Understanding Musicals part 6 – Vocal style

Vocal style

Knowledge of vocal style can be used to inform any performance element of the exam and project work. It will also contribute to appraisal skills and understanding of form. The vocal styles prevalent in the genre have arisen from two directions. Since the vast majority of performers have trained first as actors, the emphasis is on text and character (unlike opera, where the emphasis is on voice and musicianship). Therefore the singing style has developed from the desire for textual comprehension rather than beauty of tone.

In addition, composers of musicals have embraced popular music genres, so songs can contain a number of different influences including rap, fusion, rock and classical. Increasingly, pop and R&B vocal riffs are appearing in the theatre, and crossover songs are becoming the norm.

Here are three duets from musicals written in different styles. Use these notes as a basis for discussions on musical styles, vocal styles, characterisation, orchestration.

I’ll know (male-female) from Guys and Dolls (Frank Loesser), a classic book musical opening in 1950 and filmed in 1955.

This is a ‘not-love’ duet between Sarah, a Salvation Army leader, and Sky Masterson, a gambler. The general feel is of a classic book musical, with a classically biased vocal line containing large leaps (9ths) and long phrases. It has a verse/chorus feel similar to Gershwin songs of the 1930s with short, repeated musical phrases and words, and fairly standard harmonies. Using the original cast album as a reference, Robert Alda (Sky) sounds like a pop crooner of the 1940s, and much of Isabel Bigley’s singing (Sarah) would not be out of place in an English operetta.

The male crooner vocal style, epitomised by Bing Crosby, includes a lazy, de-energised delivery, with a straight, slightly defocused sound. The female classical crossover singing style includes lower notes in chest voice, upper notes in lyrical soprano head voice, with clean moves between each note, and sustained vowels with late-changing diphthongs and clipped consonants.

Features of these characterisations include the use of different accents, with Sarah singing in a ‘correct’ standard American and Sky singing with a New York accent. The orchestration is lush, with a heavily featured swooping string section, prevalent in MGM musicals of the 30s and 40s.
Guys and Dolls original cast album, recently digitally remastered, Universal, 159112. Guys and Dolls Vocal Selection ISBN: 0881882011

I’ll cover you (male-male) from Rent (Jonathan Larson), a rock opera which opened in 1996.

A love duet between Tom Collins, a computer genius, and Angel, a transvestite street drummer. The general feel is rock musical, with stylistic elements in the vocal line including vocal slides and pitch drops, extra notes, use of falsetto, and added scat phrases. The accent has moved away from standard American and more towards motown, for a poppier feel. The sung rhythms move between 6/8 and 3/4 and the two voices move mostly in unison, thirds and sixths with the impression of improvisation. The music moves in simple chord progressions, but with unusual notes added to the chords (9ths, 7ths, 4ths). The orchestration is light with a small number of instruments including drumkit, synthesizer, keyboards, and electric and bass guitars playing a rhythmic backing.
Rent Vocal Selections ISBN 0-79357229-0, Rent Broadway cast album MAC, DRD50003

In his eyes (female-female) from Jekyll and Hyde (Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse) a contemporary musical opening in 1997.

A duet for Lucy, a prostitute, and Emma Carew, a society lady, in love with the same man, Dr Jekyll. A short introduction leads into the song proper – the orchestration is lush, with a large string section, woodwind and brass, and a piano. This is an old-fashioned ballad, overlaid with contemporary singing. It is written for accomplished singer-actors – in this case a soprano belter and contemporary lyric soprano. Note that both singers have to belt, but that the more lyric role (Emma) uses a sweeter sound.

The musical style includes back-phrasing (delaying important words or musical points beyond the written rhythm while the orchestra continues), and general rubato (flexibility of tempo for singers and orchestra together within each phrase). There is a wide range of tonal colours (including breathy sounds, speech-like singing and belting) which characterises contemporary musicals. The vocal lines echo and intertwine as the two women (who do not realise the other exists) express their emotions.

This duet is unusual in that each character could sing the other’s lyrics, and the listener gains a great deal from knowing the situation from previous scenes. There is a more complicated harmonic structure than in the previous two examples, with more interesting chords (flattened 5ths and 9ths) and chord progressions (Cm7, Cm7b5, F7, Gm7b5, Gbmaj7, C7b9 and so on).
Jekyll and Hyde Original Broadway Cast Album Atlantic, 7567829762, Jekyll and Hyde Vocal Selections ISBN 1-57560-071-4


This exercise follows from lessons based on the vocal styles section:

  1. Find three songs on the same topic from different eras. The songs can either be assigned by you or researched by the pupils. Alternatively, different students can research different eras.
  2. Write about the song or songs or give a mini-presentation in class, describing features of vocal writing that you think are significant.
  3. Discuss instrumentation, vocal style, musical and rhythmic style, dramatic purpose, portrayal of characters.

To find out more about how we work with vocal style in Musical Theatre, watch our Mastering Musical Theatre masterclass online