Lianie Kazan said songs are not just about speaking the lyrics – they’re about living them.
The visiting associate theater professor teaches students how to infuse songs with authentic emotion in her studio presentation class. Running Monday and Tuesday in Melnitz Hall, the class’s cabaret show will feature a series of solos, duets and group numbers from musicals such as “Les Miserables” and “Hairspray.” Aside from sharpening vocal delivery, Kazan said performers had to personally involve themselves in their songs.
“Most singers sing a lot of songs but they don’t tell you a story,” Kazan said. “I teach my students that it’s the story that counts.”
Sam Linkowski, one of Kazan’s third-year musical theater students, said performing in a cabaret differs from musicals. In the latter, actors can use character arcs to relay an emotional journey over the course of an hour or so. Meanwhile in a cabaret, performers have just have one song to convey a story, as individual songs in the show remain separate and don’t weave into a single narrative.
Students in the production picked their own solos and duets for the most part, with a few suggestions from Kazan. In order to know if a song is right for a student, she has to hear them sing and see if they will be able to communicate the meaning of the song to an audience through emotional demeanor. Because students have to audition to be in her class, she said she already had a sense of their personalities and what types of songs would suit them.
To perform well, Linkowski relived a past event in his own life that connects to the experiences of his character. He said remembering past events makes a performance rich with genuine emotions that help to better communicate the character’s story.
“I myself as a performer love when I see a performance,” Linkowski said. “I am putting myself in their shoes understanding their emotions as I see my emotions.”
Linkowski will perform “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables” as a solo and “Suddenly Seymour” from “Little Shop of Horrors” as a duet, among other songs. Because performers are pulling from their own meaning of the song and not relying on the context within the musical, Linkowski said they create a more organic narrative.
“Bring Him Home,” for example, is a prayer to God after the loss of a loved one, he said. Linkowski experienced his own loss when his brother passed away and considers himself to be spiritual – he pulls from this own background to talk to God in the song.
“Suddenly Seymour,” on the other hand, follows a girl who is has been met with a series of unfortunate events and is inspired by a man to pick herself up and try again. Linkowski will perform this song with his friend Romy Bavli, a third-year theater acting student. They are using emotions from different times in their lives, Linkowski said, but as long as they are thinking of a specific moment, they will be able to communicate the same feeling.
Bavli said “Suddenly Seymour” was an easy song for them to perform because the song revolves around friendship and genuine concern for the other person. The two are able to draw from their own friendship while onstage, Balvli said.
Bavli, who was Kazan’s assistant for the cabaret, will perform “I Can Hear the Bells” from “Hairspray” and “See I Am Smiling” from “The Last Five Years” in addition to her duet with Linkowski. Bavli said the latter is a heavy song about feeling put down by one’s partner. Having faced this struggle in one of her own relationships, Bavli said it was easy to empathize with the character, though she has to stop herself from fully reliving the moment while onstage.
“It’s easy for me to let go but you have to hold yourself back a tiny bit and know that you are still performing. You can’t be a wailing blubbering mess,” Bavli said. “It’s an in between as a performer.”
Fernando Castro, a third-year musical theater student, said rehearsing his songs has been emotional for him. As a performer he has to be able to control his feelings and simply use the personal connection as a tool for acting.
Castro will perform “I’ll Try” from “Peter Pan 2: Return to Neverland” and “Guido Song” from “Nine.” The former follows Wendy’s daughter trying to believe in fairies for her mother’s sake. Castro said he was able to connect with Wendy’s daughter as he, too, lost his faith in people after extended family members betrayed his close ones. For him, it’s liberating to have audience members identify with themes he has also related to.
Linkowski said people tell stories through acting to make people feel like they aren’t alone in their experiences. Because the songs they are performing are well known, Linkowski said people will notice when performers are able to bring their own emotions to these songs.
“If you bring something that is specific to you it will be specific to an audience member and you can inspire them to do something about their own life, it is not entertainment,” Linkowski said.