The art and science of voice
You’ve seen the online videos, and maybe you’ve tried it yourself — piercing the air with the high notes in “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” Now imagine trying to do that eight times a week for audiences who have saved up their pennies to pay a premium ticket price.
They expect the powerhouse Broadway belt, and that’s what singers deliver night after night, on stages worldwide.
The belter long ago earned a place beside operatic voices and falsettos on the stage. It’s a trend that may not have started with Ethel Merman, but the stage and screen diva certainly set the standard.
To take a deep dive into the art and science of the Broadway belt, we start with Christine Laitta, among the folks in Pittsburgh who can belt to the rafters and who recently finished a gig channeling her childhood singing hero: Ethel Merman.
“When I was little, my parents had an Ethel Merman album, and I loved it. I would emulate her, and it was sort of a party game: ‘Sing like Ethel Merman,” Laitta said before a CLO Cabaret performance of “The Book of Merman” — as in Ethel, who encounters a couple of Mormon admirers in the hybrid musical.
Laitta first got to play Merman for Pittsburgh CLO’s production of another parody, “Forbidden Broadway,” even auditioning as the diva whose first Broadway show was “Stir Crazy,” for the Gershwins in 1930.
In her dressing room at the Greer Cabaret, Laitta added an inflatable mattress. She also is an adjunct teacher at the Pittsburgh CAPA school by day, so resting as often as possible is a must.
“When I think about [Merman], I think about huge breath support and relaxing between each number, because her volume and intensity is bigger than most people’s,” Laitta explained.
Onstage eight times a week, Jan. 30-March 8, she played the look and the voice of the singer best known for notes that reach out from the stage and grab an audience from the inside out.
Maestro Arturo Toscanini, the great New York Philharmonic conductor, said of Merman, “Hers is not a human voice. It’s another instrument in the band.”
“I guess I’ve got good lungs,” the late singer told The New York Times in 1982.
Merman’s “No Business Like Show Business” is a standard Broadway belt song that paved the way for the likes of Patti LuPone on “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” or Betty Buckley on “Memory” or the latest belter to take stage and screen by belt, Idina Menzel.
From “Defying Gravity” in “Wicked” to “Let It Go” in “Frozen” on Broadway, Menzel and those who have followed in her roles have pushed the envelope for vocal range eight shows a week — and launched millions of online videos of squealing imitators of all ages.
“For me, the belt … is very physical. People talk about the diaphragm and breathing from that, but really, it’s your lungs that are the powerhouse that’s going to sustain that constant, not only volume, but the quality of the note,” Laitta said.
Let's get physical
Technically, belting is singing with head voice — the sound at the top of the singer’s register. It’s not that the sound comes from the head — “Vocal cords are still very much at play here,” notes a definition by the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media.
“However, when a singer starts reaching up to those higher notes, they may feel the sound and vibration in their head.”
The defining physiological features of the belt are “using firmed thyroarytenoid muscles on thick vocal folds with a tilted cricoid cartilage,” which facilitate the opening and shutting of the air passage and the production of sound.
To the point, the muscles and cartilage work together to create a high and loud sound that is distinctive and sets it apart from, say, the high, airy pitch of a falsetto. Listen to Raul Esparza — or any great belter — reach for the final note of “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” and you’ll get the idea.
Refrain from talking
Drew Leigh Williams is another Pittsburgh performer with a powerhouse voice. While Laitta was preparing to go onstage as Merman recently, Williams was next door at the O’Reilly Theater, singing songs from “She Loves Me” as Pittsburgh Public Theater announced the musical as the 2020-21 season opener.
“When I belt, I typically feel the resonance in my chest until the air passes through my ‘break’ into a mixed sound that resonates in my mask — my nasal cavity, behind the eyes, etc.,” she said via email.
“Depending on the genre and the vocal range needed for the show, I may not baby my voice as much and will simply refrain from talking until about an hour before half hour call.”
She may warm up for 20-30 minutes, depending on the production, in the shower or the car ride to the theater, and then do ” a vocal cool-down” after the show.
“It’s important to get in a full-body warmup, as the voice is not a separate entity. I studied Linklater technique in grad school and continue to use these warm-ups in my professional life.” One way she keeps her voice in shape is to steam with distilled water — “my PurMist personal steamer is my favorite.”
At the 2020 BroadwayCon vendors market, a booth offering a similar treatment was mobbed by amateur and professional singers.
For all the care needed to be a belter, Laitta would still like to follow in the footsteps of Ethel Merman.
”I’m still holding out hope to do ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ at some point,” she said. She lists the songs from the musical — “No Business Like Show Business,” “Moonshine Lullaby,” “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” …
”I love it. It’s a little dated and as I go older, I learned Cole Porter songs and her other repertoire, but that’s my go-to song.”
Williams’ go-to belt song is “Nobody Does It Like Me” from “Seesaw.”
“It sits comfortably in my range, has a lot of chest resonance and isn’t a number about showing off high notes or runs. It’s simple and character-driven,” she said.
Technique is only part of the appeal. “I enjoy how brassy, buzzy and effortless it is to sing,” Williams added, “but I also don’t ever choose a song because of how it mechanically feels. The common thread between songs I love to sing is that they all have wonderful stories to tell.”
The last word on belting
And on that note, the final word on belting falls to Seth Rudetsky, musician, author, performer, Sirius XM radio host and all-around Broadway savant.
He also is known for his “Deconstructing” video series, in which he excavates vocals by stars from Patti LuPone to Audra McDonald to Barbra Streisand, who really has a Strei-sound all her own.
His explanation of the Broadway belt gets to the heart of the sound that has the power to hitch itself to the listener’s soul.
What is it about a singer who can let it go? Is it volume? The ability to hold a note?
“I don’t listen for either of those things,” he answered via email, adding a smiley face. “I’m excited when a voice is very bright, resonant and, in a sense, sounds like the person is yelling! BUT there is enough warmth and vibrato that it makes the note thrilling.”
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg. Sign up for the PG performing arts newsletter Behind the Curtain at Newsletter Preferences.