Jazz vs Musical Theatre

The repertoire of the Cabaret we are presenting this weekend with the Rockford HS Choirs is The Great American Songbook. Listening to auditions, I was struck that the singers fell on a spectrum between two genres that claim equal ownership to the songs of Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, and Rodgers.

How does your place along the Jazz-Musical Theatre spectrum affect your interpretation?

To me, jazz voice is characterized by creativity, freedom, and intellect. Musical Theatre is characterized by expressivity, character, and fidelity to the score.

I left the audition room thinking, jazz is introverted musical theatre.

Certainly the great singers we love (Ella, Sarah, Mark, Mel) weren’t always introverted in concert, but I think the thesis holds.

Jazz singers look inward for interpretation. Musical Theatre singers look outward to deliver it.

It’s important to recognize it’s a spectrum, and even a pure jazz singer like Ella finds different places along the spectrum depending on the song. Or from the other side, Renee Elise Goldsberry is currently infusing her portrayal of Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton on Broadway with the music aesthetics of R&B and jazz (she has a masters in jazz voice from USC.).

For a long time I couldn’t reconcile my loves of both jazz voice and musical theatre – the best performances of the same song from each camp are often totally at odds. But I’ve come to recognize that the performers come from the same sentiment: love for the words, for the melodies, for the stories told.

Finding the right spot where a song belongs on the performance spectrum is key, and requires context. The songs of The Great American Songbook are so, well, great, that they deserve as many interpretations along the spectrum as possible.