three women come from different times, different lands and different
wardrobe departments. But since they are all denizens of that quaint
provincial theme park called Broadway, the green-skinned witch (hometown:
Oz), the pink-cheeked tomboy (hometown: 19th-century Concord, Mass.)
and the ethnic rainbow of a waif (hometown: Paris, but now adrift
in 21st-century Brooklyn) turn out to share the same voice.
Close your eyes and listen as their larynxes stretch and vibrate
with the pain of being an underdog and the joy of being really loud.
Bet you can't tell them apart. For that matter, bet you can't distinguish
the heroines of the current Broadway musicals "Wicked,"
"Little Women" and "Brooklyn" from the average
female finalist on "American Idol."
When it's time
for a big ballad on Broadway these days, theatergoers can pretend
they are still in their living rooms, basking in the synthetic adrenaline
glow of their favorite TV show.
Give the people
what they already have. This reigning philosophy of Broadway has
been translated into a multitude of musicals inspired by popular
movies and vintage pop songbooks. So why not reality television?
Idol" also-rans have been dropped into Broadway replacement
casts, including Tamyra Gray ("Bombay Dreams") and Frenchie
Davis ("Rent"). "Brooklyn," Mark Schoenfeld
and Barri McPherson's gooey fairy tale of street people and pop
stardom, actually features a climactic "American Idol"-style
sing-off between a pair of crowd-courting divas.
But such examples
are superficial, the equivalent of a matron who piles hip-hop accessories
on top of her St. John's suit. The tentacles of the "American
Idol" sensibility actually reach much deeper, into the very
throat of the American musical, and may change forever the way Broadway
sings. This is not a happy prognosis.
The style of
vocalizing that is rewarded on "American Idol" - by its
panel of on-air judges and by the television audience that votes
on the winners - is both intensely emotional and oddly impersonal.
The accent is on abstract feelings, usually embodied by people of
stunning ordinariness, than on particular character. Quivering vibrato,
curlicued melisma, notes held past the vanishing point: the favorite
technical tricks of "Idol" contestants are often like
screams divorced from the pain or ecstasy that inspired them.
musical has always had its share of big-voiced belters, from Ethel
Merman to Patti LuPone. But they have usually belonged to the tradition
of Broadway as a temple to magnified idiosyncrasies, to performers
for whom song is an extension of individuality. Which is why when
Simon Cowell, the most notoriously harsh of "American Idol's"
judges, describes a contestant as "too Broadway," it is
meant as a withering dismissal. Carol Channing, Robert Preston,
Jerry Orbach and Gwen Verdon wouldn't stand a chance in the court
of Cowell. And if they were starting out today, they probably wouldn't
stand a chance in Broadway musicals either.
Like the Olympics
telecasts, "American Idol" celebrates stamina, will power
and gymnastic agility. The most successful contestants take an athletic
approach to a melody. They hoist, hold and balance notes like barbells
in a weight-lifting exhibition. And the audience claps and hoots
instinctively every time such muscle-flexing occurs.
That same Pavlovian
reaction is now being elicited on Broadway as well. Eruptions of
note-bending have joined the hallowed list of performance tricks
guaranteed to inspire applause: precision tap dancing, Rockette-style
line kicks, handsprings, successive pirouettes and indignant one-liners
that are followed by the slamming of doors.
At the performance
I attended of the new musical "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,"
, the audience greeted each number with subdued warmth, though the
show's stars, John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz, were working hard
to put over the songs with style and character. Finally, in a self-addressed
valentine that is the show's last number, Mr. Butz claimed his "American
Idol" moment with one musically stretched-out phrase: "I
think we still deserve a ha-a-a-a-nd ..." I suspect that the
composer David Yazbek intended the moment to be comic. All the same,
the audience roared with approval . It was what they had been waiting
That self-congratulatory element is also part of the "American
Idol" package - the subtext that goes, "I deserve to be
a star because it's my right as an American, and because I try so
hard." It seems appropriate that musicals as seemingly different
as "Wicked," a politically corrected back story of "The
Wizard of Oz," and "Little Women," adapted from the
Louisa May Alcott classic, both have first-act finales that are
brassy (and virtually interchangeable) declarations of self-worth
Women," the tomboy heroine Jo (Sutton Foster) bursts out with
a number about her will to succeed called "Astonishing."
In "Wicked," the maverick witch Elphaba (a role created
by Idina Menzel, now played by Shoshana Bean) proclaims her independence
in the ear-blasting "Defying Gravity." (A parody in Gerard
Alessandrini's priceless spoof "Forbidden Broadway" has
Ms. Menzel "defying audio.")
When it opened,
"Wicked" also starred Kristin Chenoweth, as Elphaba's
opposite, the popular and pretty Glinda (now portrayed by Jennifer
Laura Thompson). Ms. Chenoweth is a sunny, witty singer who suggests
a cross between Mary Martin and Bernadette Peters. If Ms. Menzel
tackled her numbers, Ms. Chenoweth teased and flirted with them.
