Monday, July 22, 2013

There's a Fine Fine Line, Part 3

Hello, and welcome back to Musical Mondays, a late-night edition (for me, anyway) if ever there was one.
You can read the last couple week's here: Part 2 and Part 1

Today's number comes from arguably the most iconic number of what has now become the defining musical of the modern era, for multiple reasons: the strong female characters, the familiarity and success of its adaptation, the more pop and rock-inspired anthems, movie studio investment influencing productions, and its widespread popularity resulting in multiple regional repertory companies (Chicago, L.A., London, Tokyo) plus touring shows, plus the long-running Broadway show at the Gershwin.
That's right, folks. It's time to take a small glance at the Act 1 finale of Wicked. The song is "Defying Gravity."

You'd be hard-pressed to find a song young women are singing, or striving to sing. It's got to be the new most overused song since "On My Own" from Les Miserables (just like the Yellow Brick Road leads every corner of Oz to the Emerald City, everything can and will lead back to Les Miz).

Honestly though, I think Wicked is one of those rare shows a lot of people really love, most everyone finds something to enjoy about it, and very few people detest it. If we were to think of it in terms of Dorothy's three companions, I think the one it really lacks is any courage. It's got a lot of heart, it's an intelligently adapted musical (those of you who read the book can attest that the book and the musical are pretty distinct), but there isn't anything too groundbreaking here. Though I would say it's an interesting twist on the rags to riches story, and a cool idea to adapt an adaptation, rather than the original iteration (something Peter and the Starcatcher is now doing).

"Defying Gravity" is a beautiful act 1 closer. It brings our main character, Elphaba, who will soon assume her role as the Wicked Witch of the West, to the realization of what she wants and who she is. It's a song about understanding what odds are against you, and by knowing those odds, you know how to overcome them. There's a particularly wonderful line, "Some things I cannot change..." and a particular Elphaba I saw perform, who was black, (I have since, unfortunately, forgotten her name) stopped and looked at her skin. Suddenly, the song, that one moment, carried so much more weight. It was amazing.

Let me start by saying this: Lea Salonga is better than you.
It's not up for debate, she just is.
I love Lea, ever since I first heard the Les Miz (there it is again!) 10th anniversary concert.
Her vocal purity is pretty unmatched, and the sincerity and earnestness shines through not only in her voice but in her amazing acting.
I recently saw her in Allegiance, in San Diego, which is an amazing production in itself. She was the standout performance for me.
All that being said, sometimes, we all have a bad performance.
This is Lea's.

From the get-go, Lea makes light of the fact that she's nervous, but it shows through. Her breathing never gets to where it should be, and she chases a lot of the song.
Actually, the first line is really great, up until "game." I just don't like how wide the vowel is for it.
- :56 - The flip to falsetto for "sleep" is so labored, and normally she lines those up really well.
- 1:16 - Now, this is a tough line, admittedly, because it skirts the break just about every word, and she has a tough time negotiating it.
- 1:30 - The strain of her voice on "accepting limits" makes me nervous.
- 1:40 - As I said, she's not breathing right, and it affects the dynamics of this line.
- 1:48 - Personally, I don't like when actors speak-sing, "Well, if that's love," it doesn't sound like a choice, it sounds like you ran out of air.
- 1:54 - "Sooner", "buy", and "defy" are again very labored head voice notes. The flip into the "good" of "good-bye" almost gets away from her.
- 2:11 - Now, she actually sounds really at home with the "Unlimited" interlude, which they'll sometimes use for solo arrangements. Her voice is relaxed, she's breathing, and there's power and dynamic to her voice again.
- 2:55 - The "take-off" verse is where it gets a little scary. Her "find me" and "Western sky" don't have a chest quality to them so they lose power.
- 3:10 - Again, I don't like the choice of yelling or speak-singing a word in a song. "Everyone deserves the chance to fly," gets a bit diffused by the choice.
- 3:24 - If you hear Eden Espinosa sing this song (though it is hard to match power and strength note-for-note in this song against Eden) you'll understand my problem with how Lea sings "Tell them how I..." it's all in head voice and there's no resolve to it.
- 3:30 - Again, "I'm flying high, defying..." another line that should have resolve, but doesn't.
- 4:02 - Finally, her first "Bring me down" is good, her second flounders a bit, and her last note is too far back.
Now again, I love Lea. But it's just not a worthy performance. I'm told she's pregnant in this though, so again, Lea Salonga is better than you.

I think Shoshana Bean in the Elphaba role is a polarizing choice. For some, she's the queen of overdoing it. She's too stylized, she's too pop, and she treats it like a concert. For me, I think those people are selling Shoshana short.
She is the riff queen, to be sure. I don't agree with every riff she chooses to do, but there's no denying that she does them better than any musical theatre performer and that's because she's not primarily one. She is R&B and blues and gospel. And it shows. It's also the recent trend of musical theatre to head more towards pop concert performance. Watch Lea Michele perform, watch Rent, even something as far back as Lion King, it's the trending style.
Shoshana's range is flawless. She knows how to color her voice, she knows how to add dynamic. I'm never worried about her, like I was with Lea, who was making me nervous. Shoshana is in complete control.
This video is only about a minute long. I tried to find this full performance specifically, and couldn't. So I'll go lyric-for-lyric, instead of by time signature:
So if you care to find me ----- She sometimes does a riff up on "me", that I love.
Look to the Western sky ----- There's the power I was talking about for this line. It's more of a declaration, maybe even a challenge.
As someone told me lately
Everyone deserves the chance to fly --- Love the riff on "deserves" and see what I mean about singing "fly"? It just sounds better.
And if I'm flying solo ---- I don't particularly like the "solo" riff, but Shoshana's phrasing also makes it sound like the word "solo", (Idina Menzel, Eden, Stephanie Block...sometimes, they tend to sound like they're saying "so low")
At least I'm flying free
To those who ground me
Take a message back from me ---- I love her conviction with "YOU take a message back..." love it. And listen to that flip on "from" into "me." It lines up so well, and Shoshana does that time and time again.
Tell them how I am defying gravity }
I'm flying high defying gravity         } The flips back and forth in these two lines are amazing.
And soon I'll match them in renown
And nobody in all of Oz --- Shoshana's dynamic on "all" is what I think Lea was going for with her pulled back notes, but Shoshana just has better control over the note.
No wizard that there is or was
Is ever gonna bring me down  ----- Holy crap. Just no words.
Ahhhh! ----- See, she overdoes the riff with that glissando at the end, but regardless, it's still pretty cool.

To get a better idea of Shoshana in the role, this is a pretty good quality bootleg. I won't deconstruct it as I normally do, just suffice to say, she's is remarkable in this video. It's also pretty subdued for her; a lot of the more riff-crazy videos don't seem to exist on YouTube anymore, or are part of compilations now.

I think she's absolutely fantastic in this video.

And to redeem Lea Salonga a bit, here's this.
Watch her outsing Christina Aguilera to the end of time.