Training Requirements for Singing Musical Theater
Unlike the opera, the musical theater production is about the story first. Singing is high on the list of priorities, but it doesn’t rank first. Musical theater performers aren’t cast just because they sing well (although singing ability does count!); they’re cast because they look the part, can dance or move well, and can both act and sing. Musical theater singers also need to know how to make a variety of sounds.
Sound: With musical theater repertoire, you want the sound to be conversational, not oversung. The simplicity of the voice allows the singer to portray the text, which is most important. Musical theater singers do have to make beautiful sounds, but the sound should reinforce the text.
Many musical theater productions use microphones, and singers need to understand how to adjust their technique when using a hand-held mic or wearing a body mic. Those adjustments include not punching consonants (such as the T), because doing so results in a popping sound, and trusting your feeling while you’re singing instead of relying on the sound to come back from the monitors or echo in the theater.
Healthy technique: A healthy musical theater technique involves making the beautiful open, round sounds called legit (open space and round head voice–dominated sound). This technique is similar to the opera singer’s, but it also includes belt. Belting is making sounds like Ethel Merman, Kristin Chenoweth, and Idina Menzel.
The sound is brassier, more forward, sometimes nasal, and similar to a high chest voice. You make this sound by working to combine the sounds of your speaking voice and singing voice. Musical theater productions tend to be scheduled close together, and performers need solid technique to handle back-to-back performances. On Broadway, performers often do eight shows per week. Performing that much sounds like fun, but it requires stamina and skillful technique.
Naming names: Joel Grey (conversational, high belt), Mary Martin (legit sound and belt), John Raitt (rich, round, almost operatic sound), and Gwen Verdon (great dancing skill, ability to make many different sounds with her voice to create her character).