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  • Kerry Auer Fergus

1776: The Founding Fathers Meet Vocal Technique

Happy 4th of July, folks! Let's celebrate by taking a look at 1776, one of my favorite musicals about the Founding Fathers! Amazingly, I do have to qualify that statement since 1776 is by no means the most famous musical about Colonial America these days. 1776 premiered in 1969 at the 46th Street Theater. (These days, it's known as the Richard Rodgers Theatre and is home to - you guessed it - Hamilton.) Music and lyrics were written by Sherman Edwards, with a book by Peter Stone. 1776 is sort of unique in that it holds the record for the longest period without music of any Broadway musical. This occurs in Act I, scene iii where we have an extended political debate that spans the distance between "The Lees of Old Virginia" and "But Mr. Adams." It lasts for a full THIRTY MINUTES. And that's not even the last extended political dialogue of the show. So really, you could think of 1776 as more of a play, but a play with occasional musical interludes. From our perspective, that makes the score all that more important. Since the music is used so sparingly (at least in comparison to other musicals), it's interesting for us as artists to take a look at where it is used and why. Why this moment? Why not that one? What is it about this particular circumstance that lends itself to being set to music and what can that teach you about your character?

These are all thoughts that I'd encourage you to explore if you are working on a role in 1776. And we'll certainly address the idea of "why this moment" in a second when we get to "Is Anybody There?," but in the meantime, I want to touch on the idea of vocal technique and how a simple change can give you a completely different take on a character.

For this, we're going to need a basic understanding of how the voice works. You may have heard singers throw around words like "head voice" or "chest" or "mix" and I'm sure all of you are familiar with the concept of belting. Well, all of these terms have to do with the various registers of the voice. You see, there are muscles in your larynx (that thing in your throat that let's you speak and sing) that control your voice. You might assume that there is one set of muscles that controls all of your speaking and singing, but actually, there are different muscles that engage when you want to sing low (aka in your chest voice), and another set of muscles that kick in when you want to sing high (we call this head voice). You also have a register we call mix - an area in the middle where you're sort of using both sets of muscles equally. I explain this not because I expect you to suddenly go, "Hmm. I would like to engage my cricothyroid muscles for this note," but because it's important to realize that there actually is a distinct difference between these two sets of muscles. Your voice has different registers and a good singer needs to understand where the transitions (or breaks) between registers are so that they can move between them as smoothly as possible. So where does "belt" come into the picture? Well essentially, belt occurs when you drag your chest voice up into the mix. You are forcing those "lower" muscles to engage in a place where they wouldn't normally and that's how we get that sort of straight, strained belt sound.

Betty Buckley, the original Martha Jefferson in 1776, was the QUEEN of belt. You HAVE to listen to the original Broadway cast album to hear her ridiculously impressive technique. In particular, listen to the final verse. This begins at 2:19 in the video below. That is an impressive belted D at "heaven calls to me." And though it's not particularly relevant to our discussion of vocal production, please appreciate the incredible violin technique throughout, particularly in the earlier verses.

For those of you who just can't get enough, you can also check out this video from Seth Rudetsky where he dissects Buckley's vocal technique. As always Rudetsky's observations are on point.

Now that we've heard Buckley's rendition, let's jump over to the 1972 movie adaptation. In the movie, Martha Jefferson is played by Blythe Danner (who by the way is the real life mother of actress Gwyneth Paltrow). Danner's Martha could not be more different than Buckley's, and that has to do with how she's using her vocal registers. Compare some of the key phrases here and notice how Danner is slipping up into head voice for the higher notes instead of belting them the way Buckley did. It gives the song a very different effect. (For a direct comparison, I suggest listening to how each approaches the phrase "and ever 'twill be." For Buckley that happens at 2:40 and for Danner it's 4:25.)

Okay, so clearly these two actresses approach the song very differently. So what? Well, the beauty of this kind of direct comparison is that we can see how this one adjustment - belt vs. head voice - can affect the characterization. Think about the impression you get from these two ladies. With Betty Buckley, you get the feeling that this is a powerful woman who has come to kick her husband into high gear. Remember, Martha has been summoned to Philadelphia to help Jefferson overcome his writer's block - a move that will theoretically enable him to finish the Declaration of Independence (this situation has ZERO basis in actual historical fact but whatever). With a belt that powerful, you just know that Buckley's Martha has got this. On the other hand, the frequent shifts to head voice in Danner's rendition paint a picture of a much sweeter Martha. She is gentle and warm. This is a woman who will inspire her husband with her quiet presence rather than a dynamic power.

Here's the important part: neither interpretation is wrong! The fact is, we don't know enough about the real Martha Jefferson to be able to say with any certainty how she would react in this (ahem, fictional) situation. That gives you, the artist, free rein to interpret the character as you will. Danner and Buckley have offered two wildly different portrayals of this woman, and all because of a simple choice: head voice or belt?

Buckley and Danner have certainly given us plenty of food for thought when it comes to the portrayal of this bit part. Now let's shift gears and take a look at a much more substantial role: John Adams. With John, we don't have the benefit of comparing the original to the movie since, wisely, William Daniels was asked to reprise the role he made famous on stage for the film. Nevertheless, Daniels' portrayal of John Adams is particularly fascinating from a vocal standpoint.

