Why aren’t we looking after our Musical Theatre students?

I’m a huge fan of the musical theatre talent that we produce in this country. In the MT schools and on the West End and touring stages stand and sing some of the greatest voices we have. It infuriates me when shows like X-Factor / The Voice tell the hapless contestants “Well really you don’t belong here, you’d be better off doing musicals” as if it’s some kind of insult. So why is it that I’m hearing more and more, from top-level casting and musical directors, that they sometimes struggle to find the voices that they need? (Bearing in mind that the person they’re looking for also has to be the right look / height / casting type and be able to act and dance to a high standard).

uoGOH5g9U5VpsRLrDI3PmVwmefkThis week, I went to see the touring production of The Union Theatre’s all-male HMS Pinafore, directed (brilliantly) by Sasha Regan and choreographed (superbly) by Lizzi Gee. Let’s state from the start, this is a stunning production. It’s beautiful. It’s meticulously detailed. It’s imaginative. It’s magical. I loved it, and I generally cannot bear G & S! Nonetheless, it pinned me to my seat from get-go to get-gone.

After the show I popped off for dinner with Alex Weatherhill (who plays Buttercup), Alan Richardson (Josephine), Richard Russell-Edwards (Hebe) and Dale Page (ensemble – which is to describe what he did with no eloquence or  justice at all).

Alex, when he’s not being a turn, is a VIDLA consultant, specialising in the falsetto / counter-tenor voice. He’s also an MD, arranger, producer, composer… you get the picture. Now, Alex is a good friend and an old one to boot (sorry chum!) with whom I have spent probably years of my life discussing vocal technique and more specifically, the lack thereof in your average turn – despite the fact that they’ve all been to the big drama schools. You’d think that would guarantee that they leave college with some kind of clue, wouldn’t you? But no… Alex is always telling me how difficult it is to find girls with a decent middle register, and then he went on to tell me how this production’s musical supervisor, the uber-experienced Michael England, had been bemoaning the lack of a decent low-end chest voice range in the boys who were auditioning.

Wait. What? 

My teaching studio is awash with male singers, 90% of whom come fully equipped with a great chest voice. Most of them are in search of better middle and head voice skills. This, together with getting girls into middle, is what I spent much of my teaching time doing! So it surprised me that Michael would be saying this:

Michael England
Michael England

“I notice a lot in auditions that many singers have an uneven tone across their range, and it lets them down sadly. In some cases, it almost sounds like two different singers. To be honest I don’t understand why colleges focus on rep and don’t work more on actually training the instrument, which is the core thing.

I accept that many of today’s modern shows are written for more for Baritones and Tenors, and not so much in the older tradition of Basses and Tenors, but then it makes it harder to cast when doing those shows. I’m currently rehearsing The Pajama Game about to open in the West End, and in it we have a low Db, which sounds great, but finding boys who can sing that, AND fulfil all the other criteria of dancing, acting etc makes casting difficult.

Casting for HMS Pinafore I was very specific that I needed at least one good low bass, and when Tommy Knapp walked in, I knew straight away I wanted  him in the show because he was one of the few people who had the range, and he was the strongest bass voice we’d heard. Fortunately the choreographer and director liked him, so I didn’t have to fight to get him cast!

I think there would be many more young basses around if more boys had developed the voice they have rather than happens at some colleges where they FORCE the voice to be higher. Like any athlete, stretching muscles improves their flexibility, and at the vocal warm ups we do every day I try to extend the singers’ ranges at both the top and the bottom of their ranges, as well as making them focus on trying to keep an even tone over their range.”

I have also heard from top-level teachers at major London drama schools that although technique is taught, it is not taught as extensively as repertoire, and is often limited to a particular ‘method’. (If you’re a regular reader you will know that I’m not a fan of limiting training to any specific method; all of the well-known pedagogies have a great deal to offer, so why limit singers to one way of doing things)?

I completely understand that the colleges have to train students to be able to go out into the world and land auditions, but surely we are failing them if we are not giving them significant voice-building and maintenance skills? After all, these performers need their voices 8 shows a week, often under gruelling circumstances (for those who think it’s glamorous – touring is tough)!

I can’t be alone in having a studio full of professional MT performers who look at me blankly when I ask them if they understand x,y,z techniques. More often than not, what I hear is “I went in with this voice, this basic range and this skill-set. I came out with much the same thing, except that I knew a lot more repertoire. Yeah, we did do some technique. I know what twang is, for instance.

comic-sing-from-diaphragmTwang. Oh yes. They can all twang for England. But can they bridge and blend efficiently? Can the great chest-voice-belt girl access middle register worth tuppence? Can the boy with the impressive head voice get into something approaching a man-size chest voice when he needs a low-end Bb? Do they know how to turn the voice over? Do they know how to maximise resonances without clenching every muscle between butt-cheeks and massetters? If they’re not in great voice, do they know how to handle their pipes to get them through a demanding week by changing their technique? Do they have any concept of what ‘support’ is beyond a vague understanding that some of their abdominal muscles are involved? Nope. Mostly they just push on through and hope for the best. And if they couldn’t do something before they went to college, chances are they still can’t do it by the time they graduate. (Worse still, some of them still say ‘Oh yes, you sing from your diaphragm’). AAAARGGGGHHHH!

Now, I’m aware that you can’t always blame the teacher for the shortcomings of a student. Especially not at this level. Some singers are lazy, others don’t take the information in efficiently, some don’t want to step outside of their vocal comfort zone, believing it will damage or change their trademark sound. (And that’s another thing – why are we training them all to sound the same)? However, it’s not reasonable to assume that this is the case for all of the hundreds and hundreds of musical theatre students who graduate each year. When casting directors, teachers from within the colleges themselves, and independent singing teachers are widely reporting the same problem, then the problem isn’t the students – it’s not even the hard-working teachers within the colleges – it’s the system. I find it extraordinary that we’re not offering deep enough levels of training to the cream of our musical theatre talent when they’re undergoing their initial training. I might be talking myself out of (part of) my job here, because if they were well trained in the first place they wouldn’t need me and people like me, but ye gods, let’s give them a fighting chance!

Oh and finally, Michael was right (of course!) – I picked out Tommy Knapp‘s voice very early on in HMS Pinafore, because of his lovely bass tone. In a sea (pun intended) of lyric baritones, tenors and falsettists – all top notch by the way – it was lovely to hear someone with some chutzpah in his lower range. The tragedy of it is, they could all  have it, just as basses and dramatic baritones can / should have great middle and head voice tones – IF they’re trained to it. So let’s make that happen, shall we folks?

The all-male HMS Pinafore is still touring – you have a chance to see it at The Yvonne Arnaud theatre, Guildford w/c 28th April, and at Winchester Theatre Royal w/c May 5th. I urge you to go. It’s utterly marvellous.


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