Monday, January 24, 2011

When Everything Old is New Again by Jenni Taggart

PBS recently aired Sondheim! The Birthday Concert, recorded in March 2010, in honor of Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday. In Act II, six of the grandest dames of musical theatre take the stage in luscious red Diane von Furstenberg dresses. Patti Lupone steps up to the mike first. She proclaims, “I'd like to propose a toast!” The crowd bursts into applause---we all know what's coming. She cracks her knuckles and launches into “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company.

Here's the thing. When you sing a musical theatre song for a musical theatre crowd, it's difficult to surprise your audience. We know the words and the melody as well as you do (most of us are singing along under our breath). When Patti Lupone started singing, I thought I knew what was coming---I was wrong. By the time she bellowed the last line, imploring everybody to rise, my jaw was on the floor. While I had heard that song before, I had never heard that song before. How did she do it? How do you take a song that your audience has heard a thousand times and breathe new life into it? I believe that the answer is here at Freehold.

When I'm working on a song, I work with the text just like I do with scene work for class. In the Meisner progression, Robin Lynn Smith taught us to write out a script with no punctuation, no capitalization. You then speak the text one syllable at a time without inflection---kind of like a robot—-until you've got it memorized. (This is especially difficult with a song that is familiar. Try saying the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner.” When you said “oh say can you see by the dawn's early light,” how many syllables were in the word “oh”? Did you pause between “see” and “by”?) With spoken text, this keeps you from reading the same words in the same way every time. When it comes time in the scene to say those words, you know what to say, but you've not memorized the words with a specific rhythm or inflection---they come out in response to what's happening with your scene partner in that moment and that moment alone. With song lyrics, rhythm and inflection are tied to the music. Freeing the text from the music allows me to hear new patterns, and discover highs and lows for myself.

I identify my scene partner in the song and what I want and how I'll get it---I'm specific about objectives and tactics. In Scene Study, Annette Toutonghi suggested finding the places in the script that don't make sense—-that's an opportunity for a shift in action or tactic. Working just with the script without the music gives me the opportunity to discover a subtle shift that might otherwise be hidden in the middle of a musical phrase.

In her class on Theatrical Song Interpretation, Billie Wildrick taught me that there are no wasted words in a song. Every lyric is chosen for a specific purpose. I say each word and just let it ring, seeing what images come to mind. I think about what happens to me emotionally if the word is repeated and then I make a choice as to why the word is repeated. I consider what the lyricist implies by choosing a word over its synonym. In “The Ladies Who Lunch,” for example, there must be a high-stakes reason that the character yells for “another vodka stinger” and not “another vodka sour” and that reason cannot simply be that “stinger” rhymes with “zinger.”

Once I've done my work with the text, it is always interesting to pair the words again with the music. In her Shakespeare classes, Amy Thone points out that, if a character consistently throws extra syllables into her iambic pentameter, that's a clue to her state of mind: perhaps she has a lot to say or is losing control. In a song, if the rhythm changes from straight to syncopated or the song changes key, that must mean something to the singer.

I came to Freehold just hoping for a little help with audition monologues, but Freehold has given me a great deal more than that. The fact that I now get so much more satisfaction from singing has been a very nice surprise. The techniques I've learned at Freehold mean that even the most familiar song can be new every time I sing it...or hear Patti Lupone sing it.

Jenni Taggart has appeared at Seattle Musical Theatre as a doomed Hungarian "murderess" in Chicago, Jane's evil Aunt Reed in Jane Eyre, General Cartwright in Guys & Dolls, and Ma Templeton in George M! Her appearances on other Seattle stages include Godspell (UPAC Theatre Group), Flow at the Triple Door (SoleSound Visual Music Productions), and A Tap Dance Christmas Carol (Anacrusis Modern Tap Dance). Jenni studies acting at Freehold Studios and is a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Washington.

Photo above: Jenni in Guys and Dolls
Photo below: Jenni in Jane Eyre with FX Wood.

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