Pop Music Is In: The Changing Sound of Musical Theatre
By Mark Meylan, London
No one can avoid having an opinion on or listening to pop music. It surrounds us in our daily lives, sneaking into our subconscious at every turn: on the car radio, in the store and on the television. The world of advertising uses pop songs and singers to sell us everything from cars to cola. The television industry has begun to produce such programes as Popstars and Pop Idol, where numerous contestants chosen from the general public are voted for based on musical talent until a select few are left. It doesn’t even matter who ‘wins’, because with a camera crew in every corner, these previously unknown finalists are shot to instant fame, with predicted chart success and multi-million dollar incomes.
Former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell covers the Weather Girls’ classic “It’s Raining Men” on the soundtrack to the recent movie “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” The soundtrack will also feature Robbie Williams remaking the song “Have You Met Miss Jones?”, which introduces a new generation to the swing style of Frank Sinatra, while dance-pop singer Gabrielle’s “Out of Reach” hit radio in the U.K.
In an environment where pop music has developed into quite a phenomenon, it was only a matter of time before the musical theatre industry followed. Many of the long-running musicals such as Cats, Starlight Express, Miss Saigon and Buddy have been replaced with pop driven shows like Taboo, We Will Rock You and Mamma Mia!, featuring the songs of Boy George, Queen and Abba. Long gone are the Lloyd Weber shows, such as Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard. The Jekyll and Hyde and Scarlet Pimpernel tours ended before even reaching London in order for theatres to be able to play Notre Dame de Paris, which ran for eighteen months, despite the fact that it was less of a musical and more of a fabulous pop extravaganza – an exciting fusion of MTV and a theatre stage.
These pop culture trends have led to a change in many singing teacher’s studios. There’s been a shift of focus in the vocal qualities and audition repertoire of students. For auditions, future performers must now have contrasting pop songs ranging from the 1950’s to the 21st century. Many singers find themselves working their voice at its extremes. One week a singer is developing a good ‘pop’ mix for an audition for the brand new musical, Our House, featuring the greatest hits of 80’s pop band, MADNESS, while the following week her larynx is headed southward, adopting a different posture for a rendition of a song in Michael Blakemore’s Broadway revival production of Cole Porter’s 1948 musical Kiss Me Kate.
Pop singers must maintain various forms of speech quality, which requires flexible chest and middle registers and good access to a mix (a forward speech-like middle register). As always in musical theatre, singers have to sing these types of songs several times a week, sometimes with the song having a shift in emotional demands. Some theatrical roles demand great vocal stamina, such as Donna in Mamma Mia!, who has three songs following each other in the second half of the musical, the third of which is “Winner Takes It All”, with a big belt finish. Belting, or perhaps I should say ‘rock-belting’, is a big part of the climax for this repertoire. Sometimes this seems more akin to screaming. While it may have been possible for the phenomenal Freddie Mercury to access top D’s with no difficulty many rock tenors, may choose not to scream top D’s several times a week.
These adjustments in sound and style only extend vocal flexibility of current musical theatre performers, and these young singers display a wealth of skill, resolve and resilience. The Voice Foundation and the British Voice Association, as well as the Association of Teachers of Singing, help everyone connected with today’s talent to understand, develop and maintain these voices and dreams.