"Now Ulla Belt" – or not: Why We Belt

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about belting lately.  I’ve also been re-obsessed with the score for The Producers (Book of Mormon, Spamalot, The Producers  – are we noticing a pattern here?) and I was listening to the movie soundtrack the other day. What really bothered me about the movie was Uma Thurman’s casting as Ulla. While she was physically right for it, she was not vocally right. Her big song is “When you got it, flaunt it,” and at one point, she says, “Now Ulla belt!’ and then — she doesn’t. The point is that at that moment, she should switch from a little girl character voice to a powerful, strong woman in control of her sexuality.

Here’s an example from the original Broadway cast album, featuring Cady Huffman in the role. At about 2:22, Miss Huffman belts. It’s funny, it’s powerful, it sets up the character as a force to be reckoned with. She’s not just a pretty face (and fantastic body).

Then there’s Uma Thurman in the movie version. She’s singing it lower, which means it should be even easier to belt. But at 2:08, when she announces her intention to belt and then doesn’t – it’s disappointing. She belts a little bit after that, but the whole thing is weak. (And please, Uma, even I could belt it in that tessitura!)

Belting should be used as a statement. It can be a statement of:

  1. Sexuality
  2. Fun
  3. Conviction
  4. Empowerment
It is not a statement of
  1. Tenderness
  2. Sweetness
  3. Sorrow (heartbreak, perhaps, but not sorrow)
  4. Insecurity
So I watched a few videos and decided that a song can be belted all the way through if it’s a song that’s fun, upbeat, and not particularly serious. Examples of this are “Anything goes,” “I got rhythm,” and “Johnny One Note”. Songs that are fast and short lend themselves well to an all-the-way-through belt.

Two examples of belting used specifically to make a statement:

Eden Espinosa, “Once upon a time,” from Brooklyn. Miss Espinosa does a mix until 1:50, at the words, “has never felt more right.” A statement of conviction. And then she belts mostly till the end, using a mix as she ascends pitch-wise, winding up on a high A-flat (!!!) on the word “right.” Can we say money note??

And then there’s the ultimate contemporary song of empowerment, “Astonishing,” from Little Women, sung by Sutton Foster. This is a bootleg video of a live performance, and it is sung very differently from the cast album. Probably because she has the rest of the show to sing and can’t blow it all out on this one song – whereas she could’ve just come in and sang the song for the recording and nothing else. Recordings offer the luxury of risk-tasking in a way that 8 shows a week do not.

Notice the use of mix throughout this performance. When she sings of her yearning for a return to the simplicity, it’s a very mixed sound. As she grows stronger in her conviction that she wants to and will be more, it becomes chest-dominant. But a full belt does not kick in until about 5:00 in, on “In my own way – today,” and stays strong throughout the whole “Here I go” section. Empowerment.

Also notice that the high e-flat on “Astonishing” (the money note, the whole point of this song!) is mixed. It’s much more true to the vowel than on the recording, where it becomes “astonishang!” in order for her to get a brassier sound. I find over-modification of a vowel, whether it be toward a more neutral sound in classical music or a more spread sound in musical theater, to be distracting. Vowel integrity should be maintained. Yes, the amount that the mouth is open and/or its shape may need to change but the tongue doesn’t always have to – and that’s what determines intelligibility.  Does the performance lose anything by her mixing that note? The audience doesn’t seem to think so, by their reaction.

Just because you can belt a song all the way through doesn’t necessarily mean you should. What are you saying? What is your mood? A belt can be thrilling if it comes in at the most effective and appropriate moment. Where should you belt? Why should you belt?

Even though I am re-defining myself as a classical singer, I love a good belt. And when it comes in at just the right place, it’s thrilling beyond belief. When it doesn’t come in or comes in at the wrong place – not so much.

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