Broadway is more vocally and stylistically demanding today than it has ever been. Last year, Shenandoah Conservatory released a study in Journal of Voice titled “Trends in Musical Theatre Voice: An Analysis of Audition Requirements for Singers.” In this study, the authors gathered over 1,000 professional musical theatre audition job listings from Backstage.com in order to identify the musical and vocal genres that are being requested most often for musical theatre singer-actors today. According to the authors, four main genres came up most frequently in the listings: Legit, Traditional Musical Theatre, Contemporary Musical Theatre, and Pop/Rock. The study includes percentages for each of these along with a lot of other great information and insights, but I will not include that information here (let’s just say the Legit genre was requested far less than the other three).
In this post, I will briefly explain what the above terms mean to me and provide examples for each. This is not an exact science, but I will try to be as objective as possible with my descriptions and provide helpful video examples. Note: I have chosen actor/actress examples who I feel have the most name-recognition. There are of course many other wonderful performers and shows not listed here. Many of the singer-actors below can sing in multiple genres flawlessly as well- that is often why they are so successful.
This type of singing is heavily rooted in traditional, classical voice training and styles. It usually features many of the same distinguishing characteristics as classical/operatic singing, such as: consistent vibrato, tall and round vowels, smooth register transitions, a ‘balanced’ tone quality, crisp/proper diction, etc. Today, this vocal genre 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, Grey Gardens, and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Some notable contemporary legit performers include Kelli O’Hara, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, and James Barbour.
TRADITIONAL MUSICAL THEATRE (BELT)*
This type of singing grew out of Tin Pan Alley in the early 20th century. It is a speech-based vocal genre that features crisp, percussive diction. Functionally, it incorporates thyroarytenoid-dominant production for both genders (aka ‘chest voice’ and ‘chest/mix’). Musical theatre belting originated in this genre- though the belt technique was first used for character/comedic roles only. In the 1930s, Ethel Merman helped legitimize this type of singing for Broadway leading ladies (more on this here). Some celebrated traditional musical theatre belt performers include George Cohan, Ethel Merman, Carol Burnett, and Joel Grey. Today, this type of singing is primarily utilized on Broadway in revivals of certain older shows. Examples of musicals that predominantly feature this vocal genre include Cabaret, Chicago, City of Angels, and even The Producers.
CONTEMPORARY MUSICAL THEATRE
This type of singing combines characteristics of traditional musical theatre belt singing with contemporary pop/rock influences. It features ‘bright’, speech-based, mostly straight-tone production and frequently requires higher belting than traditional musical theatre singing. Pop and rock-type vocal ornamentation and embellishments are utilized at times, but the vocalism still has a decidedly ‘musical theatre’ sound (aka it does not sound like singing you would hear on the radio today). The text and lyrics are usually the driving force in this genre. Some celebrated contemporary musical theatre singer-actors include Sutton Foster, Norbert Leo Butz, Sherie Renee Scott, and Christian Borle. Examples of musicals that predominantly feature this type of singing include Wicked, Avenue Q, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
This type of singing is heavily influenced by commercial music vocal styles like pop, rock, country, hip-hop, r&b, and others. It is an empathetic, reactive, and emotion-based genre of singing that embraces vocal distortions like growls, vocal fry, breathy tone, screams, glottal stops, and vowel manipulation. Men and women sometimes sing in similar ranges in this genre, and abrupt registration shifts are common. It is not unusual for stylistic authenticity to take precedence over text/lyrics, and there is often a heavy reliance on electronic amplification and instruments. Some celebrated pop/rock musical theatre singer-actors include Adam Pascal, Heather Headley, Aaron Tveit, and Jessie Mueller. Examples of musicals that predominantly feature this type of singing include Rent, Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, and Once.
* The Legit vocal genre is sometimes referred to as ‘Traditional Musical Theatre’ as well, and that is why I included ‘Belt’ in parenthesis here to differentiate the two.