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The Horror of Movie-Musicals: A Well-Informed Rant (part 2/2)

Now that you know some basics about singing, we can look at some examples! I don’t really like musicals anymore, but there was a time that I loved them, and, besides, my opinion of them doesn’t change the quality of the singing. (Before reading this you may want to read part 1 in this series.)

I apologize ahead of time for what’s about to follow; it may be a little bit like telling you Santa isn’t real.

“But I LOVE that actor!” you say. That’s totally fine. However, that doesn’t mean they can sing. Once upon a time, Hollywood made musical films with super popular actors whose singing voices were (wait for it) – dubbed. Holy fuck, what an idea!! At least back then they tried. They knew that even if someone could act and hit most of the pitches (…or not), that didn’t mean they were a singer. Two great examples of this are Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, and Nathalie Wood in West Side Story (Marilyn Monroe’s voice was also dubbed sometimes, sorry to break it to you). These girls are beautiful and could draw a crowd to the theater like nobody’s business, but they can’t sing. So, instead of attempting to make bad singing a gimmick (*cough* Les Mis *cough*), Hollywood brought in someone who COULD sing. Her name is Marni Nixon, and she is an American soprano trained in musical theater and classical voice.

It’s a good idea to close your eyes when listening to any type of music, but particularly voice. Instead of seeing a pretty person, you just hear what’s happening with their voice. Additionally (and you won’t believe how much easier this makes things), it’s easiest to hear the differences between the voices if you start and stop at certain phrases, instead of trying to compare the entire songs. For instance, listen to “I could’ve danced all night. I could’ve spread my wings, and done a thousand things I’ve never done before.” and then listen to the same in the companion video.

Marni Nixon singing I Could’ve Danced All Night:

Audrey Hepburn singing I Could’ve Danced All Night:

Marni Nixon singing I Feel Pretty:

Nathalie Wood singing I Feel Pretty:

Musicals made in the latter part of the last century are not horrific, as is evidenced here. But that has changed, and we’re now subjected to the horrors of actors trying to sing.

But before we get to that, to make you feel better, here’s a video of a woman who nobody would dub in a million years: Julie Andrews. That woman is beautiful, charming, AND has incredibly solid technique paired with a beautiful timbre. One of the greatest natural voices of the 20th century. (this is also adorable, and, yes, they’re all Julie Andrews. her first major stage role was Eliza from My Fair Lady. If Hollywood wasn’t insane, they would’ve had her star instead of Audrey.)

Julie Andrews singing I Could’ve Danced All Night:

Now to the serious shit. By far and away the worst movie musical in all of time is the latest movie version of Les Miserables. Good. God. And the real hilariously awful part? Remember that scene where Gavroche (the plucky little revolutionary boy) dies, and then some random soldier pops up and sings one single line AND SUDDENLY SOMEONE WHO CAN SING IS ACTUALLY SINGING? *shakes head in shame* That man is Hadley Fraser. He won critical acclaim for his stage performance of Javert. HE WAS ON SET AND THEY STILL USED WONVERINE?! My mind…is boggled. (yes, Samantha Barks is in the 25th anniversary cast, not the best cast assembled to begin with, but guess what, she’s not a good singer…or actress.)

Before you watch the clips, let me say this. Here’s why you shouldn’t give me the whole “but they’re supposed to be young and naïve so they would sound that way” line. Ok, cool, then we should probably get normal looking people to play them too, instead of gorgeous makeupped celebrities. Truce?

Musicals aren’t our normal, everyday world. They’re like soap operas (or actual opera), or Gossip Girl, or True Blood. They’re a heightened version of our reality. They’re fantasy. That’s the very reason we love them. People do not break into song on the fucking street in real life – you’ve probably noticed this. When someone on a TV show breaks into song the first thing your brain tells you is, “Hey, we’ve entered some sort of fantasy sequence, this isn’t what’s really happening.” So, why would you tell me we should make that fantasy world we crave, ordinary? Get it now? You’re taking the magic away, not to mention the art. If singing wasn’t something that moved us so greatly, we wouldn’t feel the need to make musicals. But it is, and so we do, so saying that there’s some worth to removing the art from this art form clearly shows only a misunderstanding of musical theater and the voice. (More on this here, about half-way through.)

