Let’s Tango: 4 Things Musical Theater Composers Should Do to NOT Hate Singers

Voice Pedagogue Rant: I am getting a little tired of picking up piece after piece of contemporary musical theater lit and questioning why their composers must have a personal vendetta against woman. Or just singers in general. What did we ever do to you?!

Things NOT to do: Composers, take note.

1. Monopolize the middle of the piano.
You must have some business deal there – a cut of the profits, mayhaps? There are notes outside B3-C5. I  know those notes are nice and accessible for you, ya ol’ C-lover. You probably sat down at the piano and didn’t even think about it.  Who would? Less black notes=less messy. But justsoyaknow, on a good day, lots of my alto friends can stretch on down to the baritone/bass range (D3-E3), and over here in sopranoland, high C6 is my jam. On a spectacular day, I can hit a staccato G6. Ringling brothers, your human piccolo has arrived. And I’m not the only one. Let’s write a groundbreaking song other than Girl in 14G that shows off the extent of the vocal range, okurr?

2. Avoid using ungodly tessitura.
Most women cannot successfully “belt” in the area of A4-D5. See how I put “belt” in quote marks? That’s because any voice teacher worth their salt knows that “belt” is the vocal equivalent of He Who Shall Not Be Named. I dare you to walk into a crowded room of voice teachers and just whisper the word “belt.” Then run for your life as chaos ensues. Let me explain:

What “belt” means to vocal pedagogues: an elusive vocal placement. Speech-like and forward, still supported by the breath, modeled fabulously by Audra McDonald or Sutton Foster, and ultimately not a yelling voice brought up so far past the breaking point that it looks like you’re passing a kidney stone. Try explaining that to every high schooler that wants to sing Gimme, Gimme from Thoroughly Modern Millie (should high schools do those shows?) Watch as they attempt to discover what “faux” belt really is, try not to laugh, then die a little inside.

What “belt” means to everyone else: if you’re not popping a vein, you’re doing it wrong? Make sure that your butt, neck, and jaw are nice and tight. Oh, and bonus points if you start sweating. Just do whatever you can to hit that note at the end.  Speaking of…

3. Don’t use a completely inaccessible last note….and hold it out forever.
So. You’ve probably picked at least one of those notes in the aforementioned zona horrible for your last note of the song. The real ball-buster. Can’t hold a note out for 1000 seconds? Next. Sure, you might have found the .01% of singers that can actually make that 64-beat-tied-whole-note sequence sound good, but that doesn’t mean you should continue to write for the marginal percentage. Just don’t. My advice to singers: when you’re done, you’re done. Not allowed: clenching any of your lower extremities or crunching up into the fetal position to squeeze out a final four beats. It’s just not worth it. Cleverly insert some kind of flair to stay in character and hope there’s an actual voice teacher on the audition panel that will sympathize, cast you, and then teach you how to do it without hurting yourself.

4. Don’t use the same notes for dudes. Being able to feasibly switch voice parts with any other male in the production should also be banned. I’m not talking about a well-placed, intelligent voice-crossing (that was for you, choral arrangers). I’m talking about another dude in the rafters having no problem singing along with every note (in full voice, not falsetto) of your supposedly-female solo. An eloquent example: Songs For A New World. Woman 2 and Man-Juan (man 1). Tight / close harmonies: neat.  Singing 90% of the same notes? NOT. OKAY. Whatever happened to the Noble Bass? Basso profundo? How’s about a little coloratura action in any voice part? Or other equally as valid structures that can be creatively used in musical theater? Pattersong? Theme & variations? Fugues? Beuller? There’s more to music and life than singing really high and loud (Crazy Tenor Friends, you know I love you). Just saying.

Feel free to comment with an exhaustive list of the 10-15 musical theater pieces that defy these principles (and were written after 1980). I’ve probably already used them. Then go cry yourself to sleep (I know I do) because you really couldn’t come up with more.

Fighting words? Ball’s in your court, MT composers. Let’s tango.

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