Rockin’ out in musicals – six keys to success!

SINGERStew, who co-created the musical Passing Strange with Heidi Rodewald, and whose new musical Family Album opens tomorrow at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, said, “We don’t like musical theater actors so much.”

Did that make you flinch? I did when I read it.

Contemporary theater artists like Stew, inspired by the vivid immediacy of rock, continue to look for ways to bring rock into the theater. Rob Weinert-Kendt wrote a provocative piece for American Theater about this phenomenon, claiming that the “American musical’s next wave” is “a jam session between indie bands and theater artists making vital new music together.”

What does this mean to you? If you’re a singing actor, sooner or later, you’re gonna sing a rock song. And according to Stew, if you’re a “musical theater actor,” chances are you’re gonna suck.

A recent survey of audition notices showed that more than half of the roles in musicals being advertised called for “pop” or “rock” vocal styles, while only 5% called for “legit” singing. If you can’t sing pop and rock music convincingly, you’re diminishing your employability and running the risk of becoming a vocal dinosaur.

Does the prospect of singing rock in a musical make you feel confused?

American popular music started rocking out before most of us were born. Hair, the granddaddy of Broadway rock musicals, ushered in the Age of Aquarius in 1968 and had a recent successful Broadway revival just five years ago. Shows like The Who’s Tommy, American Idiot, Rent, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Spring Awakening are just a few of the Broadway hits that prominently feature rock scores.

But rock music and the traditional “Broadway” musical don’t seem to play by the same set of rules. That makes it confusing when a singing actor has to sing a rock song in a musical, doesn’t it?

Do you riff or stick to the written score? Sing with a “clean” sound or a “dirty” one? Use the text to tell the story, or just as a pretext to make some wild sounds? Fight the groove, or put it “in the pocket?”

More and more musicals are requiring singing actors to enter this unfamiliar territory, one where traditional singing teachers are rarely a helpful guide.

Instead of the clean, cultivated sound advocated by mainstream singing teachers, rock singers use a rough, raspy delivery and an in-your-face attitude to convey gritty truthfulness. Rock songs require a technique that must never seem technical, and a quality that Stew calls “swagger.”

And then there’s the lyrics.

In the “golden age” of musicals, the singer’s job was to “put over” the lyric. This meant using clear diction and detailed behavior to make a song clear and vivid.

In rock, understanding lyrics is less about the head and more about the gut. In many cases, the words of a rock song are more like Whitman’s “barbaric yawp,” more Dionysus than Apollo, a glorious cry of freedom rather than an orderly attempt at communication. Rock singers are typically long on attitude and energy, short on clarity and details: in short, the opposite of musical theater singers.

My musical theater students work on rock repertoire in class all the time – not just rock songs from musicals, but real rock songs with no connection to the theater. One of my former students recently posted a video of an Alanis Morissette song that she performed with gusto and grit. Her body was dynamic and energized, her sound raw and authentic. Only one problem, though – I couldn’t make out the words she was singing!

This is the quandary that performers and teachers of musical theater all face nowadays, and it’s a quandary that goes beyond issues of diction and articulation. It also means being uber-clear about the unfolding drama of a song and how each successive phrase reveals something new.

Let’s consider a specific example to make this discussion more concrete – how about “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar?

Too often, this classic theater-rock song seems to be an invitation to indulge in rock chick clichés, letting style and attitude take precedence over content and the unfolding drama. Look closely at the lyric, however, and you’ll see that Mary is talking with an imaginary confidante, seeking advice and as she struggles to understand how her newest lover, Jesus, has rocked her emotional world. By treating the lyric as a dramatic text, it is possible to bring specificity and variety to the communication of the song – without having to sacrifice the mood or vocal stylings! The ability to do this is a key difference between the singer and the singing actor.

Talking about diction in rock songs makes me feel like a curmudgeon, a grumpy Henry Higgins on the wrong side of the generation gap. But success in musical theater rock calls for finding a middle ground between the “barbaric yawp” and the specificity that the traditional theater singer must have. Regardless of musical genre, your job is to “create behavior that communicates the dramatic event, phrase by phrase.” Here are six things that will help you do that when you’re called upon to sing a rock song onstage:

1. Get yourself schooled.

“Rock” and “pop” are generic terms with a rich array of sub-categories. Sheri Sanders has established herself as an authority in this field with her Rock The Audition book and DVD; it’s a useful resource for getting yourself oriented in this unfamiliar new territory.

2. Look at the lyric.

Say the words without the music, even if it feels really jive or queer the first time you do it. Keep doing it until the words make sense as a monologue. This works for rock songs like it does for every other kind of song.

3. Where are the dings?

Moments of change, the instants when new thoughts begin, are always the best opportunities to make expressive choices. But watch out! The groove can obscure the dings; a brisk tempo and strong rhythm can impel you to deliver the text in a heedless hurry. To prevent this, mark the dings, and then ask yourself, What’s different now? How does this current phrase differ from (or relate to) the ones I sang previously? Once you’ve scoped out the changes in the text, find ways to reflect them in your use of your eyes, face, body and voice.

4. Move your mouth and face.

You don’t have to “mug” or overarticulate, but keeping a mobile and expressive face, eyes and mouth will help you to communicate the content of your lyric. A warm-up that includes facial flex (“gurning”) and a workout for your articulators will get you in shape to communicate.

5. Imagine the song as a story.

Who are you talking to? What are the imaginary circumstances surrounding this conversation? If the lyric doesn’t give you much to go on, let your imagination go to work on filling in the details.

