Coming off of the Tony Awards, your head might be buzzing with strains of musical theater (congrats to The Band’s Visit, I highly recommend seeing it). Or maybe you’re a big music fan, but Broadway baffles and annoys you, it’s not real music that you’d listen to in a bar.
Either way, there is definitely a distinct sound that defines musical theater (of any genre) from popular music (of any genre). In fact, there is a particular singing style that creates that marked difference between Broadway and other genres.
First off though, to be clear, there are certainly differences across the breadth of shows that have graced the Great White Way. A more traditional musical like Carousel is probably more distinctly Broadway (and off-putting to non-musical theater fans) than a modern musical like Hamilton, or a jukebox musical like Mamma Mia (that literally uses pop music as its basis).
Turns out that difference lies in the intersection between popular music and opera. Musical theater can almost be viewed as a halfway point between the two and the spectrum can generally be viewed as opera on one end, through musical theater, and into popular music.
What defines the “musical theater sound” are the classical operatic vocal methods it employs. These include “consistent vibrato, tall and round vowels, smooth register transitions, a balanced tone quality, and proper diction.”
You’re also probably familiar with the Broadway tendency to favor the “belt.” These vocally talented are able to generate an incredibly powerful sound by using a thyroarytenoid-dominant technique. More commonly, you’d probably say they were singing from deep in their chest. If you’re familiar with the musical Chicago, you know that the belt is what defines the performance of its leading roles.
Not everybody is a fan of musicals. But especially recently, musicals have been incorporating or entirely changing their style to be a more contemporary, pop music type of singing. In fact, not very many of the most popular shows on Broadway today are done in a particularly classic style.
It pays to know what you’re looking for and what you like. Perhaps even if the classic musical theater style isn’t for you, you might like a more contemporary style that’s basically just the music you already like with a story.
Or maybe you eschew the music for plays. Or maybe you just avoid it entirely and stick to Spotify.