Vocal Style in Musical Theater
The style of singing in a musical has certain uniform factors, but the particulars often depend on the style of the show itself. Musicals may be referred to as standard, which are older, established shows, or contemporary, which generally have an updated musical feel but still tell a theatrical story. Contemporary musicals usually have a score best served by rock and pop voices, whereas the traditional standard musical is best served by a trained classical voice.
All musicals require that the singer portray a character in a story and act in a way that makes the character both believable and larger than life. This is a fine line to draw as both actor and singer. Some singers are tempted to push too hard in creating a character and lose the subtlety necessary to make that character believable. High energy is required to act in a musical, but that doesn't mean overacting. If you push yourself emotionally as a character, you'll probably push vocally as well. Ironically, the result is a weaker sound and a damaged voice. Remember, pushing your voice out in an effort to project will eventually cause damage. If you get a note from the director that you need to be louder, remember that volume comes from forward placement and the proper position of the resonating cavities. Practice your songs with the forward placement exercises in Chapter 9 to get more volume.
A particular challenge for musical theater performers is the need to dance and sing at the same time. Hopefully the choreographer has taken into account the physical demands of singing, but there are times when stage movement makes it difficult to hold a steady tone. If you use the appoggio technique and make sure that you have an anchor for your voice in your sternum and abdominal muscles, you will be able to support the air pressure even in different positions. Be sure to practice your choreography and singing together so you can have time to adjust to any potential conflict between movement and voice.
Musical theater voices usually have a very bright timbre that might sound somewhat brassy. It's important for the voice to have carrying power, so singers tend to utilize forward placement in the mask to get the volume they need. If the soft palate is lowered, the tone may become nasal as well. Be sure to keep the soft palate lifted if you want to reduce the nasality. The technique of belting is frequently associated with musical theater and its use is assumed in some of the repertoire. Most casting of musicals tends to favor voices with volume, clarity of sound, accurate pitch, and emotional expression. These attributes are often more important than beauty or richness of vocal quality. Ideally in musical theater, the character portrayal always comes first, which means that the vocal sound should represent that character rather than sacrifice the character to vocal beauty.
Musical theater voices that are classically trained are referred to as legit, which stands for “legitimate” singing. This term may refer to the vocal type of the singer or the musical that is written for classically trained voices. Some musicals may use both legit voices for leading roles and more stylized vocal types for the character roles.
The type of role in which you're cast will determine what vocal style you'll need. Lead roles may be more contained and proper, depending, of course, on the particular show. Supporting roles are often called character roles and may be funny, earthy, and energetic. Your physical type will determine in part which type of role is best for you. You should try to be realistic about the role that suits you so that you'll know what kind of material to prepare for an audition. If you have any doubt, ask your friends if you're more the elegant leading type or the comic character type. If you think you may be either, decide which one would be more fun for you and then play it up. Musical theater is a business of typecasting, even if you think you have a wide range. When you see musicals onstage or on film, ask yourself which role is most appropriate for your physical appearance, not just your vocal type.