6. Be a human being that has a voice!

I’ll give the last word to Stew, who threw down the gauntlet at the beginning of this post. When pressed for details, he explained, “We don’t want people that can’t sing—we just don’t want people that sing like that. We want people that sing like me and Heidi sing, which is like human beings that have a voice.

What challenges have you faced in trying to present rock songs in a theatrical context? Do you get grumpy like me when you can’t understand the words? What do you think about Stew’s comment and the future of the indie-music musical? Feel free to school me in the comments below!

“Barbaric Yawp?” WTF?

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  1. Charlie, I’ve spent so much thought on this question. Especially since seeing HOLLER IF YOU HEAR ME last week. Many of my students do live in the world of contemporary music, and only detour into Musical Theatre repertoire for class or professional purposes. But, their hearts are in the Indie and Top 40 charts. I have alums who are indie recording artists, rap writer/artists, etc. Just like you, I bet. So, the real question doesn’t just come to, “Why can’t MT artists sing pop/rock/rap music authentically?” (I think they can). But, more to the point, “What is the relationship between traditional dramatic singing/acting (and writing) values and these new musicals?” Conservatory trained singing actors are now all exploring the intersection of pop/rock and theatre. But, I’m not sure how much or where indie rock artists are exploring the relationship they have to dramatic storytelling. Sondheim, Hammerstein, Kern, etc. all learned a good deal about telling character-specific stories through tightly crafted songs and librettos. Many recent musicals are either jukebox collages of songs that were written with no context or a different context than they’re presented in. Song cycles and pop song assemblages are a distant cousin from Dramatic Musical works written from front to back with the intention of telling a story that needs to be told. Interesting conundrum. I hope these new, energetic and often exciting writers catch up to the tradition and craft of this art form. No need to write Golden Age musicals. But, there golden lessons to be inherited from that age.

    1. Joe, Your comments are always thoughtful and full of insight. That’s exactly what I’m trying to help students sort out – the relationship between their musical theater studies (with its quaint, slightly old-fashioned repertoire) and full range of the music they love. There are still musicals being written with Golden Age techniques – I think Bridges of Madison County and Gentleman’s Guide both have plenty of old-school values, even if Bridges has a contemporary sound. Bridges actually uses voice type and singing style as a means of delineating character: Francesca is lyrical, legit; her husband, the scrappy farmer, sings in a country-pop idiom with a rough vocal style; and the photographer is less rough, more lyrical, more sensitive in his vocalism as befits his character. What’s a poor singing actor to do?

    1. Dear Sheri, Thanks for getting in touch! I know your presentation at MTEA was quite a sensation. It sounds like you’re doing great innovative work in an area that’s ripe for exploration. Charlie

  2. I love this topic simply because it has become one of the main roots out of all things concerning my journey as a natural born singing actor! I’m an MT student going into my junior year, but of all genres, musical theater was one of the last ones that I encountered. I feel like if I looked at the strong roles that different genres of music played in my life, I would have grown up in house being raised by gospel (always watching, guiding, and protecting), soul and R&B was that young, beautiful, charmingly cool aunt that I wanted to be exactly like, pop and rock were the mischievous friends from school that I’d be talking to about things that were always more mature in subject than my actual age, jazz was that overseeing teacher-like figure inviting me to think in new refreshing ways that both intimidated and enticed my mind, and musical theater was that really sweet family friend and spending time in her house always felt like home. I say “natural born” singing actor, because while exploring and being influenced by different styles of music, understanding the story and message of a song has always been what I was drawn to. Now, I find that my musical theater training is providing me with tools in order to execute this construction of music in clean, precise, and creative way allowing me to not only receive my own personal revelation about the meaning of a piece, but to then be able to share it in a way that would hopefully be understood and felt. My BIGGEST most FRUSTRATING challenge when approaching jazz, pop, gospel, anything other than musical theater, is that sometimes when I try to use my shinny new tools I’ll often feel like I damaged and/or lost the life of a song or the spirit of it. I’ll end up feeling like maybe I shouldn’t have thought about it so much. I’d find that the same song I sang at church or at a jazz bar or as the lead in a pop/rock band, I’m now singing in an audition and something’s missing. I think it all comes down to people from all walks of art understanding something that Kristin Linklater said in “Freeing the Natural Voice”. “Perfect communication DEMANDS from the actor a balanced quartet of Emotion, Intellect, Body, and Voice. NO one part can compensate with its strength for the weakness of another.” I personally would also add the word Technique to her quartet of greatness, but it’s just so true! There’s so much more potential in our work to move people when we challenge ourselves to not just be satisfied with being able to produce work the has clarity with out the guts or emotionally stimulating work without technique and specificity. I want my work to have an essence that is rubato in the sense that it would feel free, but to be executed in time to have the sense of a focused direction or goal of specific communication. I believe that kind of work will come from bridging the gaps between musical theater any other genres, not just pop/rock.

    1. You raise a great point about the fear of “overthinking” a song that wasn’t originally written for musical theater. My experience, though, is when you sing such a song in a theater setting, then you’re presenting it as part of a dramatic event with imaginary circumstances. In other words, the rules change when you move from the concert hall, the church or the jazz club to the stage. The quote from Linklater is an excellent one too! Thanks for posting, Jasmine!

      1. That’s a very helpful way of thinking about things! Instead of expecting to create the same familiar effect when moving different genres of music into the theater world, I should be taking into consideration the rules that will change! Thanks for having this discussion.

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