Singing styles on Broadway: Too American Idol?

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.

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8 Responses to Singing styles on Broadway: Too American Idol?

  1. 1
    chaizzilla says:

    but it hits the solar plexus so much more thoroughly when there’s a palpable charachter on stage than just another vocal technician. the generic itself isn’t what interferes with the effect.

  2. 2
    Evan says:

    Yeah, Broadway musicals just don’t hold a candle to the good old days when we had real singers, like Ethel Merman and Carol Channing.

    And you know what else I miss? Polio! Boy, those were the days, huh?

  3. 3
    jam says:

    “and if you care to fine me, look to the western skies!”?

    what, is this a song about air flight industry regulators? ;)

  4. 4
    Natalie says:

    Interesting that they’re complaining that Broadway is too American Idol–as someone who is an on-and-off again fan of AI, one of Simon Cowell’s pet peeves is singers that he identifies as being “too Broadway”.

    That said, I saw Wicked last summer, before Idina Menzel left the show, and while I knew all my buttons were being pushed, I didn’t care. Wicked strick me as being a very traditional sort of show, so of course they’re going to have the big, bring down the house closer for Act I. How could they not? I mean, the show kind of matches up to the source material, but there are some really significant changes that were made in order to force it into the right shape for a Broadway show. So having a few musical cliches isn’t surprising at all and, in fact, is to be expected.

  5. 5
    Lizzybeth says:

    When I hear the phrase “soaring vocals” (especially in the context of American Idol), I mentally picture an Olympic hammer-thrower, swinging that thing around in a huge arc. Just throwing your voice around is not singing. I remember hearing Christina Aguilera trying to sing Etta James’ “At Last”, which is one of my favorite songs, and it was excruciating. Girl kept drawing out all the notes with all these trills and flares and just buried the song, just drained it of all its character and power. She and the vast majority of these singers don’t understand how to sing at all. They may have impressive voices, but it’s how you play the instrument that matters. I’m sure that’s the complaint that Broadway fans have – songs that used to convey character and emotion now constitute hitting lots of notes really loudly. I watched American Idol for a few seasons and it’s amazing how they beat down these kids, some of whom have real talent, into the cookie-cutter bland belter mode. The first auditions are actually the best part, when there’s some leftover individuality there that hasn’t been stamped out yet.

  6. 6
    Samantha says:

    Loved the book, loved the musical, and the songs were hummed by me for days after. I’m a former NYer and a big fan of musicals who used to joke that I had to keep up with the latest in Broadway to not have my fag hag license revoked.

    So many musicals have disappointed me that the return to classic Broadway form in Wicked was a delight. I get my biggest chills when Elphaba and Galinda change their bickering “I hope you’re happy” to a belted out well-wishing “I hope you’re happy”.

    Portland’s musical production scene sucks. :(

  7. 7
    dave munger says:

    Interesting. I definitely agree that Chenoweth is better than Mendel, that Galinda is a more interesting character than Elphaba, but remember that it was Mendel who won the Tony. The tastes of the masses lean more to the AI style, by definition: the point of AI is to find the next pop star.

    The problem with Broadway today is that the costs of mounting a show are so staggering that they can’t possibly be recouped without a tour, a hit CD, cross-merchandising, and a Hollywood movie either preceding or derived from it. There’s no room for the clever, experimental shows.

    Or perhaps there is: after all, Avenue Q isn’t exactly mainstream, but it has been reasonably successful.

  8. 8
    clew says:

    I just enjoyed the gahoolies out of myself at Bride and Prejudice. This is faintly embarrassing on a plot level – I don’t think it passes the Mo Movie Test; there are lots of women but they talk to each other about men – but oh boy, that was a MUSICAL.

    And as far as I could tell all the camerawork was devoted to getting more dancers in every shot.