I’m sitting here listening to the Original Cast Recording (OCR) of South Pacific, and though my mind is occupied with its usual questions (why is “You Have To Be Carefully Taught” so senselessly jaunty?) I can’t concentrate on them, really, because I’m listening to Ezio Pinza belt out “This Nearly Was Mine“.
Oh, dear god. That I’d forgotten that voice…It’s like a hot bubble bath and a velvet pillow and being kissed on the ear, all at once.
I’m reminded of my minor middle-school obsession with “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,” which was on the classic movie channel what seemed like every other day. It was really a stupid movie, on many levels, not least because of the rampant and pervasive sexism. I remember my mom begging me to change the channel when she heard the opening notes of “Bless Your Beautiful Hide.”
Her argument was:
It was heinous that
a) Howard Keel was roaming the streets looking for a wife simply because she would be a useful farming asset, and,
b) He had reduced the act to such a transactional level that he was equating this theoretical woman with livestock.
My argument was as follows:
Shut up, Howard Keel is singing.
It didn’t matter what. In that movie he sang about raping, pillaging, kidnapping, about how annoying his wife was, and I don’t know what else. But I hung on his every word as he wove a magical web of beautiful misogyny, and I wanted nothing more than to fall into it and iron his shirts forever, as long as he would keep singing. I also caught the beginning of “Show Boat” on the classic movie channel a month or two ago, and fell under Howard’s spell as he sang “Make Believe.” Only there was this ninny of a soprano who insisted on turning it into a duet. All I wanted to hear was my Howard, and she had to be all, “Listen to how high and shrieky I am! You could totally sing this part better than me, but I’m here with Howard and you’re not, let me continue to drown him out, LALALALALALALA……”
I don’t understand why Broadway is fixated on tenors – they have been for quite awhile now. Baritones in modern musicals have been mostly regulated to villainy (see The Scarlet Pimpernel; Les Miserables; The Color Purple; Jesus Christ Superstar; Little Shop of Horrors; Seussical! The Musical; 1776; and Sweet Smell of Success, just to name a few). But after listening to Howard and Ezio for awhile, those leading tenors start to sound pretty whiny and boring.
Tenors in musical theatre were traditionally allotted “supporting actor” roles – young men who were written to be passionate, rash, and headstrong, they always fell head-over heels in love during the course of the show, and it usually ended badly.
Let’s look at The King and I, another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. In the movie, Yul Brynner, an actor of extreme command and gravitas, plays the eponymous king. The king is a man of great pride, hard-won intelligence, and, not surprisingly, overblown confidence. His word is law, and he possesses an incredible magnetism, one that draws the educated, sensible, very British Miss Anna to him in a way she can neither explain nor define.
And then there is the tenor role, a young man who foolishly falls in love with Yul Brynner’s next wife. This tenor has only one duet to his name, and it’s nice, and everything, but Yul Brynner has all these crazy good songs sung not only by but about him. Yul Brynner, of course, has the tenor whipped near to death for his insolence. This is his right as a baritone leading man.
How did this happen? When did tenors begin brandishing foils and hopping about and shrieking at baritones in their silly voices (as though a baritone would ever be intimidated by such a thing)? When did the tenor usurp the baritone’s role as a mature, complex, deeply thoughtful leading man?
Let us take Colm Wilkinson as an example. Great Irish tenor, and internationally acclaimed. I grew up watching him in the 10th Anniversary “Dream Cast” concert DVD of Les Miserables. Honestly, the man is the only Jean Valjean as far as I’m concerned. But, pray, let us consider this picture of Colm performing in Canada not long ago.
For contrast, let’s look at Phillip Quast, who played Javert opposite Colm in the Les Mis dream cast. Javert, in typical modern musical style, is the menacing obsessive cop/stalker/revenge driven villain of the piece. This man sings a suicide song like none you’ve ever heard, musing about why Colm did not kill him when he had the chance (perhaps because Colm is a tenor? Tenors are not capable of killing anyone). Check out the video, you’ll even see Colm at the beginning. Quast is the sexy one.
He is driven, he is highly motivated, he is a man with a plan. Not for one second in the show does he waver in his duty – it would be beneath most police inspectors to pursue a petty thief and chain-gang escapee over twenty years and at least five cities, but dammit, Jean Valjean got away on his watch, and Javert will violate anyone’s jurisdiction to get him back. This is clearly above and beyond the call of duty, and, I think, deserving of a gritty Scorsese movie adaptation.
Colm, on the other hand, is sort of floating along being a reborn Christian and nice to everybody, adopting orphans, running towns and factories, saving people from the barricades, turning himself in to save an innocent man, etc.
No offense to Victor Hugo or Colm Wilkinson, but doesn’t this guy seem a little….vanilla? He would not be fun to hang out with. He’d probably just read the bible aloud, or something (“What does the Book of Job mean to you?”). Javert, though – you know he never goes home. He’s at the jail, filing his 20-year-felon-pursuit paperwork; or actively chasing Valjean; or drowning his sorrows in a local tavern with a glass of good wine, staring blankly at the wall, telling hair-curling stories to ragged seadogs and debilitating anyone who gets out of line with one punch. He’s mysterious, and badass enough to operate outside the law to serve justice. If you had a thing with Javert, you know you’d be one of many, but, oh, it’d be worth it, even when he said “I see the law being violated over there, gotta go,” ran off, and never called again.
For an odd construction in both modern and traditional baritone paradigms, look no farther than Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Both the male lead and the creepy villan are baritones. Leading man Gordon McRae (who looks like Robert Mitchum) did a phenomenal job. He also did a great job in Carousel, a charming little show about domestic violence, tackling the classic baritone marathon “Soliloquy,” which was also sung beautifully by John Raitt and Samuel Ramey for Broadway, and Frank Sinatra for fun.
And what of The Sound of Music’s Captain Von Trapp and his dulcet “Edelwiss“? You know who was a tenor in The Sound of Music? Rolfe. The gangly mailman/nazi.
That makes it pretty simple, yes? Baritone or nazi? I’m going to have to go with the baritone.
Let’s bring back the days when baritones were the touchstones of musicals. Let’s write new music for them so we don’t have to keep revisiting Rodgers and Hammerstein clunkers to get our sexy baritone fix. Rodgers and Hammerstein are not the apex of musical theatre, their shows were depressing and predictable, and, as near as I can tell, a sort of “gateway” musical theatre that sucks in people who don’t know how cool Sondheim is yet.
No matter how much I love listening to “Soliloquy,” I can only sit through “Carousel” so many times.