Broadway musicals are mini-operas when you get right down to it. Ready examples of this include Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" and even Andrew Lloyd-Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" -- all of which have benefited from big-budget, big-voice, big-orchestra treatments and had their songs frequently adapted for vocal recitals by big-name opera stars.
Shows like "Gypsy," "Mame," "My Fair Lady" and "The Music Man" have also contributed material to what some critics refer to as "The Great American Songbook."
Saturday night's extravaganza in Kleinhans Music Hall was a good case in point. Concertgoers benefited from the sonic power of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra performing arrangements of classic show tunes sung by bona fide Broadway show veterans, one of whom (Debbie Gravitte) actually won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
The category for which Gravitte received one of Broadway's highest honors underscores what she and her cohorts for the evening, Christiane Noll and Jan Horvath, are: singers who can act; they sell the tunes they sing by inhabiting the persona for whom the song was set.
When Gravitte sang "Don't Rain on My Parade," Noll took on "I Could Have Danced All Night" and Horvath vamped her way through "If They Could See Me Now." They did so in character. It didn't matter that they were prancing, vamping and gliding across the stage in front of an orchestral mass without any real props or scenery. Each of these singers let the audience in on a slice of life. Admittedly, these were lives filled with poetic liberties, but they were lives that made audiences care about the fictions played out onstage.
Each of the performers brought their own strengths to bear on the material. While they were all, technically speaking, sopranos, the vocal colors and ranges covered made it easy to typecast, in a way.
If you were looking for a cabaret singer, someone whose voice conveyed warmth and intelligence, Gravite would fill the bill. If you wanted a bright, clear voice propelling material across an amazingly wide range, the kind of vocalist who could sing Schubert (or deliver an incredibly nuanced Cunegonde from Bernstein's "Candide"), then Noll is an obvious choice. If you were casting an ingenue, an essentially believable naif with the proverbial "heart of gold," Horvath is a good option.
When all is said and done, Saturday night's combination of Broadway and the BPO was a good thing, but it was the singers and the material that made the evening a success.
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Pops concert with the Three Divas. Saturday evening in Kleinhans Music Hall.