Let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start, if I do say so myself). 1776 opens with "Sit Down, John," a number which is basically intended to establish how annoying our protagonist is. While the various other members of Congress complain about the heat or the flies (or about John), our hero has exactly one thought. Here's his entire sung text in the opening number:

I say vote yes! Vote yes! Vote for independency!

I say vote yes! Vote for independency!

Vote yes!

Vote yes!

I say vote yes! Vote yes! Vote for independency!

I say vote yes! Vote for independency!

Gee, guys, how do you think John feels about independence? The text itself gives us a pretty good idea of who this man is - headstrong, persistent, and deeply passionate. Daniels' vocal choices beautifully complement this text. Let's take a listen.

Do you hear what he was doing on those "vote yes" sections? Daniels sings with absolute NO vibrato. Vibrato is that sort of wavering sound you get on held notes. In the Western world, vibrato is considered to be a pleasing sound, so straight-toned singing is typically used more for effect. In this case, the lack of vibrato is almost grating. It's certainly uncomfortable. But isn't that the point? Hasn't John irritated just about everyone in the Continental Congress? I suppose it's fitting then that he should now irritate the audience with his forced, straight-toned sound.

I love this vocal choice. I think it's perfect for the character and perfect for the situation. Plus, it's an important reminder to us as artists that not everything has to be conventionally pretty. I think sometimes we get overly concerned about making a "nice" sound with our voices, but John Adams is a great reminder that not all characters are nice and sweet. Sometimes the best vocal choice, the one that will most clearly and accurately represent the character, is the one that's not as pretty.

The following number, "Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve" at first confirms our previous impression of John. As he fumes about the failings of Congress, his voice retains that grating quality he established in the opening number. But listen to how he softens his voice when singing with Abigail at the very end. It's still not the prettiest sound in the world and I'm sure there are many singers who could sing this better than William Daniels, but there's something endearing about they way this obnoxious man changes his tone to address his wife. Listen to the way he lifts the second syllable of "ever" at "ever was." (Skip to 3:40 to hear the unusual softness of Daniels voice in this moment and contrast this with his earlier choices.)

At this point, we've only addressed the choices that the actor has made and how that has affected our perception of the character, but what has the composer been doing? Well, for starters, we can take a look at the balance between spoken and sung text in 1776. As I mentioned before, this musical has a LOT of dialogue. That dialogue has a tendency to sneak in and interrupt our musical numbers. John is particularly guilty of this. He often abandons the music to speak his mind. For a good example of this, let's move over to "But Mr. Adams." John is looking for someone to write the Declaration of Independence, so one by one he addresses the various members of the declaration committee in an attempt to convince someone to write the damn thing. Franklin, Sherman, and Livingstone all turn him down. Only Jefferson is left. Suddenly John abandons the sung refrain which he had used in each of his former pleas, and attempts to reason with Jefferson with spoken text. In a typical musical, a moment with heightened stakes such as this would have been considered an opportunity for greater musicality not less! After all, isn't music supposed to extend and amplify the drama in important moments? John upends our expectations. He even goes so far as to silence the singers as they gleefully repeat one of his phrases. John Adams does not believe this is a moment for singing.

This happened earlier too when he was talking to Abigail at the tail end of "Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve." He speaks frankly to her about the need for saltpeter and only begins to sing in the more tender moments of their duet. So what does this tell us about John? Well, I think an important pattern is being established here. John generally likes to speak in moments that require logic and reasoning. He is more likely to sing in moments of passion - such as when he speaking of or to his wife.

John's final number, "Is Anybody There?," perhaps confirms this theory. Although there are a few small moments where text is spoken instead of sung (such as the first two lines), in general, the piece is sung-through. This may be the first time in the show that John has sung an entire song without interrupting himself with some little piece of dialogue. Why is that important? Well, all of John's considerable passion, not to mention his ambition and his frustration, is on display here. This is perhaps the single most impassioned moment of the show and so naturally the character can only express himself in song. The time for reasoning has passed.

The way Daniels approaches this piece aptly captures this strength of feeling. I want you to listen to the original Broadway cast album and consider the choices Daniels has made vocally. Remember when we talked about how a sound doesn't need to be pretty to be right? Well, the original artistic team of 1776 must have felt the same way because this is FAR from pretty. It's not a nice sound, but you know what, I think it works anyway. There's a roughness to this performance and an energy that really gives you the sense for what this man is feeling. Just consider how he approaches the diction on a phrase like, "Still to England I say,'Goodnight forever! Goodnight!'" The consonants are so aggressive. There's even something menacing about the vowel he uses on the 'E' of England. It's hard to describe, but listen to that phrase yourself and tell me you can't immediately sense the derision he feels towards England just from the way he approaches the word. It's a rough performance, but you can't deny it is POWERFUL.

Between Sherman Edwards (the composer) and William Daniels (the actor), we have really gotten to know this character. John Adams is obnoxious and disliked, for sure. He's also incredibly logical AND deeply passionate. That's a fascinating combination and one that makes the character well worth playing. But while Daniels' portrayal of Adams is certainly one that will be remembered, it does not necessarily mean that it is the definitive performance. If Betty Buckley and Blythe Danner taught us anything, it is that there are many different "correct" answers. Daniels offered a particularly moving performance as John Adams, but there will be many more actors who approach this role over the years and each of them will bring something new and worthwhile to the part. The great thing about the human voice is how it can be used in so many ways and to such different effect. Never underestimate the power of the voice - one small choice can make the difference between a decent performance and an inspiring one.

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