Musical Theatre Performers: Actors or Singers?

One reason I adore musical theatre so much is because, for me, it offers the opportunity to enjoy talented actors, singers and dancers all in one place. You can go to the cinema and see a fine actor giving an Oscar-worthy performance in a film there. You can go to a live concert at the O2 and hear fantastic singers delivering a once-in-a-lifetime musical experience. You can even go to Sadler’s Wells to watch dancers enthral with the grace and beauty of their body’s movements. Each of these presents only one aspect of live performance however, whilst musical theatre gives its audience the full entertainment package, wrapped up in one very pretty bow.

I think most people would agree that musical theatre performers, as a rule, need to be well-versed in all aspects of live performance. The two most vital tools they need have got to be the ability to sing and act however, as these is the backbone of every musical show – dancing is an additional treat, not a necessity. I’ve always found it interesting therefore, that many tend to refer to themselves as actors foremost, rather than singers.

Is this right, or wrong? In the case of a musical theatre performer, are the two disciplines inextricably linked together and held on an equal par to one another, or not? Most people would agree that both are important, but whether one is more important than the other makes for an interesting topic of discussion.

The issue of stunt casting, i.e. the practice of celebrities being cast in West End roles simply for their name and star power, previously opened the gateway to the debate on whether singing or acting, if either, is more important in a musical. These famous faces are put on show as part of Mission: Bums in Seats, but are often found to be lacking in one, if not all, areas. So, which is the better deal – a great actor who isn’t a great singer, or a great singer who isn’t a great actor?

Most people would say that they’d rather see performers who can really belt out a tune when it comes to musical theatre. I’ve seen productions before in which the lead isn’t that vocally impressive, and for me, it detracts from the overall experience and enjoyment of the show. That being said, bad acting is just as noticeable and can be equally detrimental to the quality of the show. It also differs from show to show, as certain musicals have far more emphasis on the singing side of it all than others. You wouldn’t want an actress who can’t hit those high notes playing Christine in The Phantom of the Opera for instance, whereas roles such as Thernadier are more about the comedy of the character than vocal technique. Musicals such as Shrek and Chicago have often had well-known names starring in them, placing less importance on whether they are predominantly a singer/actor or actor/singer.

The truly great leading men and ladies of the stage are adept as singers and actors, as the two naturally go hand-in-hand when it comes to musicals. Musical theatre is story-telling through song. Most theatre-goers will recall an instance when they have seen a musical and been visibly moved by the performance of a song. When someone can emotionally affect their audience through the delivery of a song, connecting to the emotion of it and singing with a truth and believability that gives meaning to every word sung, that is acting through singing.

To be truly successful in musical theatre, performers have to be both singers and actors. It’s not enough to be one or the other, and I do believe that it is that acting ability which makes certain individuals stand out from the crowd and elevates them to stage stardom. There are so many wonderful singers in the West End, but their voices will only carry them so far – a flawless vocal performance isn’t enough if there’s no connection to the song, the character, or the audience. Still, so many performers find themselves limited because a musical theatre background means they’re not necessarily taken seriously as straight actors. Michael Xavier once claimed there was a ‘snobbery’ towards musical theatre performers, and there is a lot of truth in that. Unfortunately.

I would say that musical theatre performers should be thought of as actors/singers, not singers/actors. That doesn’t mean one should necessarily be thought of as more important than the other, as both are needed on the stage, but great singers are great actors at heart… that’s what makes them great!

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Tuesday 10th March 2015

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