Broadway or Bust: What the Pros Know About Musical Theatre

Sara Brennen
November 17, 2009

In the fifth Research Unplugged event of the fall season, titled "Broadway or Bust: What the Pros Know about Musical Theatre," associate professor of music Mary Saunders-Barton explained the dos and don'ts of musical theatre training. She also treated audience members to an inside view of a studio session, by coaching two of her students—musical theatre majors Allison Morooney and Alan Wiggins—as they demonstrated various singing styles and voice techniques, accompanied by Isaac Harlan on piano.

Saunders-Barton led off the discussion by highlighting University President Graham Spanier's commitment to raising the profile of Penn State's musical theatre program to the highest level, indicating that Penn State currently ranks in the top seven programs in the country. She said that the rigor of Penn State's musical theatre program is such that "every single musical theatre student who comes to Penn State as a freshman has to learn two classical songs per semester, in addition to their musical theatre repertoire." Classical voice training must be part of a good musical theatre education, stressed Saunders-Barton.

The live demonstrations entertained and informed the audience of nearly ninety people. To illustrate the difference between a musical theatre and classical operetta style, Saunders-Barton asked Morooney to perform an excerpt of the song "One More Kiss" from the Broadway show Follies in one style, followed by the other. She then asked Alan Wiggins to perform a piece from Porgy and Bess three times, each time prompting him to improve an element of his performance, and he came through beautifully. She also had both students demonstrate "belting" out a song—technique that she called "essential" for any Broadway singer. She then asked Morooney to demonstrate a musical theatre-style speaking voice, singing an excerpt from Seussical's "Notice Me, Horton."

According to Saunders Barton, "In musical theatre singing, you've got to sing everything. You don't have the option of just doing a few high notes or a few low notes in the idle where you feel the heart of your voice lives. Musical theatre doesn't carry the specificity of classical roles. There are just boy and girls, not sopranos and altos." She emphasized that musical theatre students must also train their speaking voices. "If you cannot speak in a certain range, you cannot expect to sing there."

Saunders-Barton, who is also Penn State's Lead of Voice Instruction, explained that the scientific study of how the voice produces sound has revolutionized the way that singers are trained. For example, voice students are trained to control the interaction of the vocalis and cricothyroid muscles in order to regulate their pitch. When asked by an audience member what the greatest danger to someone's speaking voice could be, Saunders-Barton replied, "speaking over noise," or trying to speak in a noisy room so as to be heard.

The sixth and final Research Unplugged discussion of the fall season will be held on November 18th, as S. Shyam Sundar leads a talk on "Tweeting Digging, and Blogging: Communication in the Age of Interactivity." Join us!

For more about Mary Saunders-Barton, read on...

Last Updated November 17, 2009