If your argument, rather, is that doing it this way makes it more “real” and that’s a good thing, my only advice is that 1. if you wanted reality, you’ve chosen to watch the wrong movie, and 2. to go get yourself a copy of Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. You wanna experience what it’s like watching a movie that’s brutally honest, that doesn’t hide behind a cloak of Hollywood glitter, that depicts real people in a real way? That’s how you do it right. You’re welcome. If you’re not ready to get quite that real, go over to Hulu and watch John Cassavete’s A Woman Under the Influence.

Note also that there IS such a thing as “character” roles. This person often sings with a less “refined” technique, and is an over-the-top caricature (e.g. Les Mis’ in-keeper). The singers who play these roles are still WORLDS better than the leads Les Mis threw at us.

Philip Quast singing Who Am I:

Wolverine singing Who Am I:
Ok, first of all, note that for half of it, he’s not even attempting to sing. I mean, he’s actually speaking the words. And when he does try to sing he literally can’t, because he’s so poor a singer that his breath has no connection to his body (the medium of the voice is breath, that’s what we “paint” with, so no breath-body connection = no singing).

“But maybe that’s a stylistic choice that works,” you may say. First, it’s not a choice if you can’t also choose to sing it, and second, there’s a compositional form for that and it’s called recitative. If recit could’ve spun the magic that this song does, that’s how Schönberg would’ve chosen to compose it. For the love of god, do not attempt to tell me that Wolverine knows more about musical expression than Schönberg. That would be…..unwise.

Judy Kuhn and Michael Ball singing A Heart Full of Love:
Notice that the very first phrase Ball sings sounds shaky, but that in the second phrase his voice becomes full and focused. He has made a conscious choice to begin this way because it shows the character’s youth and vulnerability, but the rest of the song is in full voice, which only strengthens the character. As with the previous example of Wolverine and both actors in the following video, sing-speaking does not attain Ball’s level of communication.

Amanda Seyfriend (I mean, come on, who made her make this much of a fool out of herself) and Eddie Redmayne (oh, how his pretty little head shakes uncontrollably – more heresinging A Heart Full of Love:

Hadley Fraser singing Stars:

Russel Crow singing Stars:

You can listen to comparisons like this of Sweenie Todd (2007), The Phantom of the Opera (2004, and, no, it’s not an opera, it’s musical theater – this movie recording is god awful), etc.

Some movie musicals you can watch without being accosted by actors who think they can sing:
> Rent (2005)
> Cabaret (1972) – this movie is fucking amazing
> Into the Woods (1987)
> Annie (1982) – compare the choice to use Aileen Quinn for Annie and the choice to use Sophia Grace as Little Red Riding Hood in the upcoming movie-musical of Into the Woods.
> Little Shop of Horrors (1986) – kinda, whatever, watch it, Ellen Green is rad.
> You can also watch the TV show, Smash – recognize this face?

I’m gonna stop here. If you guys are interested in an article about child opera singers, lemme know.


Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein received her MFA in poetry from The New School, and her BS in classical vocal performance and literature from Mannes Conservatory. She was selected by Matthea Harvey as The New School’s 2012 Chapbook Contest winner in poetry, and is the founding editor of SOUND, a daily literary magazine on contemporary musico-poetics. @Elkawildling


5 thoughts on “The Horror of Movie-Musicals: A Well-Informed Rant (part 2/2)

  1. Pingback: GOOD READING: Contemporary Poetics & SOUND | luna luna

  2. Pingback: How Operatic is Your Poet? by Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein | Sound Literary Magazine

  3. Pingback: The Horror of Movie-Musicals: A Well-Informed Rant (part 1/2) | luna luna

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