Monday, November 11, 2013

Summer Stock Stamina

This summer I had the opportunity to perform in one comedy, The Odd Couple and two musicals, Nunsense and The Drowsy Chaperone. Nunsense was the most vocally challenging as I played Sister Amnesia who starts out the show as a high soprano and then ends up as a belting country star. We had an intense Nunsense Boot Camp the first week of rehearsals. My voice was so tired by the end of the week I had to mark my songs. This came as no surprise, the whole cast was worn out. We were singing almost 8 hours a day. The high altitude was also a factor. I found I had to drink about double my normal water intake to keep hydrated. I also pushed my sound because the other women in the cast had much bigger voices than I do and I felt I had to compete. I came home from Logan exhausted and frustrated.

I rested my voice for the weekend, took time to reflect and went back on Monday with a renewed outlook and personal goals that would help preserve my voice from further abuse. The first goal was to not try to out sing my cast mates. My voice is unique to me and I cannot compete with others, only myself. The director/musical director worked with us on blending in the choral numbers and that help me to preserve my voice tremendously. I had to make sure I drank plenty of fluids and got 8-10 hours of sleep at night to help with the altitude adjustment and my health. And then I warmed up with my own vocal exercises that focused my voice and got me balanced. I have found that each show calls for a slightly different warm up routine, depending on the style of music I am singing. So, I would warm myself up before rehearsal and then adapt the group warm ups to my needs. I love still being a performing artist but having the knowledge of a teacher to know what vocal exercise will benefit me the most for any given show.

By opening week I was feeling a bit worn down, even with my efforts, long rehearsal days and tech week are never easy on anyone. Opening night was amazing! My family was there and I felt very confident. But after the show I noticed a tickle in my throat and knew my immune system was on overdrive trying to prevent me from getting sick. The next morning, I had lost the battle. I pumped myself full of vitamin C, and during the Fri and Sat night performances I had special throat sprays, cold medications and lozenges to get me through. It was TERRIFYING! We all know how scary it is to sing in front of people, but singing in front of people when you are sick! Never a good time.

Usually in the past I would just sing through the sickness, sometimes sounding so terrible I wanted to rush off stage and demand that the audience get their money back. But through the new lenses of a vocal teacher, I realized I could and had to modify the songs. There were certain areas of my voice that were non-existent. Mainly the area through my first bridge. I did okay on my high soprano stuff, but when it came to belting my country song I had to change the notes I sang to stay mainly in my chest voice. The mix was weak or just not happening. I had so much anxiety prior to working things out with the band. But once I realized I could change the notes and that it didn't sound terrible, I knew I could sing it adequately and then lean on my acting abilities to compensate for all the rest. It all worked out fine, but of course I have to say it again, singing when you are sick STINKS!

Luckily after the opening weekend I had a couple weeks off from Nunsense to perform and rehearse the other two shows. That gave me enough time to recover and I went into the rest of the Nunsense performances strong. I learned a lot though. The main thing is that it is okay to modify the key or the notes in order to perform during an illness. It eases anxiety and usually the audience doesn't know any different. It does hurt one's pride to not be able to sing those "money notes", but it is better to feel secure and hit the notes that are possible instead of screeching and cracking out notes that are impossible at that moment in time.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Leela James

While visiting my niece, Ami, last weekend in California, I had the privilege of seeing Leela James in concert. The venue was Yoshi's in San Francisco, an intimate night club that served food and drinks while Leela performed. She has a sultry voice that is influence by gospel, blues and soul. Her range is incredible and I was impressed by her stamina. She sang a 90 minute show for us (the 8 'o clock show) and then was going to have a 30 minute break and sing another 90 minutes for the 10 'o clock show. That break turned into 15 when she sang an encore for us. I could tell her voice was getting tired toward the end, but had confidence that after her break she would be recharged and ready for the next show. I wonder how well she did vocally during that late show? I am sure she is used that kind of schedule or she wouldn't be booked for it. Not sure if I could it...

The main thing that impressed me was her command of the stage and confidence regardless of servers buzzing around or a crowd that had a hard time loosening up. I could tell she loved to perform and was in the moment at all times. She worked hard with her sense of humor and boundless energy to involve the audience and allow them to feel free to sing, or dance or clap their hands, whatever moved them. She wasn't just up there to sing to us, she wanted us to be a part of the experience. I have never sung in a venue like that so I studied her every move and determined that performing in that environment was a talent all its' own. I am sure it is developed over time, but it is still a talent. I think it would be great to set a goal for myself to do something like this, more cabaret style, and see if I like it. Leela inspired me and was such a joy to behold on stage. Thank you, Ami for suggesting her and getting the tickets. I loved it. Below is a clip of the lovely, Leela James. Enjoy!!

Friday, January 4, 2013

My Thoughts on the Film of Les Miserables

I saw Les Miserables on Christmas Night with my husband, Roger and I will be going back in February to see it again with my niece, Ami. (can't wait for the second viewing) I was pretty excited about seeing this movie considering that it was the first time in movie musical history that all of the singing was performed live instead of taped in a studio, sweetened, and lip synced by the actor on the day of shooting. I was also excited to see this movie because...well, Hugh Jackman. (need I say more?)

