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A Tenor on Broadway

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A Tenor on Broadway:
An Evaluation of Jerry Hadley's CD Standing Room Only

Jerry Hadley (1952-2007) was a rare kind of opera tenor. Famous at the Metropolitan Opera and other major houses in a repertoire that ranged from Mozart, Massenet, and the lighter Verdi roles to Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, he habitually sang songs from Broadway musicals; these songs form a sizable part of his recorded legacy, and in general he sounded completely at home in them. When Leonard Bernstein made his “definitive” recording of Candide in 1989, Hadley was Candide; in 1992 Hadley recorded Standing Room Only, his solo, Broadway-themed CD. On the whole a delightful surprise for anyone who thinks opera singers “can’t sing Broadway,” Standing Room Only can tell us much about Hadley the artist, the phenomenon of opera singers “crossing over into” more popular forms like musicals, and the music itself.

The CD contains eighteen tracks, representing a wide variety of Broadway styles: Meredith Willson to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Not every single track is a success, and it is probably best to discuss the two disappointments first. “Almost Like Being in Love” from Brigadoon (Lerner and Leowe) provides the program with an unfortunate start. The song sounds too low for Hadley, whose delivery lacks the requisite lightness and charm. “All I Ask of You” from The Phantom of the Opera (Lloyd Webber) also sounds too low–Hadley should have sung “The Music of the Night” instead–and, with the lyric slightly altered, it is unconvincingly presented as a solo rather than as a duet. The first track, in fact, displays a couple of the “bad crossover” cliches: not only is it more or less stilted but it ends with an overblown, though ringing, high note. Here Hadley’s particular vocal qualities should be mentioned. Though apparently not large, Hadley’s tenor possessed both weight and Italianate “ping” (Hadley was half Italian, actually). The “ping” gave the voice brightness and carrying power while the weight, coupled with Hadley’s straightforward and even emphatic expressive style, could make it sound ungainly, as it tends to in “Almost Like Being in Love.” Yet Hadley’s English diction was “forward” and clear, his dynamic variety was often remarkable, and behind his singing–whether in musical theatre or in opera–there was always a sense of a singing actor rather than just a singer. Though the ungainliness could be a drawback, Hadley’s other qualities typically combined to make him, for the most part, an ideal crossover singer.

If Track #1 is the worst on the disc, then Track #17 is the best. This is Marvin Hamlisch’s “What I Did for Love,” Diana Morales’ response in A Chorus Line when asked how she would react if told she could no longer dance. With minimal accompaniment Hadley gives what is surely the best-sung “What I Did for Love” on record. It is the kind of song rendition in which everything (breathing, phrasing, tone) is in character: even the passing rasp in Hadley’s low register sounds like the character’s voice cracking with emotion. Here is a perfect example of Hadley the crossover artist at his finest.



Fortunately, Hadley’s “Standing on the Corner” (Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella) has the charm that “Almost Like Being in Love” lacks, and the same could be said of his perfectly paired “Marry Me” by Kander and Ebb (The Rink) and “Manhattan” by Rodgers and Hart. If the comic numbers on the CD seem odd choices for a “legit” tenor (an opera tenor singing “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from Guys and Dolls?!), Hadley’s renditions are never embarrassing; in “Don’t Marry Me” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song he is genuinely funny. Still, it comes as no surprise that two of the CD’s most “operatic” songs, Bernstein’s “Lonely Town” (On the Town) and Lane and Lerner's “She Wasn’t You” (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever), are among its biggest successes. Only with a genuinely operatic voice can the complete melodic splendor of these songs come through. “Bring Him Home” from Boublil and Schonberg’s Les Miserables, like The Phantom of the Opera considered one of the most vocally demanding of musicals, must be a relatively easy piece for opera tenors to sing; Hadley’s version is meltingly beautiful, the softer moments especially so. Surely this is one of the most impressive recordings of “Bring Him Home” ever made. It is, however, “Gethsemene,” Jesus’ lengthy monologue in the garden from Lloyd Webber’s “rock opera” Jesus Christ Superstar, that gains the most from an opera tenor’s technique. The kind of dynamic range and control Hadley displays in this scene is something even the best rock, pop, or Broadway tenors cannot achieve. Because of this dynamic variety the shifting moods–imploring to frenzied to resigned–of the piece are fully realized, making the listener regret that Hadley never sang the part of Jesus onstage or recorded it in full. In contrast to “Gethsemene,” “Anthem" -- the famous Act I finale from the Andersson/Ulvaeus/Rice work Chess -- is sung with surprising intimacy, its words savored.*

From the semi-operatic we move to the quintessentially “Broadway” or even “nightclub”: Track #9, “What Kind of Fool Am I?” It is a very hard thing to disassociate the resonant, high-baritone voice and broad Cockney accent of Anthony Newley from this ballad, which Newley composed for his own hit 1962 musical, Stop the World–I Want to Get Off. Hadley competes with Newley in the only way that he can: by offering a fresh interpretation. His tone at the start is soft and sad, the tempo slower than the one used in Newley’s classic version on Stop the World’s Broadway cast album. Gradually, taking his cue from the accompaniment, Hadley builds the number so that by the time its climax occurs the listener feels that she has been taken on a journey, and comes away with a renewed appreciation for the greatness of the song itself.

In a sense, Hadley’s “What Kind of Fool Am I?” sums up his whole approach to Broadway song: bright, forward tone; words clearly and meaningfully pronounced; varied dynamics; a real character–the “average man” who realizes too late that he never authentically lived–conveyed. Most if not all of these qualities are also features of the other successful tracks on Standing Room Only. Opera singers who sing songs from Broadway musicals idiomatically have always been rare; Jerry Hadley was, among tenors at least, the best of the best.


*David Carroll, who thrillingly introduced "Anthem" on Broadway, died of AIDS shortly before Standing Room Only was recorded, and Hadley's "Anthem" was intended as a tribute to him. Perhaps this is the reason it is comparatively subdued.
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Updated Jun-21-2019 at 02:06 by Bellinilover

Tags: broadway, tenors
Categories
Classical Music , Non-Classical Music , Opera , Singers , Recorded Music

Comments

  1. Belowpar's Avatar
    Fine piece and I'm pleased you don't look down on Musical Theatre.


    I never heard him sing but he was Bernsteins choice on one of my favourite recordings, Candide.

    Thank you
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  2. Bellinilover's Avatar
    Thank you very much for reading and commenting. You say you've never heard Jerry Hadley? You should definitely check out his recordings, then. I don't own the Candide but have heard it, and as I said I wish Hadley been Tony in Bernstein's West Side Story: he would have been a vast improvement over Carreras, in my opinion.

    Edited to add: My mistake; I read too fast. You say you have heard Hadley, but not live. I never heard him live, either. I wish I had.
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    Updated Jun-28-2016 at 05:56 by Bellinilover