The True Voice

18 08 2008

Listening to Jerry Orbach singing “Her Face” from Carnival! (1961-1963, music by Bob Merrill), I am reminded of so many great stars of the musical stage, people like John Raitt, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Stubby Kaye, Nancy Kwan, Zero Mostel who worked onstage without microphones. These people projected their speaking and singing voices so that anyone in the theater could hear every syllable. And there was a three-dimensionality to the sound–it was round–so that, listening, one could hear a direct relation to the spatial configurations onstage. A full production number for a show like Bye Bye, Birdie or Fiddler on the Roof, Take Me Along or Flower Drum Song, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with a cast of thirty singing at full volume was a thoroughly acoustic experience: it made the body vibrate.

We have become so accustomed to the “screening of the musical”–its affiliation with television and the movies because it is literally adapted from screen material; or its overall flattening, due to the amplification process now ubiquitous–that there are scarcely any memories these days of the “true voice” in a musical show. Most fans who adored Orbach in his signature role on television’s “Law and Order” (until his untimely death in 2004) had no idea that he was a Broadway hoofer (who originated El Gallo in The Fantasticks and Billy Flynn in Chicago, as well as Paul Berthalet in Carnival! and Julian Marsh in 42nd Street, not to mention performances in Annie Get Your Gun, Promises, Promises, and other shows), nor did many fans catch that his detective partner Jessie L. Martin was in the original cast of (the microphoned) Rent. As voices are flattened, so are musical scores, with dozens of songs that sound almost identical constituting a “score” we are supposed to take as seriously as what could have been heard in Carousel, My Fair Lady, and so on.

I would like to see once again a show–original, revival, anything–designed not as a broadcast but as a live performance, with people who can sing and dance for real. In the musical theater, something wonderful and chilling and true has been thrown away.




One response

17 01 2009
Bookmarks about Voice

[…] – bookmarked by 6 members originally found by SimonDubois on 2008-12-21 The True Voice – bookmarked by 5 members […]

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