The face-off between the witches of "Wicked" became a
nightly confrontation between Old and New Broadway. It was Ms. Mendel
who won the Tony and, from what I gather from parents of school-age
children, the hearts of the little girls in the audience.
You could argue
that Elphaba is a Broadway archetype: the unprepossessing, unlikely
creature transformed into a powerhouse whenever she sings. Certainly
that was the charm of Ethel Merman, who became a Broadway star in
1930 in "Girl Crazy." A half-century later, Jennifer Holiday
was bringing down the house in "Dreamgirls" by wrapping
her voice like a boa constrictor around an angry ballad called "And
I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."
But there was
something so distinctive as to be almost freakish about Ms. Merman
and Ms. Holiday, as there often is about great performances in musicals.
It's the spirit of uniqueness celebrated by the aspiring stars of
"A Chorus Line" in the number "One," as in "one
By the 1980's,
however, a homogenizing force had begun to steal over the Broadway
voice. It started with the invasion of the British poperettas by
Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Cats," "Phantom of the Opera")
and the team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg ("Les
Misérables," "Miss Saigon"). Their swoony,
ever crescendoing music required voices that were pretty and strong,
but not much else. It seems appropriate that the ultimate Lloyd
Webber star was Sarah Brightman, who possessed a register-testing
but anonymous soprano.
Lord Lloyd Webber's
spiritual heir in the United States, Frank Wildhorn, came up with
cruder versions of the poperetta formula. "Jekyll and Hyde,"
"The Civil War" and most recently "Dracula"
were costume musicals drenched in ersatz blood and ersatz passion.
Though his characters were intense, as mad scientists and vampires
tend to be, when it came to selling a song they all sounded pretty
much the same, especially with their voices synthetically processed
and amplified by the aural equivalent of Sensurround.
at least had vitality, especially compared to the cipherlike sounds
of the jukebox musicals that came to the fore in the 90's. Whether
the source was rock opera ("The Who's Tommy"), feel-good
rock 'n' roll (the songs of Lieber and Stoller, for "Smokey
Joe's Cafe") or the sublime standards of Duke Elllington ("Play
On"), the performers largely registered as cute, eager and
personality-free, like peppy summer interns in a Disney World pavilion.
Even singing gritty ballads like "On Broadway" or rock
anthems like "Pinball Wizard," their voices came across
as shiny, smooth and antiseptic, like those of grown-up Mouseketeers.
The upside for
the producers of such shows is that their cast members are eminently
replaceable. Sui generis stars are not necessarily advantages for
investors hoping for long, sold-out runs. (And a full-scale Broadway
musical needs to run and run and run just to break even.)
So it would
seem to make good commercial sense to create musicals that put the
emphasis less on individual performance than on overall concept,
shows like the Abba musical "Mamma Mia!" or the Disney
singing cartoons like "Beauty and the Beast."
Then there is
that greatest of all obstacles to intimacy between audience and
performers: the microphone, which "American Idol" contestants
use as if it were a body part. Though miking has been ubiquitous
for at least four decades, it still feels oddly primitive at most
shows. It's often hard to tell where on the stage a voice is coming
from. And while uncertain voices can sometimes be smoothed and bolstered
by mechanical amplification, good voices are often roughened or
neutered by the same process.
It's not that
the American musical is an ossified form that can accommodate new
musical styles only through forced grafting and transplant. The
real problem with the blandness of Broadway singing lies less in
the material than in the execution. The rock musical "Rent"
is filled with sugary pop effervescence. But most of its original
cast brought quirky and specific interpretive intelligence to their
Rotten Scoundrels," Mr. Butz delivers a hip-hop love song to
material luxury that happily trades on the exuberance of the very
style it satirizes. And in the title role of the Disney "Aida,"
Heather Headley found expressive emotional magic in Elton John-Tim
Rice songs that seemed natural candidates for the "American
Idol" approach of feelings-by-the-numbers.
Audra MacDonald, Betty Buckley, Mandy Patinkin, Tonya Pinkins, Michael
Cerveris, André De Shields, Mr. Butz and Ms. Chenoweth, among
others, have all demonstrated that it is possible to go pop on Broadway
without sacrificing individual flair. (And to be fair, "American
Idol" has produced at least one star - Fantasia, last year's
winner - with a voice and approach of her own.)
We must cherish
such performers. Good, well-trained voices that can carry a tune
and turn up the volume come cheap. What does not is the voice that
identifies a character as specifically and individually as handwriting.
It's what you
hear every time Barbara Cook, the 50's Broadway ingénue and
enduring concert artist, sings a number by Stephen Sondheim or Harold
Arlen. Ms. Cook has a ravishing soprano. But a great Broadway voice
doesn't have to be pretty. Floating on a stream of exquisite sound
is easy. Finding in that sound all the kinks and bumps and curls
that make a person fascinating, exasperating and unique is what
transforms a Broadway musical from a cookie-cutter diversion into