I took 20 students on a trip to see Fun Home on Broadway. Part of my job is to provide opportunities for student “exposure to the arts.” We sat in the back row in student group-priced seating. It was awesome. I could talk at length, as many other people have, about how the in-the-round experience reflects the intimacy of the story, how the apparent simplicity of the stage suggests the simplicity Alison Bechdel’s line drawings. But anybody would say those things, and probably say them better than I would.
Then last week I saw it again, and sat in the front row.
It was literally a new perspective, and also allowed me to see and hear more detail of the amazing work of the performers. I just want to give one example of something probably no one else will say about this show:
[ju aɚ la:Ik ə ɹɛ:In ko:ʊt]
This is IPA of the phrase “you are like a raincoat.” They sing it a bunch of times in a row, the whole ensemble singing together. And if there’s one thing I can talk about with greater expertise than just about any other blogger, it’s ensemble singing. One of the most important things in ensemble singing is consistent diction.
First, vowels: for most of the show, all the characters suggest a north-central Mid-Atlantic accent. The A in dad is flattened, the I in like is shortened. But when they aren’t playing those characters, but singing as part of young Alison’s fantasy telling her “everything’s all right,” the I in “like a raincoat” is opened to the standard English sung diction bright “ah,” [a]. A subtle but distinct choice.
Second, consonants: raincoat is a really difficult word to sing. R is difficult, and the combination of consecutive N and K is difficult. I would bet money that a musical director told them it sounded like “rain goat” at some point. Both R and NK interfere with vowel placement and shape, and their necessary duration interferes with rhythmic precision. And final T is practically a stereotype of choral music annoyances. But these are technical difficulties that can be overcome. As singers work to enunciate the K and T, they are in danger of over pronouncing the unvoiced plosives. There’s not really such a thing as overly clear diction, but unvoiced plosives tend to sound aggressive and sharp. To make the phrase “like a raincoat” very clear, and also sound warm and tender requires a particular balance of breath and intention.
I mean, you can sing the phrase “made out of love” with softness and warmth because it alternates vowels and consonants, and all those open vowels. “Like a raincoat” doesn’t have those advantages. Take as a contrast the beginning of “The Coolin”” from Barber’s Reincarnations (from “Coolun” by James Stephens):
Come with me, under my coat
Same sort of idea, but words that come with warmth built in. Plus Samuel Barber might be the greatest genius of all time when it comes to setting the English language to music in ways that are intuitive, singable, and meaningful.
But in Fun Home, they make the sentence “you are like a raincoat” sound not just chipper and cheerful and fun, but also affectionate and sweet. From the back row, I thought, “wow, the word raincoat is hard to sing clearly: good for them!” From the front row, I thought, “holy cow, they are singing the N and the K for longer than they need to, and the T is precise but soft.” It was so precise, and so fitting with the affect, in a way that does not come naturally from the sound of the text. And they sing it over and over, every member of the cast, exactly the same way every time.
That’s just one sentence.
It’s an incredibly thoughtful performance. And I just want to say: I see what you did there.
Here’s the song, though the recording does not carry the same detail as the front row did.
I am a hard core diction nerd, and I’m quite finicky about it with my choirs. But when I see what thoughtful, precise diction achieves in terms of expressive quality, I remember why it’s worth all that effort.