A Meditation on the Overworked Belter
Before I dive into the topic of “belting,” let me begin by saying that I (like many others) always appreciate the power of a singer or performer that can reach impossible pitches at impossible decibels. It can be a thrilling moment when an actor fires off all missiles into a single word or phrase. But that being said, I have come to wonder if the modern age of musical theatre belting has come to parallel the American stereotype of overwhelming excess.
I know, I know. If a composer likes to write songs strictly for belters, and a singer only likes to perform songs for belters, and an audience wants to hear said singers belting, then what’s the harm? Sometimes such musical moments can function in an immensely cathartic way causing one to rejoice, sob, or somewhere in between. However, like most things in life, too much of one thing can ultimately impair the greater objective at hand.
Belting, or screlting, or masking-belting-by-mixing, or whatever you want to call it could potentially be seen as an epidemic in musical theatre. Some nights I go out to the theatre and realize I’m being belted at for a solid two hours in which there is no juxtaposition or shifting of tone/ambiance at any point in the show. Now I am the last person to categorize rules when it comes to creating any type of theatre. But I can’t help but ponder the static feeling of hearing “belting song” after “belting song” after “belting song.”
What has lead to this type of environment? Is it the offensive skyrocketing of ticket prices, in which audiences want guaranteed moments that say their money was well spent? Is it the business of pop culture, in which the loudest tend to get the most attention? Or is it the theory that people will always be more dazzled by the flexing of a vocal range rather than the flexing of a thought or idea within a song?
Let’s create a scenario in which you, the reader, are sitting in a room with a musical theatre actor performing a song. The content of the song is about (just for the sake of an example) a woman who just lost her husband. The song is heartbreaking, the performer is equally moving, and the song generally has a reasonable range. But suddenly and without warning, the melody soars high into the stratosphere of sheet music. The performer is blasting all possible sound while sounding absolutely gorgeous. Now I’ll pose a question: is your mind still focused on all that the character is experiencing? Or is your mind focused on how impressed you are that the singer can hit those notes? Or both?
No wrong answer here. But I tend to find myself shifting my frame of mind from the content of the song to the skill set of the singer. I’m not saying both cannot be achieved at the same time, but I do believe it is a very intricate line to balance. And as a musical theatre writer, I’m constantly unnerved by having musical moments result in a muscular distraction (albeit a fun/sexy distraction, but a distraction nonetheless).
Another composer once (harshly) stated that “Some writers use belting as a means of hiding behind their own material.” That statement caught me off guard (as I’m certainly a composer who has asked his actors to hit their fair share of tough pitches). I would much rather phrase the statement in an alternative/productive way – “There’s a time and place for certain qualities of music, and sometimes the choice is in the wrong place and/or the wrong time.”
In old school musical theatre (for all of its glory and all of its embarrassments), the use of vocally charged moments seemed to arrive at very meticulous plot points. A former musical composition teacher once said to me, “The most important note should always be the loudest!” (there are those damn words again! Always or should.) And while those kinds of restrictions rub me the wrong way, I have come to understand it as a helpful tool. Take Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel for example. An incredibly emotionally draining play, Carousel handles heavy topics such as suicide, spousal abuse, misogyny, and a giant pile of pure self-loathing. And yet the one moment you hear any character belt is when the protagonist, Billy Bigelow, is deciding whether or not to support his unborn child or die trying. I’ll reiterate that: he’s either going to support his future baby or die. And that was the one moment in which Rodgers decided, “Yes. Let’s ask him to pump up the volume a bit.” (Not a direct quote, but it’s fun to imagine.)
Cabarets and concerts are a different experience entirely. With an influx of alcohol, social gatherings, and a crowd that sometimes consist of a short attention span, it’s understandable to have multiple singers stand onstage and create as much sound as necessary (although some song cycles/concerts manage to pull off the opposite in the most astonishing of ways, i.e. the works of Ricky Ian Gordon or John Bucchino). But when you’re dealing with a more direct linear narrative, such tools can often backfire.
Every show is different. Every composer is different. And more power to the composer who strictly writes song for belters (and the singers who love the material). However when the most poignant moment in a show can be as quiet as “Send in the Clowns,” “You Must Love Me” or the revelatory concluding duet, “Pierre and Natasha” (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812), my brain and my heart are equally dazzled. Many new musical theatre writers are able to capture that somber but resiliently breathtaking aesthetic in wonderfully dramatic ways. Everything from Gaby Alter’s “Deep in February” to Miller and Tysen’s “One of These Nights” can stir a cacophony of emotions, while asking the singers to exercise different parts of their instrument beyond their own vocal chords.