Preview of BROADWAY UNPLUGGED
Can you hear me now?
Yes! promise the creators of Broadway Unplugged, a special microphone-free performance taking place Sept. 27 at Town Hall in New York. Fans of the "Broadway by the Year" series have enjoyed occasional unmiked performances in those concerts, which is why producer Scott Siegel decided to pull the plug entirely for one evening.
Marc Kudisch, Euan Morton, Ann Harada, Cady Huffman, Alice Ripley, Michael Cerveris, B.J. Crosby, Chuck Cooper, Mary Testa, Christine Andreas and Debbie Gravitte are among the stars who will be singing without a mike in hand...or hair...or ear... The lineup (subject to change) also features Nancy Anderson, Stephanie J. Block, Darius de Haas, Julia Murney, George Dvorsky, Alix Korey, Bill Daugherty, Ludmilla Ilieva and A.J. Irvin. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster at 212-307-4100.
With amplification the norm on Broadway for a few decades now, and becoming more commonplace in smaller venues, Broadway Unplugged offers performers the rare chance to sing off-mike. It's also a treat for theatergoers, whether they've never heard Broadway tunes sung unamplified or they're still grumbling about the good old days when no one was miked. Here are comments from some of the Broadway Unplugged headliners looking forward to this unique night of theater.
Marc Kudisch (right, performing in Broadway Musicals of 1926), who this year was in Assassins on Broadway and A Little Night Music at Los Angeles Opera and directed the last "Broadway by the Year" concert (1963), held in June: "This evening's going to be so fantastic because people will actually get to hear people's voices, their real energy, their color without it being messed with by someone else's technology. There's nothing more frustrating than when you sing quiet, they turn you up; when you open up, they turn you down. It all sounds the same out there. Leave that shit to film; that's why we're stage actors. ... I can go out there and do whatever the hell I want. I'm not barred down by a mike, and what hand the mike is in. We just do what we do. There's a freedom involved. It's you, it's your energy, it's your actual resonance that gets to the back of the house. And for an audience, it requires them to actually sit up and partake, to listen, to actively be a part of what's going on. It allows every individual audience member to personally become a part of the evening. By listening, not sitting back in their chair and having sound blasted at them from both sides of the stage. You actually hear that energy of that performer. When they turn around the sound is different. And when you're really in tune to it you can actually feel the vibration of that particular singer. There's nothing else like it. That's why people sing. That's why opera still exists. That's what's so fascinating about it, is watching a single soul on a stage vibrate their energy. It's magnificent. It's a lost art on the stage that truly should come back. We rob an audience of an energy that is unique to the stage by amplifying everything to that degree."
Stephanie J. Block (below, on mike at BWW's Standing Ovations concert), who just wrapped up her run as Liza Minnelli in The Boy From Oz: "Musical theater has changed since the '60s. It is now more 'real.' Actors try not to break from the story, walk down stage, face the audience and present their song. We now are staged to face other actors when singing a love song. We are far upstage looking into the wings, upstage, etc.it's just a different beast. I also think there are more pieces in the orchestra [now]. As a singer, I know it's not an easy task to sing above a percussion section, let alone an entire 26-piece orchestra. Forget it, I will lose! It's just a fact. And I have a big voice. It has nothing to do with a lack of power in a voice. It's just plain dangerous for the singer. ... When singing off-mike in a large space, the benefits are the clarity of the voice, the ability to express the emotion, not only through the voice but the freedom of your whole body. That freedom somehow adds to the energy and excitement." What you'll hear her sing unplugged: Something from Funny Girl (and possibly Evita).
Alix Korey, who's played Mama Morton in Chicago and is in the cast of the Broadway-bound Elvis revue All Shook Up: "You get a little bit lazy when you have the mike, in terms of using your whole body and voice. When you know that it's totally your responsibility to project, to communicate, you have to use all of the full energy that you have. ... Kids coming into the business are not really trained to project. But I think that everyone is capable of doing that, except that no one is capable of outsinging synthesizers. As long as you have synthesizers in an orchestra, which they didn't have prior to the late 1970s/early 1980s, you can't compete with instrumentation that is amplified. Also it's very hard to compete with orchestrations that are incredibly thick and don't allow for the singer. Orchestrators from the '40s, '50s and '60s left clear segments of the orchestra out when a vocal line had to carry it. That doesn't happen anymore. Orchestrators today very rarely consider the vocal line, so they fill the whole orchestration. ... I like to hear lyrics, and it's a lot easier to hear lyrics when the amplification is not hindering it. You just have to move on with the world, and whenever you got a chance to see something pure like this, take it. It sure is fun to see what an old black-and-white film is like." What you'll hear her sing unplugged: "Everything's Coming Up Roses."
