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‘There’s gotta be something better than this’: Challenging the role of big emotion in the transition from speech to song

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In musical theatre, the idea that a character sings because speech cannot capture the heightened emotion of a particular moment or situation is broadly accepted. As a director working regularly in training contexts, I see a fundamental problem with describing song as an expression of large emotions: it encourages students to play a generalized emotional state. I propose that emotion in musical theatre is complex, functioning differently whether dramaturgical, musicological or performative. I draw on scholarly critique of the form, practical approaches from guides to training, and reflect on practice-led research undertaken while directing postgraduate students at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in an abridged, in-house production of Sweet Charity (1966). Rather than adhering to the perception that singing in musical theatre is the outcome of big emotions, we found that focusing on the size of what’s at stake is a useful strategy for students. I suggest that if or when there is an emotional response to music, locating this response as an obstacle can provide something to actively play against and offer an alternative scale of ‘largeness’. Ultimately, however, I question the usefulness of approaching the transition from speech to song – in terms of scale, and advocate challenging such generalizations in musical theatre.
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Keywords: acting through song; emotion as obstacle; emotional state; musical theatre; speech to song; stakes

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

Publication date: March 1, 2016

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