Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s score has a contemporary musical theatre sound with a strong conversational component, pop music elements, and lyrics that inform the melodic line. The production of If/Then that I watched last night at The Theatre Lab (pictured above) was not my first experience with this show. I know the music well and saw Idina Menzel in the starring role twice, first in the pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre in Washington, DC and then on Broadway in the fall of 2013.
Quick Vocal Tips for Singing If/Then
There is a conversational component to almost every song. Whether a solo, duet, or group number, each song is really dialogue or monologues that could be spoken without pitch so we want to hear specific inflection on pitch and extension of your speech on pitch. Please leave vibrato and sustained notes for another show! Exception to this is the high mix and belt notes for both mezzos and tenors that usually end a song: these are meant to have power, be sustained, and wow the audience. Practicing speaking on pitch and getting used to your natural speaking voice while on specific pitches, both high and low, is a great way to get comfortable with this style.
Tension is the singer’s (and actor’s) worst enemy. Releasing tension is something I work on with students in all genres of music. With a contemporary musical theatre score, it’s important to find a way to tell the story without clenching the muscles in your neck (or jaw, shoulders, back, hands) and straining. How to practice with music from If/Then (or any another contemporary show): sing the song while literally rolling your head like a rag doll, swaying (not in time), and/or with your arms outstretched and open. A lot of times tension is a result of body/voice awareness that takes you away from the character and out of the moment. Being open and receptive to what’s going on around you and just breathing that in can be helpful. It’s also useful to be aware if there are specific notes that are either just beyond your comfortable range or on your break that cause you to tighten your muscles either in preparation for the big note or in order to sustain the big note. Prioritize warming up your voice with vocalises that emphasize vowels that are helpful to YOU on your big note(s)!
While If/Then is not my favorite Kitt and Yorkey musical (Next to Normal takes this for many reasons), it has awesome ensemble characters and music that reflects everyday speech. I love that the show takes place in NYC and that we get a glimpse into the many different people that live and work in the city. I’m a type A, over thinker so the “what if” question that is constantly asked throughout the show is interesting to me.
Special shout out to my student, Carla Crawford, who was excellent in the role of Kate and made strong singing and acting choices throughout the show! The Theatre Lab’s performances ran through last night (I saw the closing show!), but be on the look out for their next production since they tend to choose interesting material for singers and actors to learn and explore!
From Signature Theatre’s (Arlington, VA) production last spring to the NBC Live Broadcast on Easter Sunday to our local high school’s production this month, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1971 hit has been popular this past year. Jesus Christ Superstar is very on point with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s material (sometimes classified as “poperetta”) with hits from the show being widely popular radio songs as well. Vocals are at the forefront as this is an entirely sung-through show and a wide vocal range and ability to sing in a plethora of styles is simply present throughout the entire score.
Rock Opera Vocal Technique
Warm-ups for this type of show are key! I work with all of my singers to make sure they have a balanced instrument so even if they’re in a hard rock with edge place for an entire show, I always incorporate light humming and lip trills into our warm-up. I think it’s a great idea to go down a scale (sol-fa-mi-re-do) on a bub or mum and allow yourself access to a vocal fry sound, work through pentatonic scales, and make some ugly sounds with your tongue all the way out (yeah or nyeah or weah) in a higher belt/mix register. With men, a falsetto warm-up that leads itself toward a falsetto mix is awesome for this show; getting this sound without strain is essential. I cannot stress enough that if it feels painful to sing, you are doing something wrong. Even if your character is physically in pain, your voice should not be.
Beware of gratuitous riffing, growling, and stereotypical rock trends. While Jesus Christ Superstar absolutely utilized rock (not Broadway) singers in the original production and we want that type of sound, it’s important to understand how to implement your own voice into the style without mimicry or what I like to say is “pretending you’re on American Idol” when you’re in fact still in a musical with a cohesive storyline. There are moments in the Jesus Chris Superstar score that are marked ad lib so knowing how to riff (especially in the characters of Jesus and Judas) and going there both dramatically and vocally is what makes it so powerful.
Vocal Health: drink lots of water, get enough sleep, don’t abuse your voice, be careful of too much singing or speaking on show days are all things we’ve heard time and again. If you feel tired after a show, that’s normal and okay; you’ve just taken us on an enormous journey and may need to rest. I just always want my students to understand the difference between feeling tired and feeling like you’ve completely blown out or demolished your vocal chords. It’s easy to push or strain when you’re working on a high rock belt sound. It’s much harder to create a nuanced performance with vocal choices that are stylistically correct and healthy.
Jesus Christ Superstar is playing at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, VA through April 28th. Special shout-out to the freshman playing Jesus, Brevan Collins, who I have been teaching for over four years and who continually puts in the work when prepping for roles, auditions, and building his technique.
Driving to the local high school theatre at 6:58 PM (for a 7 PM show), I’m realizing I may be a few minutes late to see my students. My mom joined me for the show and just in case she missed the opening number, I was happy to give a full rendition in the car. “Oh, oh, oh woke up today, feeling the way I always do. Oh, oh, oh hungry for something that I can’t eat then I hear the beat.”
Hairspray is a high energy, contemporary musical with a score that is reminiscent of 1960’s pop music. The two stand-out vocal technique elements to the show (for me!) are stamina and vocal placement.
Stamina: practice your music while running, while jumping, while dancing around your bedroom: with fast paced lyrics and no clear rests for breath, you need the energy and muscle strength to get through the music in character. “You Can’t Stop the Beat” is a prime example of this: we don’t want to skip a word just to get a breath, you have to practice going through the phrasing in that song as much as possible to do just this!
Placement: there is no doubt that this a contemporary musical theatre show with the roles all embracing a strong belt and high mix registration. I talk to my singers about seamlessly switching registers and making sure they are placing correcting during breath (not after!) all the time. There are moments when young singers may crack a note or abruptly cut off or have breathy quality simply due to not knowing how to place a particular phrase on their voice. In Mama I’m A Big Girl Now, I want a forward sound with a lifted soft palate and relaxed forward tongue; I also want to hear the difference in sound between the mothers and their teenage daughters. In I Know Where I’ve Been, I want a soulful, gospel like quality with a grounded chest voice. Knowing your character and vocal placement go hand in hand. It is important to always think about your character’s journey and the lyrics when making specific technique choices!
Hairspray is running at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria this weekend and next weekend (April 20 to 28th, 2018)! Several of my voice students are involved with the production including Aidan White (Edna) and Grace Steenstra (Prudy Pingleton). It’s an awesome opportunity to support local students that are diving into these great characters and truly making them their own!