I have been a fan of the stage version of this musical since it first came out on cassette tape in 1985. I even bought the French Concept album. I saw the stage production on Broadway, and regardless of a stale cast, I still couldn't help but love the music and the story. In 2008 I was privileged to perform in the play when Tuacahn presented it as part of their season. It was a show I could have easily done for six more months. I never got tired of the music and our amazing cast.

After seeing clips and previews of the film, I dealt with the fact that the movie would be a different experience (especially from a vocal stand point) so I went into the film stripped of any previous expectations. And I have to say that overall, I was moved by this film. The messages of mercy, love, redemption, and faith were right at the forefront being supported by one of the most beautiful scores in musical theater. It didn't end up being my favorite movie musical, but even with it's imperfections, the story was presented in a raw and intimate way that I could never have experience through a stage production, or a concert version or just listening to the soundtrack alone. Film has a way of bringing everything under a microscope so we have to deal with the images and messages head on. I appreciated that aspect. It was like I was observing the story with fresh new eyes.

Since this is my vocal blog, I feel like I need to take some time to address this film from a vocal stand point. If you were to strip everything away and just look at the cast as singers, I would say there were only a hand full of people I heard sing in the film who had a technically balanced sound. The actors portraying Enjolras, the Foreman and Brevet are singers that I would put in this category. Young Cossette and Gavroche (remind me what a cockney child is doing in France? haha) both were child actors who sang quite well for their ages. That leaves pretty much all of the principle roles played by people that technically had vocal issues. If you look at it from that point of view, this movie really stunk! But, what one must keep in mind is that this is a Hollywood Film. And musicals have made a come back in Hollywood in the last couple decades and the bottom line is that we will be seeing more and more Hollywood actors, who are film actors first, singers second, play the lead roles. (good news for vocal coaches in Hollywood!)

So, now if you look at the film from the perspective of film actors first, singers second, my question would be, "Did the actors cast in this film, which is mostly sung, convey the emotion and message of the text they were singing, regardless of not being technically balanced singers?" To that I would answer, all of the film actors accomplished this with varying degrees. To interpret and convey a song to an audience is much like trying to interpret and convey the language of Shakespeare to an audience. Both can be barriers if one is not skilled in allowing the song or language to become secondary to what one is truly trying to say. The actor that seemed to struggle with this the most (in my humble opinion) was Russell Crowe. His non-singing performance: the glances, his stance or any spoken dialogue was intriguing, captivating and true to his Oscar winning form. He seemed steady in two person scenes like "The Confrontation" but his big solo numbers, "Stars" and most disappointing of all, "Soliloquy (Javert's Suicide)" fell flat. Even though Javert is a stoic character...I really felt confused during these solos, especially the latter. The song was a barrier for him and as an audience member I wasn't getting the subtext. I wanted to shout out,*"Enough with walking on the edge of that ledge, let me see what is going on inside of you man!"   *to be said in the tone of Dr. McCoy from Star Trek

I LOVE the concept of singing live in a film and hope that that carries on. As I always say, "The less auto-tune, the better". Tom Hooper and 'the powers that be' made a bold choice in doing this. The actors were very brave to undertake this. I am sure they understand their vocal issues better than anyone and it took a certain amount of humility to agree to this new concept. I know we see live singers in theater on a regular basis and don't give it a second thought, but something about it happening on film was fascinating to me. In particular the highlights of the film for me where the marriage of raw emotion and vocal performance came together seamlessly were, Ann Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" filmed in one take...Very satisfying. Hugh Jackman singing "What Have I Done?" in that gorgeous church setting...Amazing. And Eddie Redmayne's "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables"...'Nuff said.

Everyone within my theater circles has their strong opinions about this film. And I don't blame them, this musical has a tendency to hold a special place in one's heart and stay there. I heard criticisms like, "the directorial techniques were very amateur", "too many close ups", "so and so can't sing", "I would have cast so and so", "I wish they would have made a different acting/singing choice in that moment", etc...Believe me I took part in most of these conversations and I have my opinions on what I would have done differently and who should have been cast instead. But to be fair, I think most of us in our criticism were naturally comparing it to how we experienced it when we saw it on stage and realistically, you can't put the two side by side and have the same result. The film has to stand on it's own apart from any other version because it is being presented in a different genre. Hollywood actors were cast because it is a Hollywood film. That particular director was chosen and he made certain choices with the material, and there you have it. The film stands on its' own and now will go down in history as it is. If you have problems with it...well, you have the option of not seeing it again. Fortunately, the stage version of this musical will be performing in theater's across the country for many year to come. Pioneer Theater is holding auditions this month and next year there will be a revival of it on Broadway. Go audition or get your tickets now! Yep, this musical is not going away any time soon...I just hope they don't add the song 'Suddenly' to the stage version... ;-)