Why can't a woman not sing like a man?

Click to follow
A fortnight ago I had lunch with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and asked what, at the time, I intended as a quite innocent question. I now wonder if it might land me at the mercy of a Los Angeles law firm.

Could Faye Dunaway, the star he had signed to replace Glenn Close in the LA production of Sunset Boulevard, actually sing, I inquired. Most of us have yearned to be Clyde for 15 minutes to Miss Dunaway's Bonnie, so this was not intended to be a snide remark. It just seemed odd that I couldn't remember this forthcoming star of a musical ever singing for her supper.

Sir Andrew replied that she could not sing in the conventional sense (which sounded frighteningly like a pilot not being able to fly in the conventional sense) but was approaching the role in the style of Rex Harrison.

Well, perhaps it's the estate of the late Sir Rex who should sue, now that Sir Andrew has fired Miss Dunaway before her first performance on the grounds of her (lack of) singing ability. For such an inoffensive, mild-mannered, shy sort of chap, Sir Andrew has an enviable knack of making tough women cry. Dark glasses sales go up whenever he casts a new musical.

Faye Dunaway took off hers for a televised press conference in which she berated her erstwhile producer with a well rehearsed and rather well written script. I adored her description of Sir Andrew as 'peripatetic'. It's not a word one hears much outside gatherings of school music teachers. I take it that what Miss Dunaway was really saying was 'Hell, this guy flies in, watches me for five minutes, flies out again then comes back three weeks later, watches me for another five minutes and ruins my life.' Peripatetic. Must remember that one.

Anyway, back to Rex Harrison and the words of one of his best-known songs (although the words 'song' and 'singing' do not necesssarily apply in this case nor immediately come to mind) from My Fair Lady, 'Why can't a woman be more like a man?'

Harrison pioneered a style of musical delivery that was more languid speech than singing, a carefully phrased lyrical intonation, but one that virtually never broke into song. It was ideally suited to Lerner and Loewe's score, which gave the Henry Higgins role bons mots, irony and indignation, spoken in dialogue with an expressive orchestra, and left the always charming, occasionally heart-wrenching, perfect-pitched Julie Andrews as Eliza to remind you that this was a musical.

A similar technique could be seen in the same teams' Gigi. Maurice Chevalier remembered it well, but in a captivating lazy drawl rather than in song. Indeed, the Fifties and Sixties gave us a flurry of shows tailored to contemporary matinee idols who fitted the 'nice acting shame about the voice' critique.

Richard Burton and Richard Harris made a go of Camelot - voices quivering up an octave to stress the last syllable of the title. And Marlon Brando, sharing the screen with a promising lad called Frank Sinatra, spoke his way through the libretto of Guys and Dolls, though with Brando's diction it was never certain if he was speaking, singing or eating.

Not altogether surprisingly, the list of musicals where one can get away for any length of time without actually singing for a living is limited (though there were times in Barry Manilow's Copacabana last week when one regretted this); and after My Fair Lady and Dr Dolittle, Rex Harrison wisely decided not to trade any more on his novel approach.

But his style continues to this very day. This evening Topol opens - or reopens, for those with long memories - in Fiddler On The Roof at the London Palladium. Chaim Topol's singing ability is certainly vastly superior to Harrison's, a voice that is dark, rich and warm; but a careful listening will show that he employs it sparingly, preferring often to speak/sing his lines, jumping from humour to mock chanted prayer, to indignant exclamation to soft remembered love.

Hear him in 'If I Were A Rich Man' exclaim with a shriek of delight: 'I'd see my wife, my Golde, looking like a rich man's wife with a proper double chin', and spot the singing. Topol, like Harrison, gets away with it, thank goodness. But would we laugh and cry if it were Faye Dunaway singing 'If I Were A Rich Woman'? The bootleg tape would do a roaring trade, but audiences would be, shall we say, peripatetic.

It is, I suppose, a case of sexism in one area where it has never been explored. FIMT, your hour has come: Feminists In Musical Theatre. For what we applaud in Rex Harrison we simply will not tolerate in Faye Dunaway. Men, with the right degree of suavity and languidness, can talk their way through a song; with women we simply wonder why they haven't taken singing lessons.

Perhaps this will now change as women picket theatres and pelt producers who have turned down established actresses for leads in musicals on the spurious grounds that they can't sing. Alternatively, Faye Dunaway could star in The Making Of Sunset Boulevard, or how a once idolised sex goddess of a movie star is humiliated and rejected by her producer as she prepares to play the part of a once idolised sex goddess of a movie star who is humiliated and rejected by her producer.

But Miss Dunaway should not create this performance either on the Los Angeles stage or on film. She should perform it on the stage that is made for it, a British amateur operatic society. Here is a world of Andrew Lloyd Webbers and Faye Dunaways writ small but writ often; and with a few Oliver Reeds and Warren Beattys thrown in.

In the amateur operatic society there are dramatic conventions built up over the years that the richest and most powerful producers could not affect. The leading man's failure to reach a high C ranks just below his influence with the local council to grant planning permission for a bigger theatre. The leading lady will be permitted a passable imitation of Rex Harrison if she has the relevant backstage expertise in fund-raising or party-giving.

Penelope Keith in The Good Life sang in her local amateur operatic society and lost her part as Maria in The Sound Of Music only when she fell out socially with the casting director. This is as it should be, as audiences do not go to their local amateur societies to see Kiri Te Kanawa but to be reminded of the latest shifts and nuances on the social ladder. A good tune well sung is a nice diversion.

Meanwhile, Topol's Tevye tonight, in his many on-stage conversations with God, might throw in a new line: 'Please God, don't make me work for Andrew Lloyd Webber.'

Mark Lawson is on holiday.