a little (or not so little) secret that this is so burdensome to singers that sometimes parts are now pre-recorded. (Alas, I thought, “live” performance may be a vanishing species, but perhaps young audiences no longer care.)
“So, what about stars of screen or television coming to Broadway?” wondered Renée.
Foster didn’t skip a beat to answer, “As long as they’ve got the goods, they’re welcome.” Clearly, by her tone and the laughter that followed, there have been several dubious casting choices when TV stars are brought in to sell tickets. Tara pointed out too that many TV stars find the grueling schedule and the rigorous demands of a live show, not to mention the severe cutback of their paychecks ,do not make the opportunity necessarily an attractive one.
By the end of the discussion, we had come full circle back to classical singing. Despite the different demands and maybe even different goals, the tools for a healthy voice and career are found through the study of classical voice training.
Norm Lewis capped the discussion with “Look no further than Audra MacDonald. Five Tonies.
Read our 5-part coverage of American Voices at The Kennedy Center
This segued beautifully into a symposium on Voice Training Today. A lot of the themes were revisited that weekend only with more detailed technical and research-based information.
As I looked back on the weekend I reflected on what a journey we had all been through together. What a feast in this remarkable program that Renée had put on. Everything had been thought through carefully from the artists she had assembled to the concert of stars.
Yes, Saturday night Renée may have worn a billowing, shimmering diva costume but she’d made a quip about it, and neither she nor baritone-bass Eric Owens had overpowered the others in the hall, as if purposefully downplaying their wares. She chose to sing “Danny Boy” rather than operatic repertoire and focused on putting over the emotional power of the words to tell her story just as all the young singers had done over the weekend.
There were no dueling divas on stage that night. Everyone sang their song, celebrating the diversity of sounds and styles. It was only in that last number when everyone joined in, lining up across the stage and the NSO cranking up behind them, that suddenly over the whole ensemble you could hear her great soprano line fill and carry us all with her. She may have been an ambassador for vocal arts all weekend, and for that we applaud her and hope there is more to come. But she stills and fills our hearts most fully with that pure yet almost impossibly warm high vocal classical line.
This program was held November 22 – 24, 2013 at The Kennedy Center.
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