George Dvorsky (right, with Christine Andreas in The Scarlet Pimpernel), starred in Brigadoon and Cinderella at New York City Opera and soon to star in She Loves Me at Paper Mill Playhouse: "It's such a freeing experience not having a microphone strapped to you. It's always uncomfortable wearing them. What is amazing is that the audience gets very quiet and pays attention. When a show is miked to the extreme, it seems as if the audience relies on that and becomes more restless. ... The 'Broadway by the Year' audiences crave the acoustical sound. The unplugged numbers always bring the house down. I think the purity of being off-mike really makes a difference to an audience. You hear the voice in its purity. Plus, we spend lots of money on college tuition to learn to project. It's nice to know our money was well-spent. Ha ha." What you'll hear him sing unplugged: "Proud Lady" from The Baker's Wife by Stephen Schwartz.
Bill Daugherty (left, with Nancy Anderson in Broadway Musicals of 1926), costar of the MAC Award nominee Let's Duet, which had an extended run earlier this year at Don't Tell Mama: "When I use a mike, I realize that the audience will hear my voice differently. The tone and resonance are affected by amplification, so often I find I can pull back to a lighter sound which doesn't require as much support. Off-mike, however, even the subtlest sounds have to be supported and more care has to go into the way I shape vowels and consonants. ... I'm a big fan of ambient mikingin other words, allowing the singer to do what he or she does and just enhancing the sound within the space of the stage using area microphones, trying to find a balance with the orchestra. Many of today's singers only know what it's like to sing on a stage with a microphone plastered to their head, so they often don't work the muscles they ordinarily would if they were doing an acoustic performance. My fear is that the norm will be to expect a rock-concert approach to even the most delicate of scores. ... I teach musical theater at NYU's CAP21 conservatory, and the work I do with my students is to train them to sing without amplification, so it's something I've spent my career doing." What you'll hear him sing unplugged: Probably "Long Ago and Far Away" (by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin).
Chuck Cooper (left), Tony winner for The Life, seen most recently in Caroline, or Change: "It's funny how technology can actually separate us. I remember the blackout: It was like somebody had flipped a switch and everybody started talking to each other, everybody started looking each other in the eyes and really hearing one another. I think that happens when the electricity is turned off. We tend to focus easier on human levels. The biggest impact [of no microphones] is on that energy that exists between the performer and the audience. It has to be more immediate in some way because it hasn't been tampered with, it hasn't had anything but the room and the people that are there as the only players. The electronic thing is a whole other character." What you'll hear him sing unplugged: Eubie Blake's "Lowdown Blues."
Mary Testa (below, far right, in First Lady Suite), performed this summer in Michael John LaChiusa's R shomon at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and is now appearing in String of Pearls at Primary Stages: "Overamplification is pretty rife. Sometimes everything is at a shrieking level. I don't know why. I think it's just the world. There's just so much noise that they think more is more. It's always lovely when you go and see a show that's nicely balanced. ... If you're miked you can be subtle, you can be softer, and they will pick you up. When you're not miked you have to think in terms of how big the space is and how much voice to use." What you'll hear her sing unplugged: "Hard Hearted Hannah," which she used to do for auditions when she was younger.
Julia Murney (near right, in First Lady Suite), who this month is playing Mother in Ragtime at North Carolina Theatre: "You have to trust that the audience will have tuned its ear to the notion of no amplification and will really pay attention, and that way you don't spend the whole number screaming your head off. It certainly helps that Town Hall's acoustics are great, by and large. ... I've been in shows where I've been aware of people sitting in the audience with their fingers in their ears while we're having a rocking good time on stage. That's certainly a little distracting, but it's hard to know if it's anything beyond a 'different strokes for different folks' kind of thing. ... As for now versus then, I've never attempted to sing a score with an orchestra and no microphone. I don't know how the Ethel Mermans did itit's an awesome notionbut offhand, I also can't think of a lot of subtleties in her brand of singing. Shows have evolved as have the singers. And no matter the evolution, you still can't please everyone." What you'll hear her sing unplugged: "I Got Love" from Purlie. "I wanted to sing something I've never sung before and may never get a chance to sing."
The curtain rises on Broadway Unplugged at 8 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 27. Town Hall is at 123 West 43rd Street; 212-307-4100, www.ticketmaster.com for tickets.
Photo credits: Broadway Musicals of 1926 (2), Ben Strothmann; Standing Ovations, Linda Lenzi/Craig Brockman; First Lady Suite, Joan Marcus. Homepage photo of Nancy Anderson, Euan Morton and Julia Murney by Ben Strothmann.