I finally sat down to watch The Wiz Live on Friday night. For the most part, the stars were Broadway or pop/r&b singers who have a certain vocal style. With some exceptions, the performances were well done (even if I wasn’t always thrilled with some of the “updated” orchestrations), and I’m jealous that students of the future won’t have to suffer through the 1978 version of “He’s the Wiz” while their music teacher screeches the Munchkins’ backup parts during classroom viewings. I was pretty happy with it.
And then Uzo Aduba sang “If You Believe”.
Uzo Aduba is a classically trained musician. She has a powerful voice and an amazing range. She sang that song. She could have mastered it, but she went too far in the Broadway direction and not far enough in the style she does best (even on Broadway).
I know a bit about that.
Since moving to Tucson, I have committed to being a part of two very different styles of musical performance. The first is something I have been doing for more than half my life: choral singing.
I started singing in real choral groups in middle school, having been in glee club since the first grade. Once I realized there was a whole classical side to singing in groups, I was all about it. I was in citywide groups and did whatever I could in high school. When I got to college, I auditioned for a couple a cappella groups but didn’t get in; probably best for me, because I would have probably been satisfied with whichever musical group I joined and not looked further. I went a full semester before I sent the director of choral studies an email asking if he took January additions for the Chamber Choir. He did, and I didn’t look back. However, I joined a research fellowship my Junior year and couldn’t commit to the time choir met, so my director got me into voice lessons, which sent my capabilities skyrocketing. But when I went to grad school, I knew I had to get back into the choir thing, so I joined the symphony chorus in San Jose, and then the small group that did more art songs. When I moved back to DC, I kept that momentum going and auditioned for one of the best known choral groups in the DC area—one that was a significant step up from my California group. But I took it in stride, and in four years became a much better musician with a hell of a repertoire under my belt. So obviously I wasn’t planning to let that fall to the wayside when I moved here.
My voice and mechanism hadn’t adapted to the desert climate when I auditioned for the symphony chorus here, and I just wasn’t prepared as I should have been, so I didn’t get in. Luckily for me, there are multiple choirs that don’t need auditions. I was in one of those for a year and a half, but scheduling opened up my chance to join a different one, which so far is going pretty well. (We’re doing Mozart’s Requiem and Zadok the Priest for the spring concert, which I’m really excited about.)
The other side of my musical coin is a much weirder animal.
I have always loved musical theater. The first music I knew was probably from West Side Story or some Rodgers & Hammerstein production. I was in a couple of school plays but really preferred choral stuff so didn’t do much of it. A few years ago, my work bestie (also the theater teacher) told me about auditions for a community theater production of Ragtime, one of the first shows I recall seeing at DC’s National Theatre, and I was all there. Preparing for and producing that show was rough, but it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Fast forward to Tucson. A friend from work’s boyfriend was the director of a small-time, wacky musical theater comedy troupe, and she often invited me to attend. I finally did and thought it was fabulous. So when auditions came up, I waxed and waned over whether I would take part.
So here I am, a person very much used to preparing for something for months (and often still having the music in front of me, even if I don’t often use it) joining a group whose tagline is “Underrehearsed and Overdramatic.” I was pretty out of my element. But I was loving the chance to perform songs from musicals (and some other things, but mostly musicals).
Finally, we get back to the topic of this post: being a “crossover” musician.
My best singing style is classical. I have the most practice and training in it, and I resort to it when I need to. I know my theater belt is less than half my classical range, which I have lost a bit of since leaving The Washington Chorus, but still have, for the most part. I have been improving my theater voice (you know, practice and all that), but I still incorporate my vocal training when I feel the push. Or the pull. Or the strain. The things that tell me to switch gears in order to not kill my voice.
You could hear Stephanie Mills doing it during “The Feeling We Once Had”.
(Oh yay, Uzo just won the SAG award as I’m writing this!)
In no way am I throwing any shade at Uzo. She is an amazing performer, as we all know. I’m just questioning the choices of The Wiz Live‘s directorship, and why anyone might have told her to belt instead of using her best voice. Was it the need to appeal to a certain audience? Was it the need to present a certain kind of sound?
I’ll still watch it. And then watch the Lena Horne version on Youtube when I’m done.