How has singing on Broadway changed over the years? This is a complicated topic that few individuals have explored at length. It is important to note that new research on musical theatre voice training is being released almost daily. We must explore this subject from multiple angles in order to fully understand it. In this two-part blog series, I will approach the topic from a historical perspective. These posts are not meant to be comprehensive in scope, but they will provide an overview based on personal research.
PART I: 1900-1960s
At the turn of the 20th century, virtually all leading ladies on Broadway were classically-trained, ‘legit’ sopranos. Prior to 1930, belt singing was used for character roles only. Although vaudeville actresses like May Irwin, Stella Mayhew, Ethel Levey, and Sophie Tucker did sing in belt voice, they frequently did so in roles which stereotyped minorities. It is important to stress that belting was not a Broadway invention. As voice teacher and pedagogue Jeannette LoVetri explains, “The history of the sound we associate with the word belting goes back a long way. It can be found all over the world—in African music from many countries, in flamenco from Spain, in mariachi from Mexico, in Middle Eastern music, particularly in religious applications.” Early recordings of blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith also reveal that belting was already part of the commercial music industry prior to its widespread utilization on Broadway. In short, Broadway singers did not invent belting— they simply adopted and re-purposed the technique.
On October 14, 1930, Ethel Merman burst onto the Broadway scene in George Gershwin’s Girl Crazy at the Alvin Theatre. The twenty-two year old actress wowed audiences with her brassy, trumpet-like voice and her ability to sustain the C above middle C in chest voice for sixteen bars over a pit orchestra during the chorus of “I Got Rhythm”. Gershwin was so impressed with Merman’s performance that he told her, “don’t ever let anyone give you a singing lesson; it’ll ruin you”. Seemingly overnight, Merman legitimized belt singing for Broadway leading ladies and proved the belt technique could be used to make lyrics more clearly understood in unamplified theatres (a major acoustic concern at the time). Following Merman’s debut, many songwriters began writing songs for women in lower tessituras to facilitate a more speech-like, naturalistic style of singing. This paved the way for singer-actresses like Mary Martin, Celeste Holm, and others to find success later on.
During The ‘Golden Age’ of Broadway (c. 1943-1964), legit sopranos remained a major force in stage and film musicals (i.e. Julie Andrews, Barbara Cook, and Shirley Jones). However, these pseudo-classical singers did not completely rule Broadway as their predecessors had earlier in the century. By this point, leading lady roles were being written for both legit sopranos AND belters (or ‘mixers’, if you prefer). Vocal flourish and the ‘bel canto’ quality of the voice were no longer the primary driving factors in performance either. Instead, strength and flexibility of the voice were used to express strength of character. This meant that the way an actress sang told audience members what her character’s inner qualities and motivations were. Frequently, legit singing of this time period combined the tall, round vowels and steady vibrato of its previous incarnation with the crisp consonants and pseudo-speech-like quality of belt singing. The legit vocal style would undergo further changes over the years in many cases.
Perhaps the single most influential development in Broadway vocalism was the introduction of the microphone. Prior to the 1930s, the two kinds of singers who could ‘fill a house’ without amplification were the opera singers (the ‘legit’ singers) and the belters. This situation changed somewhat when footlight microphones were installed in some Broadway theatres during the 1939-1940 season (a trend that continued in subsequent years). Notably, Richard Rodgers has said that Carousel (1945) was his last show not to use microphones.
By the 1950s, electronic amplification was a necessity even for performers like Ethel Merman and Alfred Drake. Why was this the case? Firstly, orchestrations had become increasingly ‘heavy’, and performers were struggling to project over them. After West Side Story (1957), lead performers were also expected to be proficient dancers, which meant they sometimes ended up facing the wings or upstage while singing. Finally, theatre audiences were simply demanding new styles of singing. Following the introduction of the microphone, commercial music artists like Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and others had popularized a softer, gentler style of singing called ‘crooning.’ This new vocal style required amplification in order to be heard/understood. However, miking crooning voices had the effect of encouraging heavier orchestrations, which in turn necessitated louder and heavier vocal amplification.
It should be noted that the footlight microphone systems used on Broadway throughout the Golden Age were a far cry from the advanced sound systems found in theatres today. According to musical theatre historian Ethan Mordden, “a performer’s simply turning to speak to a fellow actor instead of facing front caused the audience to miss lines and lyrics, for this relatively primitive miking amounted to, as they put it then, a mere “sweetening” of the sound, not today’s high-tech processing”. The first reported instance of a performer being individually body-miked was Lena Horne in Jamaica (1957). Prior to that, Met opera singer Helen Traubel may have been miked in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream (1955). This was not because her singing needed a boost, but because her dialogue was not easily understood (Traubel had never had to speak on stage before). Other reported instances of body miking around this same time period include Anna Marie Alberghetti in Carnival! (1961) and Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! (1964). Broadway was slow to fully adopt body microphones, but they were commonplace by the late 1960s.
By the end of the 1960s, a major shift in vocalism was brewing with the premieres of pop/rock-influenced musicals like Promises, Promises and Hair. These shows did little change Broadway right away, but they did create a ripple effect that can be still be felt on The Great White Way today. My second installment will explore the evolution of the female Broadway singing voice from the 1960s-present. Stay tuned.