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A Question of Accents
Accents are an interesting thing. Everyone has one and no two are exactly the same. Regional varieties in the UK alone easily span into the hundreds, and the USA has almost infinite varieties across 50 states and a multitude of ethical and cultural backgrounds.
As accents are so individual they can often be the performer's best tool when creating and shaping a role. So much can be ascertained by an audience by listening to how someone is speaking, and as an actor it can be just as powerful to change your accent as it is to change your gait, posture or physicality.
This week I re-listened to one of my favourite worst accents on stage of all time - that of Ms Bernadette Peters in the original Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Song and Dance'. As a native New Yorker, Bernadette's natural accent is widely known and in many cases synonymous with the parts she has originated. In 'Song and Dance' she played a British woman (Emma) who travels to New York to 'find' herself in the big city, writing frequent letters to her mother updating her on her progress.
Now Ms Peters was by all accounts radiant in the role, originally played in the West End by Marti Webb. She received glowing notices and even took home the Tony Award for Best Actress, ahead of Debbie Allen, Cleo Laine and Chita Rivera (who beat Ms Peters to the title at the previous ceremony for 'The Rink').
Frank Rich in reviewing the show for the NYTimes said: "Miss Peters is more than talented: As an actress, singer, comedienne and all-around warming presence, she has no peer in the musical theater right now. In her half of Song & Dance, she works so hard you'd think she were pleading for mercy before a firing squad...", sentiments that were echoed in the NY Magazine "Miss Peters is an unimpeachable peach of a performer"...
Now I'm happy to hold my hands up and say I'm a fan of Ms Peters. I've marvelled at her live on numerous occasions, the last being her triumphant performance as Sally Durant in 'Follies'. I'd even go so far as to argue that her performance of Dot in 'Sunday in the Park with George' was one of the best performances on Broadway. As a native British speaker however I cannot get over her accent on the 'Song and Dance' cast recording. It always grates against Lloyd-Webber's melodies and acts as a hindrance to almost every lyric.
Perhaps this proves that the accent does only makes up part of the performance and shouldn't ultimately define it. It's always harder to judge the standard of performance from a cast recording alone, and in this context wherein the listener is imagining the action, more emphasis is maybe placed on the accent then would be on stage.
This is not a problem exclusive to the 80s - one of the most successful new Broadway musicals of the past few years, Kinky Boots, suffers from the exact same problem. Seconds into the cast recording your ears suffer the worst attempts at British accents imaginable - to the point where it begins to undermine and ruin the performance. Granted, Northampton may be a difficult accent to nail, but in a production that is otherwise extremely professional it is one element that certainly drags down the overall quality. Take a listen and prepare to cringe.
Watching 'The Last Ship' last year was particularly challenging, as a native of the North East I found my people assaulted by a wide range of attempts at the accent that seemed to stretch the wide reaches of the globe and never quite hit Wallsend. It perhaps didn't help the cast to have native Jimmy Nail on hand to provide the blueprint to which everyone else was trying to match - it only showed up holes throughout the rest of the cast. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was fellow Brits Rachel Tucker and Sally Ann Triplett who ended up being the most convincing.
Let's not forget this is the accent that forced US TV to subtitle poor Cheryl Cole, so perhaps American audiences aren't quite ready to absorb the distinctive north-east tone that can often prove difficult to those on the wrong side of the Tyne let alone those from the other side of the East River.
How much should this matter? Almost every production now lists 'dialect coaches' amongst the creative teams. How much time do they actually spend with the cast? In many cases it's certainly not enough, and within a huge production I can imagine it's something that generally forgets to happen, or if it does is not allowed sufficient time. Is the responsibility then with the actor to ensure they perfect their own accent along with other elements of their performance? The accents within a Tennessee Williams play for example are as important to the performance as the physicality of Maggie or the inner repression of Brick - so why aren't they treated with the same level of importance?
This is certainly not a one way street. With the vast majority of musicals set in America, British actors are required more often than not to provide a 'general American' accent for roles, and in many cases supply something more specific, be it a Southern drawl for Oklahoma! or a brash 'Nu Yoik' for shows such as 'Guys and Dolls'. Seeing the National tour of 'Anything Goes' last week highlighted again how desperate the situation can be. In what was on the whole a very strong production, the accents of some of the principal performers was truly tragic. One character (Moonface Martin) who is supposed to be an East Coast gangster had the worst American accent I've ever heard in a professional setting and was more Panto Dame than Public Enemy Number One. Whilst some may shake it off and say it's inconsequential - it ruined the character, and even in this screwball farce knocked away any sense of authenticity to the character.
Working as a director, I've always found the question of accents to be the most sensitive issue for actors. Notes about accents are always greeted with raised eyebrows and winces, as if it's one element of the performance that shouldn't be highlighted as needing work. Trawling through Spotlight submissions for roles I'm always taken at how many accents actors say they can deliver. I always want to test these in an audition to see if they've actually studied and achieved a believable accent or if they've been to the Joey Tribbiani school of accents and creative resume writing.
Perhaps I'm too sensitive to it. I have a 'regional accent' and one that has been commented on from the day I moved to London eight years ago. Accents and voices are such a powerful tool in the creation of a character and one of the first things you notice about a person you meet. Whether we like it or not, accents allow people to make an instance judgement about people's background, upbringing, schooling, education, intelligence and wealth - why then are they these so regularly ignored when developing characters onstage?
We as audiences should raise our standards in terms of what we expect. We shouldn't come away from a performance praising someone for a good attempt at a Brummie accent or whatever it may be - they are vital parts of a performance and should live up to the same standard as every other aspect.
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