This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com.
This past summer I attended a performance of NEWSIES on Broadway with students from the Wagner Summer Musical Theatre Institute, where I’ve had the pleasure of working with my colleague Susan Fenley for the last three years. After the show, we had a private talk-back with members of the cast. If you’ve seen the show, you know Christopher Gattelli’s thrilling, aerobic choreography seems to have the performers in mid air more than on the ground. I was relieved to hear Disney Theatrical Productions keeps a physical therapist on staff to help prevent or heal any injuries the singer-dancers sustain because of the show. I tip my hat to Disney for taking care of their employees.
But it got me to thinking: why isn’t there a vocal health specialist on staff for the prevention or treatment of vocal injuries? Listening to the young actors speak and sing in thick New York accents, I was sincerely concerned for them. Without putting too fine a point on it, some of the voice work and singing happening on and off-Broadway just isn’t sustainable eight shows a week without consequence. Some shows seem to have auditions for replacement casts every couple months, presumably because the performers can’t withstand the show’s screamfest scores.
Debra Phyland, a Melbourne-based vocal pathologist was on a team of voice professionals who surveyed Australian musical theatre performers. In an article based on their findings entitled “Perspectives on the Impact on Vocal Function of Heavy Vocal Fold Load Among Working Professional Musical Theatre Performers,” approximately two thirds of the performers in the interviews “…indicated it was normal for them to regularly feel vocally tired, to have a lower speaking voice, or to have a reduction in their normal pitch range while involved in a show.” This certainly isn’t unique to our friends overseas. In talking to several colleagues who regularly perform on Broadway and beyond, there was a similar response.
So, whose responsibility is it to protect musical theatre performers so they can enjoy long and fruitful careers? Oddly enough, the answer depends on who you talk to and what country you’re in.
Over the next several months, I will be highlighting interviews and conversions with Broadway performers, musical directors, casting agents and their counterparts abroad. Of course, I’m not the first to be asking these questions, but I hope to start a more global conversation about this topic. As a voice teacher, I’m deeply interested in helping my students understand how they can protect themselves. What better way to begin a conversation than to get various industry people talking. I look forward to sharing my discoveries!
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