Before the flu came by for a visit, I managed to catch a showing of Les Miserables. I didn't hate the movie but didn't love it either. The movie had some real high and low points -- and I'm not talking about the general tear-jerker of the story line. What the movie did get me thinking about is the notion that there are actors who can sing and singers who can act. Some shows - Like Les Mis -- need singers who can act.
A true singer has at least a little actor in them. We are able to let go as we sing the song and let the character and emotion of the song wash through us. Think about some of the great performances you've seen regardless of musical genre. The really good ones that make your toes curl are the ones that the singer becomes one with the song. The singer may not actually be the best technically, but they managed to reach deep down inside and draw upon everything the song has to offer and feed it to you, the listener so that it touches you.
An actor who can sing might be able to do this, but actors generally pull from several bags of tricks to create the character. They may, in the end, give themselves over to the character completely, but they may not be able to give themselves over to the song. In many instances, this is fine -- not all songs are endless pools of emotions.
One thing I tell my students (and I can't take credit for this -- a theater friend taught me this) as they learn a new piece of music is to think about what just happened 30 seconds ago to inspire them to break out into song. Latch on to that teensy little period of time and let that spark ignite whatever emotion(s) the song brings up. If they can keep that moment in their mind's eye, the audience will see it too and be right there with them.
So back to Les Mis because it proves my point using two of its big-name actors. Russell Crowe is a fine actor. I've seen him in a number of movies and generally enjoy his performance. He is an actor who can sing and as such, fell flat as Javert. He couldn't capture the spark that lead to Javert's amazing monologues. I'd be willing to bet that if those monologues had been spoken instead of sung, Crowe would have nailed them. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, had us down there in the gutter with her feeling the last shred of dignity leaching out of all us collectively during "I Dreamed A Dream'. Even though her background wouldn't suggest it, Hathaway is a singer who can act - and a damn fine one too.
As a voice teacher (and sometimes acting coach), I feel this is an important distinction to make, but it's an almost impossible thing to teach. Some of my students will never become singers who can act -- they have fine voices, but cannot give themselves over completely to the song. They take a technical approach to the song often times with lovely results, but lacking in emotion beyond whatever dynamics that are written into the piece. I have a few students who are solid actors that cannot translate that into song -- give them a monologue and they'll deliver. Give them a song and they may sound nice singing it, but they can't take it further. It takes courage and instincts that not all singers possess or can find in themselves. For the students where this comes fairly naturally -- and I have a couple -- I don't have much to teach them in this area, but instead, I throw ideas out at them for different approaches to take or places where they need to amp it up or tone it down and watch what unfolds.
When I was a voice student, I was fortunate enough to work with a coach who had performed and taught all over the world. She has some big names on her list of former students and, in her youth, had some wonderful opportunities. One day, she told me that one of her former students was a voice actor in a popular Disney movie. She concluded that while he was a good voice student, she knew that he would end up with speaking roles. At the time, I thought she was being kind about this person's singing abilities. Now that I'm a teacher and have experienced it for myself, I finally understand what she meant.