How would a great singer play a mediocre one?
July 29, 2012 7:56 PM   Subscribe

Broadway-musical-meta-performance-filter: In "shows within a show," do actors/singers/dancers typically play down from their top standard, if the character is not at the top of the profession?

I played in the pit for a community production of "State Fair." There's a scene where a woman sings and dances as part of a show at the fair ("You Never Had it so Good"). The character is a singer/hoofer on the midwestern fair circuit in 1946. When this was done in movies and on Broadway, the actress/singer was a top professional. In a number like this, would they intentionally perform somewhat under the usual standard, to depict the character's somewhat limited professional chops? If not in this play, can you think of some examples where this sort of thing was done? (Note: at the community theatre, no dialing back of the talent seemed necessary)
posted by randomkeystrike to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
No, unless it's an important character note.

For example (from a movie musical), the character of Lina Lamont in Singin' In The Rain. Pretty sure Jean Hagen didn't actually sound that bad.

But otherwise, if you're simply denoting that someone is the best singer in the village, or something? No. People come to see Broadway musicals for the virtuoso performances, not cold realism.
posted by Sara C. at 8:03 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream were written to be incompetent, so when they perform their absurd play-within-a-play in the final act, it is acted as the oafs they are.
posted by Think_Long at 8:10 PM on July 29, 2012

What Sara C. said. Nobody wants to see anyone doing less than their best unless it's funny to see them flail. The suspension of disbelief would be marred.

An example is Guys and Dolls---often, the Hot Box girls are choreographed to be slightly amateurish, which is funny, but Adelaide always sings "A Bushel and a Peck" as well as she sings "Adelaide's Lament" because it would be confusing and un-fun to hear her croaking through the first number and rocking the second one.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:12 PM on July 29, 2012

Another example, from Broadway -- Cabaret. Sally Bowles is meant to be dancing at a somewhat sordid bohemian cabaret. You wouldn't imagine that the Best Performer In Berlin would be performing at the Kit Kat Club. And yet the actor playing Bowles gives the performances her all, even if she's a world class singer and dancer.
posted by Sara C. at 8:14 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I saw Judy Kaye in Souvenir- in it, she plays a dreadfully and hilariously off-pitch singer. Judy Kaye is, of course, an incredible singer and actress.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:17 PM on July 29, 2012

A Chorus Line really illustrates the principle people are describing here.

By definition, people auditioning for the chorus line aren't trying out to be the star of the show. There's a subplot about a dancer with star quality and experience who's "dancing down" to be in the chorus, because she's basically aged out of star roles and can't get work. That actress has to show she can dance as a star, and that she's toning down her performance to fit in. There's another whole number about a dancer who can't sing. It's scored as single-note Sprechstimme, only dynamics and metre, not melody. The actress has to come up with a performance that illustrates the character's incompetence but lets her duet partner sing his contrasting perfect notes in time with the orchestra. Tricky performances.

In contrast, the rest of the cast basically needs to perform at a level that captivates the audience, even though they're supposed to be kind of workaday entertainers whose dreams have much exceeded their talents. (The original cast managed it, too - the show and its actors won about a million Tonys, and it ran for 15 years.)
posted by gingerest at 9:00 PM on July 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

Uma Thurman in Smash sings badly in the first episode she's in, and slowly gets better over the next few episodes.
posted by kjs4 at 9:14 PM on July 29, 2012

It can take a great deal of skill to perform something that is intended to look "bad" or have specific "mistakes" in it. It's going to be the same choreography each time. If the performer just did it in a sloppy manner, it wouldn't have the same effect as intentionally giving one's best rendition of what is being portrayed, whether that effect is for humor or plot.

Think about things like pratfalls -- they are planned, controlled, and done with intention, even though the audience is meant to perceive them as an accident. The performer is expecting to fall, but uses their acting ability to make it look like they too were surprised.
posted by yohko at 10:52 PM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

A Chorus Line immediately came to mind, and the whole dynamic gingerest lays out so well is a large part of what makes the show both so challenging and such a success. A beautiful part of watching Chorus Line is the finale number (press video from the San Francisco out of town tryout for the 2006 revival). The dancers, who we've each gotten to know a little as individuals, meld into one (you see what I did there?) in identical costumes and take their place in the line. At that point, we lose all sense of the individual features of the dancers and we can no longer tell the difference between the star dancer and any other member of the chorus.

What's far more common is not playing down from a top standard of acting, but making careful adjustments to the performance when the character within the "show within a show" is highly similar to their character in the "show" itself. The opera Pagliacci comes to mind, though it's been a number of years, where the performers are working in different layers of the play at different times and the audience's perception of what is the "real play" and what is the inner play also shifts. Stoppard's The Real Thing has similar challenges. I believe Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound takes this to even greater extremes, but I've never seen it performed.

In general, I'd say it's pretty rare to just be intentionally playing down a little bit. It's certainly more common for an actor to play absolutely horribly as part of a comedic or character effect, but that's (ideally) more on the obvious side. What you do see though are actors bringing both their "inner" and "outer" characters to the performance, so that during the play-with-a-play portions, they are portraying how their main character would play their second character as an actor. That usually translates into acting somehow a bit differently rather than just acting a bit worse.

As always, the phenomenal timesuck that is TV Tropes (and here too) has some examples that may get you thinking of other instances.
posted by zachlipton at 12:44 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

With dancing, I most often see this with mistakes and pratfalls introduced to the choreography. So rather than generally dancing poorly, the dancer is dancing well, but also including these deliberate mistakes, missteps, wrong turns, etc in their performance -- which is actually likely to be much harder than just dancing straight. It's more exaggerated than the kind of mistakes a real amateur might make, but it kind of needs to be to make the point clear.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:58 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Colleen Ballinger created a character on YouTube - Miranda - who is a terrible singer, and is completely delusional and immune to all criticism. She is, as herself, a great singer.

She also does a very convincing hyper little girl when she's not being Miranda or herself.
posted by jph at 7:40 AM on July 30, 2012

Response by poster: You guys have done a great job of doing what I really had in mind with my poorly phrased question, which is of course some examples... !
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:14 AM on July 30, 2012

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