If one listens to scores like West Side Story or Showboat it’s clear that these are works that require great musical skill and precision if they are to be performed well. (I have a modest amount of experience behind me in saying this since, many years ago, I played in the orchestra for performances of several shows, including The King and I and Oklahoma: they’re not easy to play well. More recently I’ve sung a number of the great show songs and they require good vocal technique just as much as does a song by, say, Schubert or Ivor Gurney.)
My recent review of a West Side Story recording prompted this debate, it seems. When I listen to that score it’s readily apparent that the music is technically very accomplished and often, in a number like 'Cool', very sophisticated – it’s also inspired but that’s a different question – and it makes considerable demands on the performers. As I commented in that review, it’s a matter of record that José Carreras, though a very experienced singer, found the tricky rhythms of ‘Something’s Coming’ very difficult.
But in addition to technical proficiency, Music Theatre performers need to know how to bring the music to life just as any operatic performer must – and it requires a different skill set. That’s why, in the last analysis, the Bernstein recording of West Side Story doesn’t really work: for all their accomplishments the two lead singers didn’t really ‘get’ the music. Tilson Thomas may not have great operatic voices at his disposal – deliberately – but he has a cast who know how to bring fine numbers to life, how to bend the rhythms when necessary, how to inflect the words. All that takes skill.
My main musical interests lie in the symphonic, choral and art song repertoires. However, I like to think that I can recognise the stature of the great works of Music Theatre and the contribution that the best of these shows have made to the history of music over the last century. And I for one take my hat off to performers who can bring these wonderful scores to life for us.
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