Stars Learn to Sing for Roles... Or Do They?

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Years ago, I found myself killing time with violinist Itzhak Perlman in the studio at Channel 13. I think we were having equipment problems that day. So, I was digging around for things to talk about. We covered tennis (he’s a fan) and my very poor skills as a violinist (that was embarrassing…).

Then we moved on to singing.

"Maestro Perlman," I said, "I think I heard you sing on a Live from Lincoln Center telecast recently, didn’t I? It was Tosca and you sang the jailer, right?"

"Ah," he replied, "you saw my farewell-debut!"

He then went on to explain why he thinks singing is so difficult and requires so much good instruction, how different it is to have your instrument physically attached to your body, and all the psychological and physical problems that play into that. Clearly, he thought it was a kick to have sung in the broadcast. But he was still quick to claim the violin as his instrument of expertise.

With the recent news of Elizabeth Taylor’s death, I was fascinated to find that the career actress opted to record the hit song, Send In the Clowns for 1977 the film adaptation of A Little Night Music in which she played Desirée. I found myself wondering if it was a difficult decision for her. Whom did she trust to tell her that the result was good enough for the discriminating public?

In the 50’s and 60’s, Marni Nixon made a huge name for herself as the go-to playback voice of Hollywood. She sang for Deborah Kerr in the film version of The King and I, for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. It was the done thing in those days to have a singer sing for you if you weren’t one. And Marni was the reigning queen.

But, these days all sorts of performers are willing to go out on a limb and give singing a try – some to good effect, and others not. 

Now, you may be thinking Catherine Zeta Jones... Catherine Zeta Jones, but the first example that pops to my mind is one of the most respected actresses of our time – Meryl Streep. She sang in the 1990 screen adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s novel Postcards from the Edge. She had to. After all, she was Shirley MacLaine’s daughter in the film! And then, three years ago, she did it again in Mamma Mia! Now that took guts, don’t you think?

Another example is Reese Witherspoon who portrayed June Carter Cash in the movie Walk the Line. She has spoken openly about her concerns prior to singing in the film. She signed up for six months of what I’m sure were intensive lessons. My feeling is that her singing was "ok." And, these days "ok" seems to do it in a lot of cases.

And what about Gwyneth Paltrow? Yes, what about Gwyneth Paltrow? She’s everywhere working extremely hard to reinvent herself as a singer. I'm not sure what that’s all about, but it’s interesting to observe, for sure!

So, do we judge these cross-over musical wannabes with a grain of salt or do we expect them to bring it all to the table? What distinguishes a decent singer from a great one? Exactly how does a singer like June Carter Cash become June Carter Cash? 

In my mind's eye there is something to be said for having a gift and being fortunate enough to make the most of it. If the talent fairy didn’t tap you as a solo artist, maybe you should stick to the choir.... or the shower... or try it once and call it your "farewell-debut!"

I don’t really know, I’m just thinking out loud.  So, help me out and let me know what you think. And, thanks!

P.S.  For the record, you should know that I LOVE these two Meryl Streep clips.  I hope you have time to listen!

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