Over the past few decades, a great deal of fascinating research on the female musical theatre singing voice has emerged from academia and other sources. However, there has been SIGNIFICANTLY less written about the male musical theatre singing voice. In fact, there hasn’t been much at all. This is unfortunate because men do not have things particularly easy in the professional musical theatre industry today. Like their female counterparts, male singer-actors are frequently required to sing extreme ranges, implement a variety of registration and resonance adjustments, sing in multiple music styles, and do all of this while dancing and performing gymnastics across stages.

Gone are the days when good looking, leading man-type performers could get by on their booming, baritone voices and looks alone. In fact, roles for young, classically-trained baritones on Broadway have become increasingly scarce over the past few decades– due in large part to the rise of pop and rock style musicals. Even popular, legit male singer-actors like Steven Pasquale and Ramin Karimloo don’t sing classically-influenced musical theatre repertoire exclusively. If they did, they wouldn’t find much work in today’s heavily commercial environment. Other actors like Hunter Foster and Norbert Leo Butz have made careers out of their vocal versatility– often jumping back and forth between legit roles and pop/rock-influenced roles as needed. The main point I’m getting at here: male musical theatre performers need to be able to sing virtually EVERYTHING in order to remain marketable in the professonal theatre world today. This means it is absolutely necessary to cross-train the male singing voice so that it can function freely across a variety of styles (just as it is with female voices).

One of the biggest hurdles performers and teachers face today when training male singers is figuring out how to approach and navigate the dreaded passaggio (AKA the ‘break’). First, know that every human voice, regardless of gender, has a break around the E/F above middle C. Both men and women have quite a few options at this point in their range– all of which constitute a combination of vocal fold (source) and vocal tract (filter) adjustments. The vocal folds themselves are largely driven by two antagonistic muscles: the thyroarytenoid and the cricothyroid. These muscles, in combination with various vocal tract adjustments (AKA resonance changes), assist men and women in producing a variety of vocal tone qualities. Below are the five most common vocal configurations men utilize in musical theatre today when navigating through the passaggio:

1. Head Voice (aka Falsetto). In this configuration, the cricothyroid muscle stretches and thins the vocal folds– causing only the upper edges to vibrate and the folds to remain touching for a shorter period of time (AKA there is a shorter ‘closed quotient’ phase). The thyroarytenoid muscle remains active in a largely passive manner. Different vocal tract configurations can cause the falsetto to have stylistically distinct tone qualities as well (as you’ll hear in the contrasting examples below). Vibrato usage is variable and role-dependent in this type of singing. We hear this configuration most often today in pop and rock-influenced musicals, but some Golden Age and post-Golden Age shows feature falsetto singing as well.

Audio Examples:
“A Little Bit of Good” from Chicago (most of the song)
“Left Behind” from Spring Awakening (the final few sung pitches)

2. Head/Mix. This configuration has many similarities to head voice/falsetto. The main difference is that the thyroarytenoid muscle is more active and engaged alongside the cricothyroid muscle (with the latter remaining dominant). This configuration can be easily mistaken for falsetto, but there are subtle functional differences. Different vocal tract configurations can cause the head/mix to have stylistically distinct tone qualities as well (as you’ll hear in the contrasting examples below). Vibrato usage is frequently variable and role-dependent in this type of singing. We hear this configuration most often today in pop and rock-influenced musicals, but some Golden Age and post-Golden Age shows feature head/mix singing as well. Overall, it’s relatively rare.

Audio Examples:
“You Are Never Away” from Allegro (many upper sung pitches)
“There’s a World” from Next to Normal (many upper sung pitches)

3. Chest/Mix (Classical Extension). This configuration is characterized by greater activation of the thyroarytenoid muscle– causing the vocal folds to become thick and short, the full fold length to vibrate, and the folds to remain touching for a longer period of time. The cricothyroid muscle remains active at various levels but never becomes dominant over the thyroarytenoid. This configuration kicks in around the passaggio when men use tall, round vowels (AKA modified). The usage of these vowel shapes, coupled with a raised soft palate, causes the larynx to move to a lower position and the vocal tract to elongate. This results in a vocal tone quality that is rich and warm. Vibrato usage is often fairly consistent in this type of singing. We hear this configuration most often today in legit musicals (AKA classically influenced).

Audio Examples:
“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma (many upper sung pitches, especially ‘feeling’)
“Soliloquy” from Carousel (many upper sung pitches)

4. Chest/Mix (Traditional Belting). This configuration is characterized by greater activation of the thyroarytenoid muscle– causing the vocal folds to become thick and short, the full fold length to vibrate, and the folds to remain touching for a longer period of time. The cricothyroid muscle remains active at various levels (depending on the ‘weight’ of the belt). This configuration kicks in around the passaggio when men use wide, speech-like vowels. The usage of these vowel shapes, coupled with a neutral soft palate position, causes the larynx to raise slightly and the vocal tract to shorten. The resulting vocal tone quality is bright and ‘brassy’. Vibrato usage is typically limited in this type of singing. Nasality may be used for stylistic reasons, but not all belting utilizes nasal resonance. We hear this configuration most often today in traditional and contemporary-style musical comedies.

Audio Examples:
“Santa Fe” from Newsies (many upper sung pitches)
“I Believe” from The Book of Mormon (many upper sung pitches)

5. Chest/Mix (Rock Belting). This configuration is characterized by greater activation of the thyroarytenoid muscle– causing the vocal folds to become thick and short, the full fold length to vibrate, and the folds to remain touching for a longer period of time. The cricothyroid muscle remains active at various levels (depending on the ‘weight’ of the belt). This configuration kicks in around the passaggio when men use speech-like vowels with some distortion (growls, vocal fry, etc.). The usage of these distorted vowel shapes, coupled with a neutral soft palate position, causes the larynx to raise slightly and the vocal tract to shorten. The resulting tone quality is similar to traditional musical theatre belting but with more of an ‘edge’ to the sound. Vibrato usage is typically limited in this type of singing but can be variable and role-dependent. We hear this configuration almost exclusively in pop and rock-influenced musicals today.

Examples:
“One Song, Glory” from Rent (many upper sung pitches)
“Leave” from Once (many upper sung pitches, excluding the falsetto ‘wails’)

Kevin Michael Jones

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