In the musical theatre world, the term ‘legit’ is often used to describe a genre of singing that is firmly rooted in traditional, classical voice training/pedagogy. This type of singing usually includes many of the same distinguishing features as classical/operatic singing, such as: consistant vibrato, tall and round vowels, a stable larynx, a raised soft palate, a balanced tone quality that is equally light and dark (aka ‘chiaroscuro‘), crisp diction, and other elements. Today, legit singing is most often associated with musicals from ‘The Golden Age’ of Broadway (c. 1943-1964).  Some celebrated legit singer-actors from that time period include Julie Andrews, Alfred Drake, Barbara Cook, and John Raitt.  There are also contemporary musicals that feature permutations of legit singing like The Light in the Piazza, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and others (along with frequent revivals of some Golden Age shows).

Now, onto the question at hand. Is legit singing on Broadway today the same as it was sixty-some years ago? Some say yes, others say no. I say, let’s go to the cast recordings. I have compiled a short video below that includes singing samples from four Golden Age musicals (two samples from each show). In the first sample from each musical, you will hear singing from that show’s Original Broadway Cast Recording. In the second sample, you will hear singing from a fairly-recent revival production. What differences do you hear in vocal timbre, registration, resonance, articulation, etc.? Does hearing these samples affect the way you approach legit singing and/or the training of legit singer-actors? Feel free to comment below with your thoughts.

P.S. Need help finding musical theatre repertoire to sing? Check out my professional repertoire guides here.

Disclaimer: These samples were hand-picked by me. I don’t claim they represent every single legit musical. These changes in vocalism may or may not be reflected in legit singing at the community theatre, regional theatre, and collegiate theatre levels.

Kevin Michael Jones

19 thoughts

  1. Great article, thanks! I found I had a much stronger emotional response to the “new legit” samples. Also, do you think Broadway singers are now expected to master both styles and effortlessly switch between them? I heard that in the last sample “I hate Men” and I notice it a lot elsewhere.

    1. That’s an excellent point, Sophie! I think you are right on the mark. ‘Cross-training’ the voice so that the performer can sing the same song using different registration, tone qualities, resonance, etc. when asked to do so is so important. Thanks for your comment!

  2. yes, great article. While I too agree with Sophie regarding the emotional response to the contemporary singers I think there’ll be as many who prefer the traditional style. So much of this ultimately comes down to personal taste which is why, as a singing teacher myself, I loathe any sort of singing competition. The reason for my personal response and preference of the “new legit” singers here is largely due to their use of “speech quality” singing which, for me has more truth and honesty in the delivery. I’m not a fan of stylised/affected vocals (which still happens a lot today in a different way – mainly in pop music). I prefer a singer to use the same tone and personality as they would in spoken word. Great choice of examples here Kevin. Interestingly, I think that the difference is more prevalent in the male performers. They seem to be more “guilty” of an old fashioned sound in my opinion.

    1. Good thoughts, Tom. I agree the speech quality is definitely more present in the contemporary examples. As a general rule, contemporary musical theatre is speech and text-based singing, so these ‘adjustments’ make sense in that respect. I think the growing presence of Disney on Broadway has played a major role in this shift as well.

  3. Thanks for the food for thought. I find the diction must sharper in the modern recordings and yet some of the bel canto legato of the older recordings is lovely. I am conflicted listening to I hate men as the second recording has much more personality but find the belt a bit too agressive. I also find the modern recordings can I over glottle as in the Cinderella. It is an amazing demonstration of mixing techniques but get rid of half the glottles, why glottle words like ‘and’ and ‘in.’ The modern voices also sound much brighter which is welcome. As a classically trained mezzo I am surprised that on the whole I prefer the modern recordings…

  4. What I wonder is, how much nearly a century’s worth of changes and advances in *recording technology* may have to do with the differences we hear.

  5. In all fairness, “I Hate Men” is one of the few songs in the musical that has changed the most, stylistically. While I love the personality the second recordings bring to the table, everyone sounds the same. There’s nothing as unique about their voices. Just very watered down, and pop-influenced. Kind of a shame, really.

  6. Very interesting thoughts in the article…
    Something I’ve been wondering about for while, connected to Broadway, is the newer Disney songs. Disney songs have always been (or often are) Broadway-influenced, often featuring Broadway singers, but ever since “Tangled” I’ve felt like the songs were written differently and sung in a different style that make them markedly different from the classic and Renaissance Disney styles. For example, “A Whole New World” is sung in a more classic, full-voiced style with a full instrumentation, whereas most songs from “Frozen” seem to be structured oddly, and feature 1 voice singing with very little back up.
    Do you think this is a connected issue to changing modes in Broadway?

  7. I prefer all of the early recordings because the voices are more tuneful and beautiful. Why are we just speaking on pitch? It’s a travesty!! Grunting, growling, sighing, swooping, and sliding your way up to the note are all tiresome. Thanks to microphones, no one knows how to project. For crying out loud, it’s a MUSICAL. You can convey text and still sound beautiful. And to be honestly, saying that the earlier people are classically trained is fair, but most of those voices fell apart with the demands of the much longer lines of opera and fuller sound of opera. None of the modern people would even be able to function without a microphone. I’m convinced the pendulum will swing again. I’m determined to start my own company where people sing pretty.

    1. I agree with everything you wrote! I too would love to start a company using the solid techniques of the golden era of singing. Personally I love opera singers and many of those early theatre singers were trained in those techniques–Gordon MacRae was dynamite! Want to collaborate? :p

    2. I find the old style charming too. Just curious – Did Broadway performers sing without microphones back in the 50s and 60s? Nowadays everyone wears one.

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