A recent article in the New York Times bagged on current Broadway vocalists for being too “American Idol” and not distinctive and individualistic enough.
HE three women come from different times, different lands and different wardrobe departments. But since they are all denizens of that quaint provincial theme park called Broadway, the green-skinned witch (hometown: Oz), the pink-cheeked tomboy (hometown: 19th-century Concord, Mass.) and the ethnic rainbow of a waif (hometown: Paris, but now adrift in 21st-century Brooklyn) turn out to share the same voice.
Close your eyes and listen as their larynxes stretch and vibrate with the pain of being an underdog and the joy of being really loud. Bet you can’t tell them apart. For that matter, bet you can’t distinguish the heroines of the current Broadway musicals “Wicked,” “Little Women” and “Brooklyn” from the average female finalist on “American Idol.”
Ann Alhouse, who love AI and hates Broadway, thinks there’s nothing new here:
But crowd-pleasing has been part of shows and concerts for a long time. Why do they give Oscars for hammy emoting — crying and dying — and not for subtlety? Why do people at rock concerts cheer for show-offy guitar solos? Brantley’s article is titled “How Broadway Lost Its Voice to ‘American Idol’” — and I just don’t believe in the cause and effect. The human taste for big, loud, and spectacular goes back a long way.
I agree and disagree. The style of vocals favored on Broadway has definitely changed; in the forties and fifties, a generic Broadway song owed less of its stylings to pop – the vocal show-off numbers were smoother, slower, less full of needless soars and dips, all of it filed off to form a smooth, almost featureless vocal surface. It’s very impressive, and to my ear almost oppressively boring; I prefer the modern Broadway vocalist, crescendoing ever onward.
The Times critic, Ben Brantley, complains that nowadays there’s less individual flair. I’m not sure that’s true. Yes, Just what the generic style consists of has changed; but the fact that there is a generic style has not. It’s simply not possible for everyone to be Kristin Chenoweth; by definition, the majority of performers don’t have as much individual flair as the stand-outs. (Hey, I didn’t know Chenoweth did a recording of Candide - along with Patti Lupone. Damn. I’ve got to get that DVD.) Brantley is nostalgic for the days of Ethel Merman; well, she was fantastic, but you could hardly call her a typical example of what vocalists used to be like.
Matt at A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago, who like me loves Broadway but unlike me knows something about it, defends “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, one of the songs Brantley criticizes:
The third song he singles out to bash is the Act One finale of Wicked, “Defying Gravity.” First, it must be noted that in a lot of ways, “Defying Gravity” is a traditional Act I Finale. While the song is primarily sung by one of the show’s two leading ladies, a substantial part of it is a duet, and it closes with punctuation from the entire ensemble. Second, unlike “Astonishing,” “Defying Gravity” fits into the plot, both musically and character-wise. The lyrics relate to and advance the plot, and the music makes sense–the character singing the song has reached a breaking point in her life–a departure–and the music reinforces that–soaring into a belt at the end of the first Elphaba verse–as does the staging. Wicked does have songs that might rightly be proclaimed as nothing more than “Look At Me!” songs (most notably “Popular”), but this isn’t one of them.
Kip is listening to the same song, but he doesn’t succumb uncritically to the soaring vocals:
“Defying Gravity“? is a king-hell slice of Disney cheese, a competently played first-act closer that bulldozes its way through what ought to be the most delicately charged moment between Elphaba and Glinda, leaping past questionable rhymes and awkward scansion straight to those triumphantly lung-punching diva belts your bones will thrum to all through intermission, and the less said about the climax, the better. And it doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter. I can see the auctorial intent blundering up to me like a sloppy puppy dog, like a kid behind the wheel for the very first time, and it doesn’t matter one bit: my buttons still get pushed. Just about all of them. Hard. “And if you care to find me,”? Idina Menzel whoops over the accelerating horns and synths and drums, “look to the western skies!”? and it’s all I can do not to hit replay over and over and over again like some endorphin-besotted rat.
I know just how Kip feels. During that “and if you care to fine me, look to the western skies!” bit I have to close my eyes and I almost shiver. The thing is, this sort of thing is only good if it works on you; if it doesn’t hit you somewhere in the solar plexus, it’s plain embarrassing.
Kip shows just how little there is to “Defying Gravity” (which I love) by mentioning it the same post as another song with a close-your-eyes-and-thrill-to-it moment, Stephen Sondheim’s god-like “Now/Soon/Later,” from A Little Night Music, just as shiver-inducing but about a hundred times more intelligent, character-based and real. I’m playing Wicked on heavy (heavy!) rotation right now, but there was a time when I played Kiss of the Spider Woman just as often, and now I play it less than once a year. Sondheim isn’t as easy, but it’ll last a lot longer.