About two decades ago, big music schools decided that music theatre wasn’t all that bad. Somebody told them it was very difficult for a twenty-four year old artist to fill a hall singing a recital. Young singers need to look good and move well on stage. Eastman resurrected a long-lost Gershwin show. This spring Curtis brought back an alumnus to sing Wozzeck who had just made a name for himself on Broadway as Judd in Oklahoma. It pleased the powers that be in these king and queen-making institutions to erase or at least blur the distinction between what high-fallutin’ singing was and how people sang on Broadway. Some wonderful things have come from this. We now have stars of the musical theatre like Audra McDonald who sing with subtlety and beauty—no honking, no belting. If only we had shows good enough for them.
Musical theatre is our natural speech. Next spring in schools all over the country, kids with average talent will thrill their grandparents making their way through great tunes, and though they don’t know it, being American. Leonard Bernstein embraced this, and American composers have to deal with it. Just a few blocks from where I heard a great “Fantasticks” this weekend, I learned this. It was during a production of Man of La Mancha directed by the excellent Ralph Hammann in Pittsfield High School. Mr. Hammann is a teacher who does not condescend. By all accounts he is tough. I saw in his ordinary school auditorium a beautiful and functional set, and a seriously talented boy completely invested in the title role. Some of the singing was raw and out of tune, but the end of the show was one of the most moving things I have seen in the theatre. The kids made me believe that life and death were not too large for singing. Whatever their talent level, they were going to remake these fundamentals with their voices. I believed them. And just as important, I felt at home. This was our idiom. This was the way we talked. Is there any of us who love music who have not been in one of these plain shows, plain shows which we will never forget?
I saw a couple of good ones this weekend. The Fantasticks at Barrington Stage was a fantastically finished production, coordinated acting at its best. One hears what a show is when there is no weak link and no prima donna. I went to the theatre trying not to be cynical, which means I was cynical. But somehow this piece gets you. The second act moves me because it does not lie. It doesn’t rely on a big finish. Like all great shows, the singing in it seems absolutely necessary. All of the musicals I have seen at Barrington Stage have had what I might call humility. They have been clearly cast with singing actors who do not holler and can express many kinds of detail with their voices. There was no exaggeration.
The next night I went to Cohoes Music Hall to see Sweeney Todd. This is a great old venue which opened in 1874. It is small and enveloping. The excellent resident company, C-R Productions, has made it more practical and in so doing, has created a renaissance in their small city. The show was remarkable, not least because it had two marvelous tenors (that’s right, two). Brendan Hoffman sang Anthony with glistening beauty and power and made the character strong, not callow. I have never heard anyone sing “I Feel You, Johanna” as well. Dan Lawler as Tobias captivated the house with his famous song “Not While I’m Around”. Actually he captivated the house with about three vowels in “Not While I’m Around,” vowels on long sustained notes which he imagined into profound beauty. The Music Hall is an enterprise which deserves admiration and support. These are not easy times, and what Jim Charles and Tony Rivera have done is a rare thing. Artists can remake a community.
BUT, I think I’m going to get myself a bumper sticker which says “Give singing a chance.” In both of these shows, there was amplification, subtle amplification. The singing in both was excellent. I have often heard un-amplified singing in Cohoes and loved it. Something happens when a voice is amplified. We SEE differently. We want a voice to come out of a person’s face, our central reference point. When it comes out of a variety of places I see the face of the singer differently. I lose identity. Isnt’ it true that sound, direct sound, may be even more important than the face? Remember the Magdalen in the garden did not recognize the face of Jesus until she could connect it with a voice. I doubt if this would have happened if the voice was coming to her from multiple sources. Sure, the amplification adds a little presence. But the ear can soon adjust to a realistic acoustic, and the face can have its voice again and be a real sounding human face.