What Makes Us Human

Essay written for: The Soul of the American Actor

Singing and acting have been important elements in human cultures since the earliest years of our evolution. Returning hunting parties would tell stories of their adventures around the campfire using heightened voices, movement and musical instruments. This is the root of theatre and musical theatre. It is part of what makes us human.

I recently attended the annual cabarets performed by the acting students at Circle in the Square Theatre School, and I was reminded once again of the power music and singing has in the formation of an actor. I organized the first cabaret at Circle in the Square twenty-five years ago when I was still an active classical music singer and academic. Even though my father had had a successful career on Broadway, my training had all been in classical music, primarily because that was the only training available in those days. I was brought on board at Circle to teach singing technique. Most of the students had never sung before and were not interested in doing musicals. They were “serious” young actors. Just as in the recent performance, at that first cabaret I saw young artists transformed before my eyes. Actors who struggled in scene study classes were not taking themselves so seriously, they gave open and animated performances full of humor and meaning that would not have been available to them if they had been using only the spoken word.

Since my early years working with actors, it has become clear to me that there are a number of significant ways in which actors benefit from studying singing. First of all, an actor can have the most profound intentions, but if his speaking voice does not have the expressive power to communicate those intentions, they will remain imprisoned. Singing makes actors more aware of the potential of the voice and it teaches them to hear the music and rhythm in the spoken language. Further, studying singing increases the range and power of the speaking voice. The development of skills in singing involves learning the various options presented by the vocal registers and resonating spaces, precise vowel formation, the skilled use of voiced and unvoiced consonants, and the development of the muscular strength and coordination required for breath control and support for singing. As the actor becomes a more proficient singer, her stage voice has greater endurance, carrying power and greatly increased options for expressivity.

Over the years, the casting of leading roles in Broadway shows has included more and more actors who are known for their work in film and television. On a number of occasions I have been faced with a panicked actor who is about to make his singing debut on a Broadway stage. Harvey Keitel was referred to me because he was about to begin a filming a movie in which he had to sing. While Harvey is generally considered an American treasure, he developed his reputation as an actor not a singer, and we had our work cut out for us. As it turned out, he was a focused, determined and a hardworking student, and he has become a capable singer. I couldn’t help but notice in his recent movies that the tone of his speaking voice is clearer, and he has a much larger expressive range vocally.

As much as a good singing technique can give an actor greater power to be heard and understood on stage, singing can also be very influential in helping the actor discover resources for nuance and color in the speaking voice which bring greater depth of meaning to a moment. The dramatic situation in a musical scene or a solo song demands a more openly emotional presence in the voice. It forces the actor/singer to use the voice as a more communicative instrument. Through song interpretation, actors learn to sustain an emotion while working within the discipline of the choices already made by the composer and lyricist. Working within this definite structure, actors learn to be more focused and to commit to the choices made.

When studying a scene through textual analysis, the actor has only the dimension of the language to draw upon, whereas in a song, he can study the music and discover the composer as a dramatist. The melody is usually the most memorable aspect of a song. The ways in which a skillful composer constructs the melody, through the choice of mode and key, and the use of such compositional techniques as repetition, variation, sequences and ornamentation, bring a whole new dimension to the dramatic situation. Musical meaning is heard and felt through the melodic motion of phrases, and the phrases are given life, energy and depth through rhythm and harmonic coloration. A beautifully crafted song (or an aria in an opera) brings the separate worlds of text and music together and creates a new form that illuminates a heightened moment in a way that the words or music alone could not achieve. The actor’s work is greatly enhanced by being able to participate in this process.

In our own time, musical theater continues to be a popular art form, and increasing numbers of plays incorporate music and singing, providing employment opportunities for actors who can sing. Learning to infuse a text with meaning through song is one of life’s great joys, and it is an invaluable experience for actors.

(Written exclusively for “The Soul of the American Actor,” with special thanks to my colleagues Edward Berkeley and Alan Langdon for their contributions.)