Dallas — Eve Arden, one of my all time favorite actresses, created splendid characters in a range of films of the '40s , '50s and '60s. Remember the sidekick-secretary to Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder? In the '40s she starred of a popular radio show Our Miss Brooks. That long-running show featured her as a high school teacher dealing with a constantly perturbed principal (Mr. Conklin, played by Gale Gordon) contending with several teacher's pets with '40s teenage angst including the confusions of sounds coming from boys whose voices were changing.
Because it was radio, I realized that Eve Arden's sound—her voice and delivery—was so expressive and specific to the moment and to the character, that despite the modest ambitions of the show, Ms. Arden elevated it to some kind of Art. Even as a kid, I knew that vocality and her witty, intelligent use of it, made Ms. Arden some sort of magician: in short, an artist.
When I was entering puberty I had shockingly specific sexual feelings in response to another woman's voice, the singing and speaking voice of movie and radio actress, Alice Faye. Her sound unleashed the libido of this 13 year old. Ms. Faye's look was hugely appealing-full pouty lips, large beautiful eyes and blonde ringlets. But it was that low, lovely and very womanly voice that alerted me. Alerted me physically, if you get my drift. Really, think of this poor boy blushing and crossing his legs and squirming in the seat of the tiny Ritz movie house in Yukon, Oklahoma even before Ms. Faye got to the second chorus. Even many, many, many years later I'm blushing. (And curiously prideful at the same time.)
Recordings provided this lad with other wonders. I've mentioned in a previous Bit by Bit how seeing Shaw's Don Juan in Hell and then listening over and over again to the recording of it was a life-altering experience that turned me on to the permissible range of the human imagination. Agnes Moorehead played that show's one female role with exquisite vocal virtuosity. She first appears as an old woman: the growl and rasp of her labored breath (and the just-right speed of speech) was perfect. Later in the play when she is advised that here in Hell "we can appear to one another at whatever age we choose" and is told to select some new young age and set a new fashion. Finally she responds, "I do not believe a word you are saying, but very well—twenty seven be it." And then you hear Ms. Moorehead become a young fresh voiced beauty of that very age. (Gawd, Shaw writes wonderful things for actors to say!). The moment is breathtaking.
On another recording Judith Anderson's Medea meets the demands of that classically demanding performance. The stage is the place for such a voice of such power and passion. Ms. Anderson, actually a tiny physical creature, was a vocal giant: how I wish I'd seen her in something besides the undersized roles she was allowed on film.
The first words said to me by the woman I came to marry haven't stuck in my memory, but the sound of them has. I had come to Dallas to begin my architectural career but, as was my habit, felt compelled to do some theatre work. So, I auditioned for a role in Six Characters in Search of an Author that was to be directed by this supposed hotshot young woman, Norma Young. When she first spoke to me, she spoke softly because of something else going on in the room, but still her voice had that richness, that depth and the even precision of intelligence that made Norma's voice one to love—and one of the best in the business. I was immediately and forever hooked. Norma had it all: looks, intelligence, ambition, training, hard-earned knowledge, discipline and zealous compassion. And it was all in her voice. O pity the silence now she is gone.
I'm dwelling here on women's voices and their immense power to create and stir us in life and in the theatre because women's voices are on my mind during this preview week of Candy Barr's Last Dance. The brand new comedy at Theatre Three comes from the uniquely insightful and gleefully imaginative mind of Ronnie Claire Edwards who, herself, had a major acting career using her own great and diligently accomplished vocal gifts. I've been sitting in as producer on all the performances and listening to the voices of the four women in the cast, and (in what I hope is helpful) kibitzing some of the vocal choices through director René Moreno. The text of the new play is rich in the fabulously imagined idiom of mid-century Dallas strippers—three from impoverished backgrounds and one stripper whose childhood was more privileged.
The comic plot (woven from real Dallas events and real Dallas people) needs the full range of vocal prowess to express the put-downs, the discoveries, the funniness and the bizarreness of these characters in that time and place. "Colorful" is the right word for the women of Candy Barr's Last Dance. The events of the play and the vividly recalled events the women re-live contains a vocabulary of color that requires exceptional colors mingling in every speech.
So, it's not just big "important" plays like Medea that need impressive vocal acting—it's every damned play that belongs on stage. Voices vivify life and are the indispensible asset of plays. Great voices, talented voices, voices that are really WORKING are indeed a reason to come to theatre. Everybody cheer!
» Read our interview with Ronnie Claire Edwards about Candy Barr's Last Dance here
» Jac Alder is the Executive Director-Producer of Theatre Three in Dallas. Look for his monthly musings in Bit by Bit, which run on the second Sunday of the month. Here is a list of previous columns:
- September 2013: Theater's unsung philantrophists
- October 2013: Theater artists and their critics
- November 2013: Ch-Ch-Changes
- December 2013: What the Audience Knows
- January 2014: What's New?
- February 2014: Upgrading to the Modern World
- March 2014: Not to Worry
- April 2014: If Not for Shaw
- May 2014: Back to the Future
- June 2014: 500 Ways to Remember
- July 2014: They're Alive. ALIVE!