Friday 8 February 2008

Singing actors?

Should actors in musicals be able to sing? Is it necessary for them to be able to sing well, or are untrained voices acceptable? These thoughts occurred to me whilst reading reviews of the new film of Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd. I have yet to see the film but find myself disturbed by the comments on how unused to singing the leading actors were.

For me, I must admit, the answer to the question is a resounding yes, an actor should be able to sing, and sing well if they are to appear in a musical. I realise that not everyone will agree with this and find it acceptable it the performers can get by in a reasonably expressive manner.

But it is this little word expressive which is a big sticking point. An interesting example of my problem is the National Theatre production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Judi Dench. Now Dench is a superb actress and an adequate singer, she was after all the first London Sally Bowles. But I felt it noticeable in the musical that she was less flexible, less expressive in her musical numbers. Her lack of (regular) musical experience meant that she was a little constrained; she could not be as expressive musically as she could with words.

And musicals are meant to be sung. I can still remember a revival of one of the great American musicals in the West End where virtually none of the cast could properly hold a tune. Very few actors are the equal of Rex Harrison who could be very expressive in musical numbers even though he just talked his way through the songs in My Fair Lady. Of course, with the advent of microphones and improved recording technology, it is possible to make a poor or inadequate singer seem fascinating on film. Of course, this requires the performer to be in some way charismatic so that, in the Rex Harrison mould, other qualities come to the fore and replace the musical ones.

Music is a language and if a performer is unused to it, then they simply will not be able to express themselves as well as they can in words. And when ballet dancers turn actors or singers, they have a double hurdle to leap as they are unused to expressing themselves with their voice at all. I saw Irek Mukhamedov in The King and I and though his acting and singing were creditable, it was noticeable that he was at his most relaxed and most expressive when dancing.

Live performance suffers in a similar manner because of the use of microphones, meaning that a singer who would be expected to be able to project their speaking voice in an auditorium does not have to do this when singing. I have seen a few musicals over the years where amplification was not used. Carousel at the National Theatre was done without, I believe, and it revealed an entirely different set of strengths and weaknesses in the cast. The big advantage was that you were hearing the performers for real and this forced them to consider how to be expressive musically. My abiding musical memory of that performance was Patricia Routledge singing You’ll never walk alone. But then I heard Routledge upstage June Anderson and a clutch of other opera singers in a concert performance (unamplified) of Bernstein’s Candide.

Grange Park Opera have a tradition of doing the occasional musical and, given the smallness of the theatre, doing them unamplified. They mix young opera singers and actors. Listening to these performances, it makes you realise that the performers in the early musical must have been fine, musical actors with decent, if not strong voices.

But you can take things to the opposite extreme, and a musical cast entirely from opera singers is not necessarily a lovely thing either!

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