Chances are that even if you’ve never strayed into the magical kingdom known as “Camelot,” you’ve heard at least two of its beloved songs. “If Ever I Would Leave You,” popularized by Robert Goulet, his booming baritone voice a bona fide 1960s aphrodisiac, is a classic romantic tune. And the jaunty title song, “Camelot,” is the Broadway musical version of caffeine: a guaranteed pick-me-up.
But those aren’t the only winners. For Judith Dickison, vocal coach of the new Good Company Players production, her favorite for best underrated song in the score by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) is a toss-up between “Before I Gaze at You Again” and “I Loved You Once in Silence,” both sung by Guinevere.
“It’s a tough question because all the music in the show is gorgeous,” says Dickison. We caught up with the well-known local voice teacher – whose students have included future Broadway stars Audra McDonald and Betsy Wolfe – to talk more about “Camelot” and the role of a vocal coach.
Q: This isn’t your first GCP “Camelot” with Paddy Myers as King Arthur. Twenty years ago, he played opposite Laurie Pessano as Guinevere. What is different this time around?
A: This question makes me feel very old as this production will feature Emily Pessano (Dan and Laurie’s daughter) in the role of Guinevere.
Q: Why do you think Paddy makes such a good Arthur?
A: Not only because he is British and has served as our dialectician, but he is also an accomplished actor who brings all the emotional levels necessary to this role. He is always a delight to work with!
Q: You call “Camelot” a classic Broadway score. How are the vocal demands different than many of the shows written today?
A: “Camelot” and other shows of that period demand a more legitimate (or classical) vocal technique. The range of the songs lends itself to broader demands vocally than shows that are being composed today. Today’s shows are more for a “belter” type voice with emphasis on roles for tenors and altos.
Q: You’re not a fan of the term “belter.” Why?
A: To me, to “belt” means to push. I know that this is a well-known, much-used term, but I believe that singing and correct vocal technique is all about balance through the registers of the voice (chest, mix and head). I’ve coined the term “pop-mix” to indicate a more correct blend of chest to head mix.
Q: Tell us about your singing background and career as a voice teacher. Have you always been heavily involved in singing for musical theater?
A: I got my primary training at the renowned Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, in Rochester, New York. In 1980 I moved to Fresno from New York City where I had performed as a principal artist with the New York City Opera and with other regional companies around the United States. I also performed as a recitalist, artist-in-residence and orchestral soloist. I opened my studio with the goal of helping other aspiring performers to realize their goals. The vocal technique I teach is applicable to (with small modifications) every type of singing, including musical theater.
Q: What do you do as vocal coach?
A: My job is to be sure that the singers honor the composer’s intent by singing correct notes, rhythms, dynamics and phrasing.
At auditions, I sit with the director and listen to the initial auditions for the show (generally 16-32 bars of music). From this, we determine who will be called back for consideration of roles at callbacks. The following week, we listen to people sing and read lines (which are distributed at auditions) from the show for specific principal roles. When the show has been cast, I have a week, at my home, with the principal/lead singers working their solos, etc., with emphasis on correct notes, rhythms, phrasing, artistic intent and, if necessary, technical considerations. The following week, I have a full musical rehearsal at Good Company’s rehearsal annex, with the entire cast, working the ensemble pieces and plugging in the solos. I check in during the rehearsal period and return during tech week to listen to the run-through and give notes.
Q: Have you ever had to do an “intervention” during the run of a show, concerned that a singer was misusing his or her voice?
A: Inevitably people get sick (singers have the only instrument that they carry around, inside of them, all of the time). That’s why I am emphatic about understudies being well prepared. Through the years, there have been many cases where the understudy has had to go on. I have had to warm up singers and help them through vocally compromised times during the run of a show.
Q: I recently saw you at Broadway star Betsy Wolfe’s hometown concert in Visalia. Tell us what it was like coaching her as a young singer.
A: Betsy was a joy to teach and came with a tremendous vocal gift. A lot of our work centered on correct registration of the voice (moving seamlessly from the chest to mix to head) and also choosing repertoire that best showcased her voice for auditions and performance. She has worked very hard and is having a lovely career on Broadway … which has always been her dream! I am super proud of her!
Q: You’re close to Audra McDonald, too. Did you know the first moment you heard her sing what she was capable of?
A: Audra came with immense natural ability and tremendous potential as a musician, dancer and actress. Vocally, she had a great capacity to sing with the chest voice. The work she needed centered on connecting into the head voice more easily. This was important as she was auditioning for the Juilliard School of Music who trains their singers classically. On a personal note, she babysat my kids and has always been very dear to our family.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: My experiences as a vocal coach with Good Company Players have been some of the most treasured times in my musical career. Dan and Laurie Pessano create an environment where everyone is encouraged to attain their highest level of artistic accomplishment. Its always a joy to help in this creative process. I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of the Good Company family.
- Through Nov. 6
- Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave.
- www.gcplayers.com, 559-266-9494