Sometimes a little "singer switcheroo" is just what the doctor ordered.
by Amanda Louise Miller, grad student
“You guys get all the best songs!”
Substitute the word “guys” with the gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or age of your choice in the sentence above, and it becomes a sentiment I think every performer has whined about at some point or another. The grass is always greener, blah blah blah, and so it stands to reason that outside-the-box song choices are fairly common - if novel - choices for performers.
Sometimes, these singer-switcheroos are done for comedic effect.
(Everybody ought to have Balki as a maid.)
Sometimes, they’re done to raise awareness in support of a worthy cause.
(Broadway Backwards 7)
But the kind of gender/race/age swapping that I’m the most interested in is the kind that happens for psychological reasons, rather than political or even comedic ones. What I find most fascinating is when a performer takes a song definitely NOT written for their “type,” tweaks a little, and claims it (however controversially) as their own.
I realize I may be inching dangerously close to politically incorrect waters, here (you’d think I’d learn my lesson after great "All-White-Hairspray-Cast-Debate" of 2012), but I’m not talking about any sort of disregard for a song’s history or context.
What I’m talking about is the kind of “how about that?” magic that can happen when you hear a song you think you know inside and out performed from a radically new perspective.
A little backstory (and a confession): My interests in this topic are pretty much selfish ones. As a composer and writer, many of the songs with which I instantly identify, songs like “Finishing the Hat” or “Johnny Can’t Decide,” written for characters who are writers and composers, were written initially for men. There are many fictional representations of the male artist/female muse relationship in theatre, literature, and movies, but very few examples where the gender dynamic is reversed. In fact, I can’t come up with one. (If you know of any, please let me know!) For me to perform this music from an authentic place, it takes a bit of creative thinking.
Luckily, there are few good examples of this (though not that many!) on the interwebs:
For starters, I’d probably lose my OCU student ID if I didn’t mention our illustrius alumn, Kelli O’Hara’s recent recording of “Finishing the Hat.” Notice how she changes the pronouns slightly to paint the picture a relationship in which the genders are swapped from the song’s original incarnation.
(Kelli O'Hara sings "Finishing the Hat")
Granted, Miss O’Hara could have left the pronouns as-is (and I would definitely love to hear that version as well), but I think there’s something really thought-provoking about a woman singing lyrics like these:
And when the one man that you wanted goes,
you can say to yourself, “well I give what I give,”
but the man who will not wait for you knows
that however you live, there’s a part of you,
always standing by...
mapping out the sky...
This is the kind of guy-girl relationship we don’t get to hear about very often in traditional musical theatre. And I, for one, love it.
Here are a few more examples (both from the jazz world, interestingly enough) worth listening to:
And of course, I can’t forget about the Grande Dame of the gender swap, the amazing Betty Buckley, who recently released an entire album of “dude songs,” titled Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway. In some of the songs, she tweaks lyrics to make them more feminine; others she leaves as-is. The entire album is amazing, especially her covers of “Hey There” and “Corner of the Sky.” (The album hasn’t made its way to YouTube yet, so if you want to hear these songs, you’ll have to check them for yourself on iTunes or Amazon.)
In the liner notes of her CD, Ms. Buckley expresses what I think is the heart of the point I’m trying to make:
“My inspriation, in many cases, is a longing to express this very big love that these songs inspire us to feel, from a genderless all encompassing place in our hearts. Many of these songs are some of the most beautiful love songs ever written. It is most interesting, I think, that all of these songs are written by men -- poetic, romantic, passionate, brilliant men. These men created the template for many of us as to how love might be expressed. The songs embody the love and tenderness and raw passion that have become a touch stone. But perhaps that is what great songs are for -- to express for us beautiful thoughts and feelings that only music can convey."
Which of course, leads to the question: "what about poetic, romantic, passionate, and brilliant women?" Where are the songs they're writing?
But I'll save that question for another week. In the meantime, I'm gonna follow Betty, Kelli, and Diana's example... I'm stealing from the boys!
(Original music and lyrics by Brown, Larson, and Sondheim. Arrangement by yours truly.)