Ann Althouse’s speculates here about the influence of the show “American Idol” on the current style of singing in Broadway musicals. I agree with Ann that “American Idol” really isn’t the culprit, but I have a different one in mind: the invasion of the body mike.
If I do say so myself, I’m somewhat of a minor expert on Broadway musicals of the 50s and 60s. My parents were big fans, and as a young child I was taken to every single one that was suitable for children–which turns out to have been just about all of them. We also went to all the City Center revivals of the classic musicals from the 40s. I loved the theater, and these shows were absolutely magical for me.
Later on, I stopped enjoying Broadway musicals so much, and for me there’s one glaring reason (a reason not mentioned in any of the articles Ms. Althouse cites): the aggressive amplification that’s been standard in all musicals on Broadway for decades.
I don’t know whether I have especially sensitive ears, or what it is, but I noticed the difference immediately, and I didn’t like it. One of the greatest things–if not the greatest thing–about the Broadway musical was the sense of being in the flesh-and-blood presence of real people singing to you, the audience, and that is shattered (for me, at least) by hearing amplified voices. They might as well phone it in, or CD it in.
Yes, the old-style performances included belters like Ethel Merman, who could be counted on to be heard, unamplified, in the furthest reaches of the balcony, and wasn’t exactly subtle. But she was the exception. The rest of them–and their names are not necessarily famous, except for Julie Andrews and a few others–were both subtle and refreshingly human. There was a person-to-person immediacy, a communicative intimacy, that simply doesn’t exist today.
And if this propels me into curmudgeon status, so be it. These present-day performers from something called Broadway Unplugged seem to agree with me, anyway. Here’s a representative quote, from singer Mark Kudisch, about the benefits of singing off-mike:
This evening’s going to be so fantastic because people will actually get to hear people’s voices, their real energy, their color without it being messed with by someone else’s technology. There’s nothing more frustrating than when you sing quiet, they turn you up; when you open up, they turn you down. It all sounds the same out there…I’m not barred down by a mike, and what hand the mike is in. We just do what we do. There’s a freedom involved. It’s you, it’s your energy, it’s your actual resonance that gets to the back of the house. And for an audience, it requires them to actually sit up and partake, to listen, to actively be a part of what’s going on. It allows every individual audience member to personally become a part of the evening.