Let me tell you what irritates me; when people patronize musical theater actors with remarks such as, “Oh, you must have so much fun doing what you do,” as if enjoying your job diminishes it’s credibility. Or better, “What do you do for your real job?” as if being an actor (or any artist, for that matter) isn’t a viable or vital position in our society. What bugs me even more, however, is when other actors in the field, those, say, in the "straight," or non-musical, theater reinforce these inanities by treating musical theater actors, at best, as “performers,” like second rate actors, who can sound pretty but don’t get the real meat of acting.
The core of any theatrical performance is to somehow thrill and stimulate the audience. There may be some disagreement as to the exact meaning and implications of “thrill and stimulate” but let’s at least temporarily agree that theater is intended for an audience. Theater exists where the audience willingly suspends their disbelief. Let’s also accept that music has the ability to affect a mood, evoke an emotional undercurrent, and introduce themes that can represent moods, emotions, or even characters separate from what is presented visually.
Now, I propose that the performing arts can be mapped out on a sort of dramatic spectrum, where at one end stands the purely aural (music alone) and the other end the purely visual (visual art; arguable perhaps, ok, but allow me this indulgence). In the middle there, I’m going to place writing that helps tie the fields together.
Text, which is imperative in writing, is the tie that binds. Its original definition comes from the same root of the Latin word to weave. And musical theater text weaves words and music together; intertwining ideas, thoughts and emotions, and transporting these via its art form, to the observer, many of whom find that this is at least as interesting if not more interesting than plays without songs.
When mere words aren't enough
The modern musical is an American invention. It is founded on the concept that characters will get to a point in their emotional journey where mere words are no longer sufficient to convey the feeling's entire meaning. At this moment the character employs music, singing a song or even in some instances engaging in dance to move their expression to a different level.
Since we, the audience, have already given over to the suspension of disbelief, we make this jump easily and effectively—when the actor is dedicated to this emotional journey. Clearly, when a piece of music on its own can evoke certain feelings in a human, it stands to reason that by adding to it words which already contain meaning of their own, we can climb to a level higher than what either can attain individually . So, combining the two makes perfect sense to me. I mean, why not try to get more “bang for your buck” as it were, right?
For me, it seems a little ridiculous to have two separate categories of actors: "straight actors" and "musical theater actors." An actor in a straight play uses his voice quite musically, employing pitch differences or rhythmic motives. He or she can elongate vowels, punch out words, and use consonants to articulate for effect. She can hold for pauses or rush though passages to elicit a particular feeling. In essence, he can orchestrate with his voice.
An actor in a musical does all that on a somewhat larger scale. He also encounters some slightly different obstacles. Often he has emphasis and pauses given to him by the composer, sometimes not where he would like them to be. In such cases, the singer/actor needs to make his emotional journey work with the orchestration that is given. The singer needs to develop physical skills that allow for this emotional elongation like, for instance, the ability to sustain a note at any given pitch level.
Can you hold an emotion for 12 counts?
Some non-musical theater actors may think that with these parameters of expression defined by someone other than the actor, the actor doesn’t do any work to perform the emotion. I would argue that it takes more work. For how do you sustain an emotion for 12 counts, when in reality (or in a play without music) an emotion wouldn’t be sustained for so long? Is the emotion diminished?
I put forth that if the actor is committed to the moment and can use his skills to allow for experiencing an emotion for extended moments in time, the emotion is intensified rather than diminished. This may be the only difference that really separates these two kinds of theater; involving knowing how and when to use the particular tricks of the trade to create the thrill and stimulation we need from live performance.
I’m not knocking straight theater by any means; sometimes words are enough. At a recent performance of Othello I was riveted by Iago’s monologues and much of it was due to the musicality of delivery: the variety of pitches and speeds and colors. But it was the actor’s dedication to the emotional core of the character that really brought it all to life for me.
On the flipside, I have also been to some musical performances where the singer seemed only to revel in the quality of his or her voice, as if that were the only thing necessary for the performance to be enjoyed. A song performed without a dramatic backdrop in the actor falls flat, regardless of the beauty and/or the precision of the performer’s instrument.
In the end, however, isn’t it all really about what effect the piece has on an audience? Art can imitate life. It can help us understand it or even just to bear it. Sometimes words and the unaccompanied human voice are enough, much like a black slash across a white canvas is enough. But, there are times when a beautiful tune played by a voice, or an oboe or a chorus of strings, is what will work for an audience. It does what art does: it somehow inexplicably explains what it is to be truly human.
And we as artists are dedicated to that exploration of humanity through what we are skilled at doing. Sometimes we need to hone our skills and sometimes we need to challenge ourselves to acquire other skills rather than disparage the work of other artists in our field. And sometimes we need to just sit back and let the art wash over us and through us, allowing it to alter the audience and ourselves.