Charles Lewis III, not over yet.
“Quien canta, sus males espanta. (He who sings frightens away his ills.)”
– Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
I was recently cast in a musical. This surprised me more than anyone else.
Not because I have anything against musicals – quite the contrary, I love them. That’s why I audition for them so often. But since there isn’t a great demand for baritones, I’m the least likely to be cast – especially not in a lead. (Someday, Sweeney. Someday…) No, this is a world that values an off-key, near-castrato Timberlake over a deeply resonant Vandross.
But that hasn’t stopped me from trying. In fact, I was nearly cast in one several years ago, but I declined the role. The last time I performed in a proper musical was, incidentally, the first-ever Theater Pub musical: 2011’s Devil of a Time. Earlier that same year I was in a staged reading/singing for Cutting Ball Theatre. Other than that, it’s just been far-too-few karaoke sessions and a compliment from an opera singer that just made my day: as a supernumerary, one of the tenors sang a note to me. Without thinking, I sang the note back in my natural baritone. He was taken aback, complimenting me and wondering why I was just a super instead of a chorus member.
As such, when the folks behind Philia said they needed to find a replacement baritone for their soon-to-begin rehearsals, I went to the audition expecting nothing more than a courteous “Thanks for coming in” and to never hear anything more until the show opened. Next thing I knew, I was signing a contract for a month-long run and rescheduling auditions and directing jobs around my new rehearsals. After countless auditions for everything from rock operas to remounts, I find myself once again taking to the stage on the basis of a muscle I rarely use.
And that’s when the worry sets in.
As much as I love musical theatre, I’m not at all surprised when people say they hate it. In fact, the reasons they hate it are often the very reasons I love it. It’s true that most people aren’t likely to break into song during the crucial moments in their lives, but as theatre folk we spend our entire lives playing Make Believe – verisimilitude is our stock and trade. To me, words spoken in harmony are no less believable than those spoken in common prose. Or in verse, for that matter.
But perhaps the feeling comes less from an inability to believe the story turns and more from an inability to properly recreate those skills on their own? Any ham in a torn t-shirt can recreate Stanley Kowalski screaming on the stairs; it’s not a simple to hit the right notes for the song “Maria”. Anyone can fake a Southern accent and plead sex from their closeted-gay-husband-with-the-broken-leg; not as many can pull off “On My Own” in a way that leaves everyone around them in tears. I’m willing to bet a lot of us got into theatre after watching a musical at a young and impressionable age, but swore off musicals forever upon finding out singing is a skill all its own.
Admittedly, this anxiety grips me every time I audition for a musical, let alone be cast in one. Just as I lack a university degree, I also lack proper training as a vocalist. My experience in that area is entirely from mimicry and informal “lessons” by trained musicians. I’d like to think that I’m good enough to hold my own – I must be if I’ve gotten this far – but I have no illusions about how my skills compare to those honed by my co-stars. I imagine the audience leaving the theatre praising the show, humming the songs, and lauding all of the performers, “except for that one guy.”
Still, I found it a real confidence-booster to be cast in a musical. Sure, I don’t have proper training in it, but I have very little proper training in… well, anything. As I said, I don’t have a university degree, so I don’t have the professional theatre training of my peers. But the thing about training is that anyone in the world can do it; all it takes is practice. That’s what machines are for. The ability to bring something beyond the rote training means you’ve moved toward, dare I say it, talent. And I may engage in a brief self-indulgence (in place of my usual self-deprecation): it’s quite possible that I’ve been getting by on talent, something I would be the very last person to admit.
And I have been training my voice for this role, primarily with the show’s composer/musical director. I’ve mentioned before how importantly I regard exercise, and vocal exercise is no different. Even when I’m not in a musical, I’ll go through as many pre-show physical and vocal warm-ups as I can in the time allotted. The voice is as much a muscle as any other part of the body. I might not be Paul Robeson in either regard, but I don’t have to be. It was Paul Robeson’s job to be Paul Robeson. How I compare is a decision I leave to you.
Maybe it’s the fact that it’s been so long since I’ve properly flexed this particular muscle that I felt such trepidation about working it again. Eagerness yes, but also trepidation. My voice has always been one of my defining traits in theatre. I was always cast as an orator or some authority figure whose voice was meant to be heard in the back rows. Hell, my role in Pastorella this past Autumn featured a crucial scene in why my character’s voice goes from a mouse’s whisper to a lion’s roar in the space of a single monologue. This role might not be the vocal equivalent of me winning Mr. Olympia, but it’s proven that I’m still in damn-fine shape for someone with a voice like mine.
But seriously, we need more musicals for baritones. I’m dyin’ here, people.
If you’d like to hear Charles Lewis’s voice (amongst many other lovely voices) and see his wicked kazoo skills, watch Devil of a Time on the official Theater Pub YouTube Channel.