Sunday, December 7, 2014

On Singing “Max”

Photo - Bill Kneen
The role of Max Bialystock in the Mel Brooks Broadway show “The Producer’s has been described separately by actors who have played him as the male “Mama Rose” and a role in which “you hurl your entire body through three hours pretty much non stop”. I can’t agree with the former description but I can certainly attest to the latter. Max doesn't have anything like the emotional arc that Rose does. But, it is a tour de force both vocally and physically, demanding much from an actor. While playing the role in a regional production recently, fans would comment with surprise at how it was possible to get through the performance without dropping. Max’s second act vocal soliloquy “Betrayed” is a 501 word runaway train in which he replays the entire plot in just under five minutes. This, after running around on stage for two hours. Their comments made me think about something that happened to me almost 30 years ago without which, I never could have made it through that song, let alone the rest of the show.

The moment was during a community theater production of Brigadoon in which I played the romantic lead, Tommy Albright. This lovely Lerner and Loewe musical has gorgeous music best sung by talented performers with top technique at their disposal. I struggled to get through the show vocally. With a combination of no voice training and a bad sinus infection, I managed to get through the performances with a combination of determination and
Tim Barden as Tommy Albright in Brigadoon
Photo - George Walker
predisone. Late in the run, I asked my co-star, a talented soprano who had studied voice for years, her candid opinion of my singing. She told me that she thought I had “a beautiful instrument”. I found her answer a bit perplexing. People before (friends, relatives, etc) always used words like “great”, “fantastic” etc. So, I didn't grasp what she meant.... Did she like it? Was it good? Did she hate it?. What gives.... What do you mean “a beautiful instrument? I screwed up my courage and asked her to explain. She said simply, “You’re like someone who has a valuable, prized violin who doesn't really know how to play it. If you pluck the string it lets forth a beautiful sound but if you try to actually play it the way it is intended to be played, you cannot. You cannot realize it’s true potential. She continued to say that I was missing out by not studying voice. Doing so would allow me to do so much more than I now could. I had never really considered studying voice. Like most kids growing up in Vermont in the ‘60s we didn't think about doing such things. I sang in chorus and later a rock band.... Who needs voice lessons? I could sing....

But, I respected my dear friend and cast mate so much I decided to give it a try. As it turned out, her voice teacher at the time was Broadway’s own V. William Reed. Although primarily teaching at his studio in Manhattan and Circle in the Square School, he generously saw a few students at his home in Vermont during the weekends. Although I was completely petrified to go see him, I decided to give it a try.

My first lesson felt like a disaster. I was simply unable to do much of what was asked of me and although Bill was kind and gracious, I felt like a complete failure. But, something in the way he worked with me made me feel that there was hope. I began seeing him regularly and my journey began.

The first year of studying was an exercise of two steps forward and one and three quarters back.... I realize now that what first had to happen before I could make progress was to unlearn all the bad habits learned from well intended chorus teachers and years of misusing my voice (especially years of singing lead in a rock band). About 3 months into the process I began to see glimmers of light. I was beginning to see the parallels between learning proper vocal technique and my experience with acting technique classes I had taken years earlier working in professional theater. The breakthroughs came slowly and steadily and I began to learn my strengths, weaknesses and how to employ technique to my best advantage. I also began to learn how to act a song.

I stuck with it and studied for several years. The singing and song interpretation techniques I learned by working with Bill are ones I’ve carried with me and continued to build on. I was fortunate enough to not only study with Bill but also be directed by him in a production of the Maltby/Shire show “Closer Than Ever”. Simply put, I could not have done the things I have done in theater if it weren't for Bill. Especially Max. I never could have put Max on stage if it weren't for him.

Besides being a performer, I've had many different roles associated with the theater. I've acted, directed, designed, and produced. I've had success and failures. But the goal has always been the same. To raise the bar and learn, constantly learn. Find the best and learn from them and never stop learning. After all, it’s an performer’s job to be open to learning something new every moment he or she is on stage.

My wife and I own a performing arts school in Vermont and over the years, I've had the opportunity to pursue my other passion, performing arts photography, shooting artists/companies like the Martha Graham Company, Kyle Abraham / Abraham.In.Motion, Bill Evans, August Wilson Ensemble as well as lots of musical and straight theater. This too has helped me see that, in every genre of the arts, the discipline is the same. Success is the result of a foundation of three things, talent, technique and passion. To be sure, luck is a factor but without the foundation first, luck won’t help.

So my message is this... Specific to musical theater as a career aspiration, and specific to singing as it pertains to achieving that aspiration. Everyone sings but not everyone knows how to sing in a healthy fashion and with the technique that will allow you to run a marathon and win. If you are one of the special breed that has to perform, particularly vocally, find a great voice teacher and do the necessary work to prepare yourself for running the marathon. There are no shortcuts. When you finally reach the finish line you’ll thank yourself for having the courage and dedication to do so. You’ll thank your teachers too.

Thanks Bill Reed, for helping me to put Max Bialystock on stage.