Inside musical theater: What it’s like to learn that music

  • Posted: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 1:27 p.m.
Aiken Standard File Photo
Madison Anderson, right, sings, as Ella Morton, from left, Katte Noel and Jaya Jenkins listen on during Aiken Community Playhouse’s Youth Wing’s preview of its past musical “The Pajama Game.”
Aiken Standard File Photo Madison Anderson, right, sings, as Ella Morton, from left, Katte Noel and Jaya Jenkins listen on during Aiken Community Playhouse’s Youth Wing’s preview of its past musical “The Pajama Game.”

Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series exploring different roles of musical theater. Next week will focus on learning and teaching choreography.

A song can soften your heart, make you tap your feet or chill your spine.

When you sit down to a musical, the energy radiating from the show rises you to a whole other level.

“The music in the musical is narrating the story,” said Steven McKinney, area teacher and music director.

Before this can effectively happen, the music must be created and learned.

Musical theater actors learn how to sing through private lessons, through formal education or through working on the performances themselves.

High school sophomore Loughlin Anderson will admit, “I'm not the strongest singer or dancer.”

He has been acting for four years – half of those include performing in musicals.

Anderson has been cast in Aiken Community Playhouse musicals like “The Pajama Game” and “Hairspray.”

He studies with area voice teacher Diane Haslam.

“Musicals and dramas are so different, so they are kind of hard to compare,” Anderson said. “I think I enjoy musicals more because of the higher energy, but they are both very fun.”

Juanita Palmer, USC Aiken's Etherredge Center house manager and publicity coordinator, has worked on more than 100 productions.

At least 12 of those have been musicals.

She has studied music from the time she was a small child, through her student days at USCA.

She was 6 when she performed in her first musical.

“Taking music classes gave me a foundation to work from the beginning of the rehearsal process for a musical, from reading sheet music to understanding why a composer has specific dynamics or key changes written into a score,” Palmer said. “All musical elements come together to paint a magnificent picture and tell a great story visually and musically for the audience, or in musical theater terms ‘inducing pathos.'”

Palmer has been in shows at the Playhouse, at USCA and at theaters in Hilton Head and Beaufort.

McKinney began forming his musical skills as a third grader studying the piano.

He continued his studies at Lander College and then USC where he received degrees in music education.

McKinney has been teaching in the Edgefield County school district for 31 years.

He now teaches fine arts at Strom Thurmond High School.

McKinney has been teaching in the same school district for 31 years.

Throughout his career, this music director has worked on more than 80 musicals, be them at Strom Thurmond or at the Playhouse.

One lesson he emphasizes is, “actors need to be able to sing the parts, but they must be able to act the parts while singing.”

The routine he takes to prepare to teach his actors begins with “reading the musical, listening to the recordings and studying the vocal parts. I read the musical script again so that I can do a character analysis on all singers.”

Once this phase is done, he carries his music and notes into his music rehearsals.

“We start off with physical and vocal warm-ups,” he said on his rehearsal process. “Then, I will start teaching the songs that require the entire ensemble. I will hold special rehearsals with the soloists. Once the notes and the rhythms have been taught, we work on getting the style and characterizations in the music.”

The rehearsing does not stop once the actors go home for the night.

For example, McKinney will meet up with the actors outside of rehearsals to review their parts.

What Palmer does to prepare is, “at the beginning of the rehearsal process, I like to listen to the music and read along using the libretto, or sheet music, so that I can memorize the melody. Then, as the character develops, the music begins to take on meaning and substance. Memorization gives the actor more freedom to add character traits and begin to really tell the story.”

While she “takes a memory from each character with me,” she considers Joanne from the Playhouse's 2011 production of “Rent” one of her more memorable roles.

There are some who have been touched so deeply by music, that they sing beyond the theater stage.

Some of the women from a cappella chorus M'Aiken Music have been singing their whole lives, according to the organization's website.

In 2009, member and long-time Aiken resident Debbie Bruce appeared in the Playhouse's “It's A Wonderful Life: The Musical.”

“It's where she first found a love of singing,” according to her biography.

Fellow member Margaret Bridges has appeared in shows as far away as in Michigan, as well as South Carolina.

“I probably began singing in the fourth grade glee club,” she said. “I have had no particular voice classes, only the training provided by very good directors and competitions clinicians over the years.”

She has appeared in productions like “My Fair Lady,” “Grease” and “Oklahoma.”

One of her and Bruce's directors is M'Aiken Music founder and Musical Director Lyn VanDervort.

“I started out singing with my sisters at age 6,” she said. “I sing now with five different groups … (and) enjoy all types of music and genres.”

Though she has liked her named roles, one point that Bridges has taken from her experiences is “being in a group requires a different level of musicianship to be part of the blend.”

For more information about area theater performances, visit web.usca.edu/etherredge-center or www.aikencommunityplayhouse.us.

Stephanie Turner graduated from Valdosta State University in 2012. She then signed on with the Aiken Standard, where she is now the arts and entertainment reporter.

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