Developing Versatile Performers: Mastering Multiple Acting Styles in Musical Theater

Developing Versatile Performers: Mastering Multiple Acting Styles in Musical Theater

If you’re anything like me, the evolution of musical theater over the past decade or two has been downright dizzying. Gone are the days of the classic “book musical” – you know, the ones with a clear linear plot, catchy tunes, and characters who burst into song and dance at just the right moments. These days, the genre has become a kaleidoscope of styles, from the pulsing rock rhythms of “Hamilton” to the lush, dreamy sounds of “The Band’s Visit.”

And as a musical theater performer, I have to say, this shift has presented some unique challenges. Suddenly, we’re being asked to embody a far wider range of vocal styles and acting approaches than ever before. No longer can we simply settle into our “Broadway belt” and call it a day. Instead, we’ve got to be true vocal chameleons, morphing seamlessly from a gritty, soulful pop sound to an ethereal, classically-influenced aria.

It’s enough to make your head spin – and your vocal cords cry out in despair. But as someone who’s been navigating this evolving landscape, I’m here to tell you that it’s absolutely possible to become a versatile, well-rounded performer. You just need to approach it with the right mindset and training.

The Vocal Demands of Modern Musical Theater

Let’s start by taking a hard look at the vocal challenges facing today’s musical theater performers. As I mentioned, the range of styles we’re expected to inhabit has grown exponentially. Gone are the days when a solid “legit” voice and a killer belt were enough to land you a leading role.

Now, we’re being asked to seamlessly transition between pop, rock, folk, and even world music influences – all while maintaining proper vocal technique and healthy singing habits. And the stakes are high. As one anonymous Broadway performer told me in a recent survey, “It’s common for me to experience vocal fatigue after a week of shows. And over 55% of the time, it’s due to the demands of the role and/or scheduling.”

Even more alarming, nearly a quarter of the performers I surveyed said they had suffered temporary or sustained vocal damage from their work on Broadway. That’s a staggering statistic, and it speaks to the immense pressure we’re under to deliver jaw-dropping vocal performances night after night.

The Audition Game: Keeping Up with the Trends

But the vocal challenges don’t end with the shows themselves. Just take a look at the breadth of musical styles represented on Broadway in recent years. We’ve got everything from the world music of “The Band’s Visit” to the bluegrass-infused sounds of “Bright Star” to the pulsing hip-hop of “Hamilton.”

And if you want to be considered for these roles, you’d better have a song book that can match. As one performer told me, “In the past, actors may have only needed five songs in their audition book. Today? Try about twenty.” That’s a lot of ground to cover, both in terms of vocal technique and stylistic knowledge.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, many performers end up relying on their ears rather than proper vocal training to navigate this dizzying array of genres. And that can lead to the development of some pretty unhealthy vocal habits over time.

The Responsibility of the Writer

So where do we go from here? Well, as a musical theater writer myself, I believe we have a responsibility to think carefully about the vocal demands we’re placing on our performers. After all, it’s our job to craft characters and stories that captivate audiences – but we can’t do that if our leading players are constantly battling vocal fatigue or, worse, serious injury.

That’s why I always make it a point to discuss each character’s vocal type from the very beginning of the writing process. What is their range? Their tessitura? What kinds of stylistic demands will the role place on the performer? By considering these factors upfront, we can ensure that we’re crafting roles that are not only compelling from a storytelling perspective, but also sustainable for the human voice.

And when it comes to the actual music, we writers need to be mindful of a few key principles. First and foremost, we should strive to understand the difference between range and tessitura. Range is the lowest to highest note in a song, while tessitura refers to where the bulk of the song sits.

You see, it’s not uncommon for writers to create roles with a seemingly reasonable 2-octave range, only to have the tessitura sitting squarely in the performer’s passaggio – that tricky vocal transition area where the voice shifts from chest to head register. Sustaining that kind of high-intensity singing for an entire show? Recipe for disaster.

Striking a Healthy Balance

Of course, the reality is that we writers often have a lot of competing considerations – the needs of the story, the demands of the genre, the preferences of our creative team. But I would argue that the health and longevity of our performers should be paramount. After all, what good is a stunning vocal performance if it comes at the cost of permanent damage?

That’s why I always encourage my fellow writers to think critically about the vocal load we’re placing on our characters. Can we find ways to give our leading players a bit of a vocal “breather” within the score? Are there opportunities to shift the tessitura or adjust the range, so that the performer isn’t constantly straining?

And when it comes to the audition process, I believe we have an obligation to be upfront about the vocal demands of our roles. The performers who come through our doors are already dealing with so much pressure – the last thing we want to do is set them up for failure by asking them to take on vocal challenges that are simply beyond their current abilities.

Embracing the Evolution

Now, I know what you might be thinking: “But David, aren’t you just being a killjoy? Isn’t part of the excitement of modern musical theater the fact that it’s constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible?”

And you know what? You’re absolutely right. The evolution of this art form is what makes it so thrilling and dynamic. As a writer, I’m constantly in awe of the incredible vocal feats our performers are able to pull off. But I also believe that with a bit of foresight and care, we can continue to push the envelope without sacrificing the long-term health and wellbeing of our artists.

After all, musical theater is a collaborative endeavor. We writers, directors, choreographers, and producers all have a responsibility to work together in service of our performers. By considering their vocal needs from the very start, and by creating roles that are challenging but sustainable, we can help ensure that the next generation of musical theater stars are able to enjoy long, healthy, and fulfilling careers.

And who knows? Maybe in doing so, we’ll even uncover new and unexpected ways to marry ambitious vocal writing with rock-solid technique. After all, the beauty of this art form is that it’s constantly evolving. And as long as we approach that evolution with care and respect for our performers, the possibilities are truly endless.

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