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

Monday, April 11, 2011 - 02:53 PM

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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Comments [10]

Neil Schnall

Excellent photo! Thanks!

If Dessay's performance evoked that imagery for you, I cannot quibble (gout or no gout). I shall listen with open ears next time.

Apr. 15 2011 05:42 PM
Silversalty from Quartier latin

Each to his own taste (chacun a son gout).

What I enjoyed about Ms. Dessay's rendering was probably what you didn't care for. I saw it as a mother singing a lullaby to a child that had experienced one of life's injustices. It was low key (the common metaphor) but Ms. Dessay did hit a couple of high notes that only the best professional singers can touch, and then she went up from there. Also, there was minimal vibrato, which I find annoying. Many of Schwartz's choices in singers use far too much vibrato. Even more so than many opera singers.

P.S. Regarding French icons, I could watch for hours the youtube of Anna Karina doing the Madison. Speaking of French icons .. a picture of mine.

Apr. 14 2011 07:12 PM
Neil Schnall

Much as I hate being disagreeable....

I found Dessay's "Over the Rainbow" as pallid as her Lucia at The Met. I'm sorry I didn't miss it. On the other hand, although Fanny Ardant may not be much of a singer, I'd watch her sing anything!

As a long-time listener of Jonathan's program (and he even called me up at home once to thank me for supplying him the correct musical term for something), I've grown weary of his insistence on playing the likes of Bob Dylan and Carole King, not to mention weird renditions of Rhapsody in Blue, and enough Sondheim. (I mean it: Enough Sondheim! Enough already!)

OK, I've had my little gripe. Thanks for the indulgence.

Apr. 14 2011 03:51 PM

Silversalty - Thanks for the tip on the Ebene Quartet and Natalie Dessay! I missed it when it first played on the station. I'm going to play it for you in a couple of days.

Good comments from all! Keep 'em coming!


Apr. 13 2011 09:36 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

This post seems to be in Jonathan Schwartz's domain. He often has original versions of songs sung by the composer. Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer for example, along with others that didn't quite have the "voice." Recently he played a song sung by Audrey Hepburn. She "talked" the lyrics but didn't quite make it, for me at least. You've left out the controversy at the time of the film version of My Fair Lady, where the stage singer/actress, Julie Andrews, who made the role more than it made her, was dropped from consideration. That mistake wasn't made for The Sound of Music.

Schwartz also played a while back Am I Blue, sung by Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Ms. Keaton did the song twice in the film. The first time poorly, and the second time, well. It was to show her progress in confidence as an individual.

The film that comes to mind for me regarding this topic is Nashville, where I believe not only did some of the players do their own singing, but they also wrote the songs. For example, Keith Caradine and I'm Easy.

"Pop" music is in an era of singer/songwriters. Much of Schwartz's show, like opera, relates to an era where the talents were separate. But then I don't see the likes of Bob Dylan and Carol King as detriments to music.

Quatuor Ébène on their recent CD have a superb version of Over the Rainbow sung by Natalie Dessay, which I first heard on WQXR. There's also a song done by French actress Fanny Ardant. Don't miss the Dessay rendition. It's superb. Do miss the Ardant song.

Apr. 12 2011 04:29 PM
yaiya (gloria) from maspeth, ny

I remember seeing Meryl Streep, on Broadway. It was in Kurt Weill's "Happy End". In the same show: Grayson Hall (from Gothic Soap Opera Dark Shadow fame) and Cristopher Lloyd (Back to the Future)

Apr. 12 2011 02:07 PM

Gentlemen - Your comments are fabulous! I am particularly fascinated to hear about Meryl Streep's 'six degrees of separation' from Beverly Sills. And, Michael, you brought tears to my eyes at the thought of Madeline Kahn singing a madrigal on Carson with those other lovely ladies. I want to see that and am going to search Youtube this afternoon! Thanks again! Midge

Apr. 12 2011 11:36 AM
Michael Meltzer

I don't know how screen stars are packaged these days, but it used to go without saying that an apiring actor or actress would try to pick up as many related skills as possible, you never knew what special ability would give you the edge in securing a part (Charles Bronson got his first role in a western because he was the only auditioner who could belch on cue).
Singing and dancing lessons were a given, the first taught how to perfect the delivery mechanism of the voice, the second how to move with grace and expression.
In the 1970's, I had a choral sheet music shop on the 12th floor of the Steinway building, whose 3rd floor also had rehearsal studios. That is how I lucked into Madeline Kahn as a customer, she was in the building for her tap-dancing lessons. She was still acquiring skills, even though "Blazing Saddles" had already opened across the street at the old Playboy Theater.
Ms. Kahn came in to select madrigals for female voices, spent about two hours reading and humming through quite a bit of repertoire, and ordered about five minutes worth of music that wound up being sung on the Johnny Carson Show by a trio of Ms. Kahn, Cybill Shepherd and Susan Sarandon, quite creditably and quite professionally, each actress.
I think if you look past the surface, you'll find most very successful people to be what would seem to be "overqualified," but what that really means is "ready for anything."

Apr. 12 2011 10:59 AM
James from New York, NY

Midge, I had the good fortune to know Meryl at Vassar and at Yale. She has told the story of taking voice lessons from a teacher whose student before Meryl's time slot had a "great voice" - it turned out that student was Beverly Sills!

Apr. 12 2011 10:26 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

Many, many years ago, my cousin Michael Blankfort, who was atop screenwriter for Paramount Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox, asked me to go to Holywood where he could arrange a screen test for me for Metro Goldwyn Mayer, the bigtime musicals film company. I felt that since my good fortune in being selected for the leading tenor role and even the title role leading tenor in operas by Sergei Prokofieff and George Antheil, among others, was my main focus, so I remained in New York and performed in the USA, Europe and South America. I do not regret my decision then.

Two of my voice teachers not only had GREAT voices but were famous for their acting talents. Friedrich Schorr, the legendary "unico" definitive Hans Sachs and Wotan and Alexander Kipnis, the richest voice and most thrilling BORIS, with competition only from Chaliapin, singular as he was. Kipnis was also a major Mozart and Wagner and lieder singer. Hear what he did with the Erlkonig !!! It helps one to comprehend the talent necessary to perform opera and lieder singing if one has had a career singing opera and concertized with Lieder as the principal ingredient of the solo concert, nowadays not that prevalent.

The unquestioned Golden Age of Wagner performance was the Melchior, Flagstad, Schorr, Kipnis and Branzell "team."

The great and greater performers of Europe came to teach here, in New York. Stars of the Met in Caruso's day, Frieda Hempel and Margarete Matzenauer, I studied with privately, at their residences.

Apr. 12 2011 10:26 AM

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