The Female Voice in American Musical Theatre (1940-1955): Mary Martin and the Development of Integrated Vocal Style

by Katrina Margaret Hunt

Institution: Australian National University
Year: 2016
Keywords: American Musical Theatre; Mary Martin; vocal styles; spectral analysis; phonomusicology; belt voice; legit voice; operettic voice
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2109707
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/1885/101933


This study examines the changing manner of female vocalisation in the American Musical (1940-1955) through the development of the integrated singing techniques of Mary Martin, an icon of American Musical Theatre. It suggests that the vocal style that she exemplified changed from a variety of idiosyncratic vocal styles linked to particular role-types to a more flexible, integrated style better able to adapt to a range of roles required by the rapidly changing demands of the entertainment industry. Martin is situated within the historical trajectory of cultural and technological change, and the isolation of moments along that trajectory brings into focus her centrality within those changes and the intentionality of the development of her vocal style. Three central genres of early twentieth century musical theatre (operetta, the musical play and the revue) are considered, along with the female performers and vocal styles that underpinned those genres. They are situated in an historical context of rapidly developing recording technology and the expanding communications industry. The intrinsic characteristics of three dominant voice types are analysed through the lens of three significant performers active between the First and Second World Wars: Edith Day, Helen Morgan and Ethel Merman. The inability of these performers to acquiesce to the changing demands of the entertainment industry during the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century are identified. Three quantifiable measures of the voice - tessitura, vibrato and spectral analysis - are used to isolate Martin’s classical, legitimate and belt phonations, and to illustrate the emergence of her distinctive croon style through her early recordings on stage, screen and the recording studio. A period of intense vocal development is revealed in Martin’s little known radio performances on the NBC network in 1942. This was a time in which she began to consolidate different vocal techniques into a single vocal style, and to show her to manipulate the perception of public, personal and private distance through vocal timbre. An examination of Martin’s stage success in One Touch of Venus reveals both her integration of vocal techniques in the characterization of a single role, and the transferal of her techniques of intimate audience interaction to the live stage. Also shown is the establishment of Martin as a role model in the eyes of the media and the general public. The penultimate chapter of this dissertation portrays a performer unafraid of breaking new ground, as Martin changes her stage persona in a national tour of the Merman vehicle Annie Get Your Gun, and subsequently takes her place in musical theatre history as Nellie Forbush in the Pulitzer Prize winning South Pacific. The study concludes with an examination of Martin’s…