This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com.
Screlting: a combination of the words screaming and belting, reserved for performers forcefully singing at the top of their range.
I hate this word. I hate that it’s become “a thing” in musical theatre. I hate listening to it, especially in auditions. I’m using the word HATE here. About screlting.
How did we go from “Old Man River” to blasting Q#’s at the end of a six-minute power ballad? It’s a multi-layered problem that deserves lots of finger wagging at writers and performers alike. Yes, I’m aware I’ve most likely alienated whatever fan base I have with that assertion. I’m happy to take the fall by speaking out against this insane trend that is, to my ears, ruining voices and emotionally stunting musicals.
It is beyond the scope of this post to outline the history of belt in musical theatre, but suffice it to say the female and male belt voice has ascended faster than condo prices in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Before I launch into a diatribe, let me state that I believe belting is a completely legitimate style of singing. I both teach and I write belt songs. I think belt can be produced in a healthy way. Also, I don’t intend to stereotype, stating “all writers do this” and “all singers do that.” It’s simply not true, but…
I’m going to evenly split the blame of this phenomenon between writers and singers, of which I am both. This week, let’s focus on the writers.
Why Writers Are Sometimes to Blame
The higher the note, the higher the stakes.
I find contemporary writers sometimes equate high belt with emotional depth. This can be true, but if someone has written an entire song or show based on this device – which I have seen happen a lot in New York – the audience will stop paying attention.
A couple of months ago, I was on a crowded subway car with a lady who was clearly without her senses, shouting at the top of her lungs. Many of us just stood there resigned and popped in our ear buds. The last thing I want is someone to tune out during my show. Creating a rich emotional and vocal range for the singer (and, consequently, the audience) is essential for interesting storytelling. If everything is in the same range or at the same volume, it’s impossible to parse out the important moments.
Writers often rob themselves of the wide array of vocal colors available to them. I feel sorry for bass-baritones, I really do. What did they ever do to us and when did we collectively decide their voice type wasn’t a viable sound for contemporary musical theatre? I would love to see someone write a show with a bass-baritone lead. Maybe I should write it. If I was asked to be Marc Kudisch’s court composer for the rest of my life, I’d be overjoyed!
A colleague brought to my attention the astute point that our obsession with key modulations and higher belt seems to run parallel to our culture’s often frenetic pace and desire for more everything. That alone could be the subject of a thesis paper…
In short, the highs mean very little without the lows. And sometimes we don’t even need extremes to communicate something of depth. Look at Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” Enough said.
“But he/she can sing it.”
Anyone can sing something once. But if our goal is to create work that has longevity, the singer has to be able to recreate that performance eight shows a week.
Often times, the problem isn’t that a song requires high belt, but that it’s high and sustained. That becomes challenging for the singer to, well, sustain. It’s like barreling through the desert, hoping you have enough gas to get you to the other side. When I see pieces like this, I often wonder if the composer has studied the voice.
We also must keep in mind the difference between a recording and live performance. Much can be fixed and forgiven in a recording session, but to ask the same singer to produce a consistent performance live is much more challenging. A particularly demanding eleven o’clock number might be fine, but if the performer has been belting their face off for an hour or two before that, chances are they may not have the stamina for the song, even if they sounded great on the demo or cast album.
And besides, there’s nothing worse than going to a show and watching a performer worry about whether or not they’re going to hit the high note at the end of their song. We’ve all seen this happen with students and professionals alike. We don’t experience the song as much as what we perceive to be the performer’s inner monologue: “Am I gonna make it?”
Find out if a song is responsibly written for the voice – show it to a voice teacher and/or vocal coach. I recommend my students have a couple songs in their audition book they could sing even when they have the flu. What would happen if writers created a song with that in mind? Just curious.
“It’s the sound of musical theatre today. I’m just using it.”
True, musical theatre seems to be leaning toward a pop/rock style (though not unilaterally, thanks to writers like Jeanine Tesori, Michael John LaChiusa, et. al…), but that doesn’t give us permission to write in an irresponsible way. I believe we can both honor contemporary idioms (if it’s appropriate to the show) and write intelligently for the voice. Those two things shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.
As you would probably guess, I see a fair amount of new musicals – it’s one of the joys of living in New York. As a result, I have noticed a fascinating correlation: regardless of the musical idiom, the shows that are the most specific in their storytelling often seem to be written more with the voice in mind. It makes perfect sense to me. The writers (through the characters) don’t have prove themselves because they’re clear about the story they’re telling. Conversely, I’ve been to many shows that rely on vocal acrobatics and yet lack an emotional center. The writers make their characters work harder because they’re unclear about their story. I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice this.
The same is true with singers. Many times, my voice students or clients will belt a song because they don’t know what’s going on with the character at that moment. They may still belt after this discovery, but having a particular perspective ensures they don’t need to push. Same coin – different side.
I have absolutely nothing against writing in a contemporary vein, but it doesn’t have to be done at the expense of the singer. The more specific we can be in viewing a particular musical style through our own compositional lens while considering the possibilities and limitations of the voice, the more success we (and the singer) will have.
It is here we’ll take an interval. Check back next week, when I outline how singers are partially to blame for this pandemic called screlting.
Even the word makes me cringe…!
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