Of the recent movie musicals, audiences have been notably put-off by musical stars who can’t sing. The first thing I heard from plenty of average non-Broadway fans about The Phantom of the Opera was “The Phantom wasn’t that great of a singer, and he had odd pronunciation.” Most reviews noted how thin Helena Bonham Carter’s voice was in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Very few reviewers commented how great Pierce Brosnan sounded in Mamma Mia!. And my personal vendetta is against Jamie Foxx who murdered “When I First Saw You” in Dreamgirls. He went on record as saying he chose not to practice his numbers too much since Curtis is not a singer, but for anyone who has heard Norm Lewis’s “When I First Saw You,” they know how Curtis is supposed to sound.
The struggle between audience-drawing names and movie stars with musical talents is as old as movie musicals. Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn all sang just like Marni Nixon. Vera-Ellen was a commonly dubbed dancing star, and many great actors couldn’t pull off their own singing for roles (or weren’t given the chance)—Angela Lansbury, Debbie Reynolds, Ava Gardner, Lucille Ball, and Christopher Plummer were all dubbed at one time or another. Even in modern times, Broadway stars B.D. Wong and Matthew Broderick found themselves dubbed in Disney movies.
The modern day response to having a star who can’t sing in live-action musicals is to cast them anyway and hope for the best. With the exception of Minnie Driver’s dubbed Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera, having musical stars who can’t sing strong enough for the roles hasn’t deterred anyone from letting them sing in a movie.
The problem is that musicals require the ability to sing well in order to act well. As an actor, the only instrument you have at your disposal is your body, and your voice is part of that body. If you are vocally unable to do something with your character, then you can’t appropriately act the part, just as if you are not physically strong enough to play a football hero, you can’t appropriately play the part. In a musical, if you can’t sing well, you can’t act well.
In the old days, stars were required to be phenomenally versatile—singers, dancers, actors. They were nurtured for movies that required them to be. It’s funny to contemplate Dean Martin, who was a typical star of his day—a very versatile singer and actor.
The problem is that these days, musicals are returning, but the musical talents are not being nurtured, so that when a movie musical is in production, there are only a few natural musical film stars from which to choose.
That’s not to say that there aren’t significant musical talents out there who would be very capable of being a movie star; they just need to be developed.
Studios primarily look at projects on a film-by-film basis. Nobody really gets nurtured to be a star. Patrick Wilson has made it far in film by building his movie presence movie by movie, not because someone decided to nurture his talent.
If I ran a movie studio, I would start building real music talents who can do the singing and acting. I’d start by casting them in small movie roles and working them into larger roles (which is how most stars make it). That way when there came to be a big movie remake of My Fair Lady, I wouldn’t be stuck looking at whose name might draw people in, but I could find stars who had the name AND the talent.
Let’s be honest, Johnny Depp may be a highly regarded actor, but he pulled off Sweeney Todd instead of really bringing the material to life musically. The same could be said of Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia!, Uma Thurman in The Producers, Amanda Bynes in Hairspray, and a number of other actors in the recent string of musicals.
There are actors are out there who can pull off musical material—Hugh Jackman, Jane Krakowski, Anne Hathaway, Patrick Wilson, Emmy Rossum, and Catherine Zeta-Jones all come to mind. But obviously, that’s not enough.
I’m curious to see this promised remake of My Fair Lady. Kiera Knightly is a very talented woman; I just hope she’s musically talented. Eliza Doolittle is not a role that can be “rocked” through, learned in three weeks of musical training, or breathed through a la Helena Bonham Carter. No one wants an Eliza Doolittle with a thin voice being blasted at you through THX. Most moviegoers didn’t know how Mrs. Lovett should sound, but Knightly won’t have that luxury with Eliza Doolittle thanks to the still-popular original movie adaptation. And after all, it’s Henry Higgins who gets to talk through his songs, not everyone else.
the Broadway Mouth
October 6, 2008