After “Les Miserables” released this last December, it was clear that plenty of faith exists in hiring actors for singing parts without much regard to how they sing. The raw naturalness of “Miserables” set in motion a practice that was seldom seen in the movie musical of yore: Hiring those with little to no on-screen musical experience. Even if you don’t love the voice of theater veteran Hugh Jackman, the other art of talk-sing has a lot of advantages.
Only Rex Harrison managed to get away with that process in “My Fair Lady” nearly 50 years ago. It was his thespian clout and ability to enunciate well that enabled him to turn it into an art form on the stage and then in a movie. Regardless, and even in 1964, Hollywood was still adamant on making musical stars sound as good as possible, no matter if it meant dubs.
Years later, classic movie fans found out the original voices of certain actors were much better than the dubbed take. A noted example of that was Ava Gardner who was dubbed in the MGM 1951 musical adaptation of “Show Boat.” When “That’s Entertainment III” played theaters in 1994, scenes utilizing Gardner’s original voice were finally released to the surprise of many who realized how naturally good she sounded.
When “Guys and Dolls” released in 1955, there was a gamble with Marlon Brando. Regardless, his acting clout at the time allowed him to get his way in singing with his own voice. And he was able to carry a tune, unlike the more natural singing approach recently taken by Russell Crowe as Javert in “Les Miserables.”
That wide reach between singing in tune and just being raw is now setting the future of the movie musical. As well, with the possibility of “Guys and Dolls” being remade in musical form, the surprises may be continual in who we see take on similar projects. Reports are that Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt would take the very busy singing roles of Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit.
Nobody can say the songs in “Guys and Dolls” are easy to sing either, despite being a traditional musical that doesn’t involve operatic overtones. A more natural way of singing, though, would make a new take refreshing without sounding like the cast is singing to the balcony. But just how many typically non-musical A-list stars are out there who can logically do a musical?
Based on the arts education of most actors, just about every actor or actress in existence can carry a tune when pressed into it. There also seems to be an organic process of assimilating the role well enough to a point where the singing becomes convincing. Many of the cast members we’d never seen sing before in “Les Miserables” seemed to use that approach.
It used to be that seeing a non-musical actor sing was a revelation. Now that anybody can convincingly be in a musical in one form or another, actors may have to do something much more daring and ostentatious on the big screen to stand out from the crowd.
Perhaps the antidote to that is to have someone being overly convincing in being a bad singer when it’s widely known the actor can sing like an angel.