Author: Mark Olsen, Chair, Musical Theatre Department, New York Film Academy
To sing a song in the musical theatre is to move beyond the simple presentation of the tonal elements and to allow the song to live fully within an active story-based context. That is not to say that there are never moments of simple song presentation in the musical theatre. Some songs in certain musicals, like many numbers in the musical Dreamgirls, for example, are placed and sung as pure presentations of song. However those moments are rare and even in their straight forward presentational style, are often laced with background context. In other words, a song in the musical theatre is not only sung it is acted. Acting is the truthful blend of visual and aural expression within an imaginary context. Therefore, a singer in a musical must also connect to the physical life, the body language, of the song.
There are numerous classes and coaches who specialize in helping singers improve and maintain their vocal performances. Physical expression, however, tends to get much less attention. That is why many musical theatre performers resort to cliche gestures and wooden physical choices in their work. They become so absorbed into their vocal performance that the physical expression becomes flat, uninteresting, or even unsupportive of the imaginary circumstances.
To begin calibrating the physical expression of a song, the performer needs to have a clear understanding of the “world of the play”. The time period and the overall style of the musical will already carry with it a number of physical demands. The physical life of a farcical screwball comedy is much different than the physical life of a nineteenth century operetta. Once the style is determined, other research begins. In most cases, our modern access to the archival footage of past decades and previous productions makes this a fun and relatively easy process.
Viewing excerpts of old footage as well as paintings from certain periods and researching the clothing of a certain era will go a long way toward feeding the imagination. However, the song needs to come to life within the context of the production. Therefore the performer needs to know how the director and artistic team view the world of the play. Each production of Kiss Me Kate, for example, will have its own point of view and could, as one production I witnessed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, be placed in Little Italy, New York. Under those conditions the character choices and onstage gestural life will be uniquely influenced by that location.
Once the initial research is complete, the performer needs to embark upon some special homework: physical exploration. A good beginning is to simply sing the song while moving freely around the room. Put all expectations and conventional notions of how to move and simply commit to a liberated and unedited exploration of movement. The singing need not be particularly accurate or at full volume and should take a back seat to the more important journey of the body. Keep this exploration going beyond the comfort zone, beyond the known and conventional notions of the song itself. Literally take the song on a ride well beyond the confines of its normal boundaries.
This exploration, if done well, will allow for some unique and highly expressive choices to emerge. An hour of physical exploration that results in even a single gestural discovery is time well spent!
Another technique is to play a recording of the song and to move and dance and physically explore without any attempt to sing the song. Let the lyrics and the sounds of the music move the body in abstract or literal ways, free to move in a spectrum of physicality from high magnitude and high energy to miniature and very low energy. As in the other exploration, much like panning for gold, the process is to make a personal physical connection to the song and emerge from the exploration with a few useful choices, nuggets of gold, that can then be refined and adjusted to meet the needs of the song’s circumstance.
Artistic discovery is often linked to limitation of one kind or another. Try giving yourself a series of “rules” or “limits” as a way of forcing you out of your usual physical choices. Tell yourself that you are not allowed to stand with arms extended and palms upward. When you remove this common choice from your vocabulary you are forced to engage the body in new ways and find more interesting and more expressive physical choices.
In conclusion, to calibrate the physical expression of a song a musical theatre performer can choose the following:
1. Research the time period of the musical
2. Research the particulars of the specific production
3. While singing the song, engage the body in a fully released explorative journey
4. While listening to a recording of the song, engage the body in a fully released explorative journey
5. Sing the song while enacting some particular physical limitation that forces new and personally unusual choices to emerge.