When I teach, I’ve noticed that people will sometimes snicker when I use the term “legit musical theatre.” It’s not hard to understand why. Singers who haven’t heard the term usually think one of two things: that I’m making a distinction between real musical theatre and fake musical theatre; or (for students who know me a little better and don’t think I’d make such a pointless distinction) that I’m making fun of the idea that there’s some loftier type of musical theatre. It’s because of this reaction that I think it’s probably time we scrap the term altogether, but we’ll get to that later. For now, I’ll start by defining what legit musical theatre is.
More Classical Sounding (With a Caveat)
The primary defining feature of legit musical theatre singing is that it’s a more classical sound (distinguishing it from a belt or any other sound that doesn’t verge on classical). Musical theatre developed in part from the operatic tradition (and in part from “lower” art forms, like Vaudeville), and from this tradition, came the idea of “legit” singing versus everything else. When it comes to female characters, it was often reserved for the ingenue love interest (like Laurey in Oklahoma), while the “looser” female character belted. Check out Laurey and her friends in “Out of My Dreams.”
Now check out Annie, who “cain’t say no” to men. The version I’m showing is actually a fairly dialed-back version of how the song is sometimes sung, but even in this London cast, the character is much more conversational and less classical sounding.
Now, despite this classical bent, contemporary versions of legit songs are often sung differently than they were back when the song was written. Listen to Julie Andrew singing “In My Own Little Corner” in the first video from 1957 and Laura Osnes singing it in 2013. The difference may be subtle if you aren’t used to listening to musical theatre, but if you listen carefully, you’ll hear that Laura Osnes’s poppier elements, even straight-up belting at around 2.50.
In general, though, there’s still a big difference between Laura Osnes’s “In My Own Little Corner” and, say, Idina Menzel’s “Defying Gravity.”
Mostly Applies to Older Musicals
This has a lot of caveats too, but usually when we’re thinking about legit singing, we tend to be thinking about musicals from the days of Rogers and Hammerstein. Contemporary Broadway is not what typically springs to mind. However, there are some notable exceptions. Light in the Piazza, for example, has a legit feel that sometimes borders on operatic. Check out “The Beauty Is.”
Why It’s Probably Time to Find a New Term
When you hear the term legit, it’s hard not to automatically deem everything else illegitimate. While the idea that a non-classical sound is somehow less legitimate than a more classical one may have been in the ether at some point, it’s time for that stigma to be on its way. Many universities, and even vocal organizations like NATS still overly value a classical sound, but that doesn’t mean they’re right or that there’s anything more “legitimate” about it. That said, legit is still the term that’s out there, so it’s important to know what it’s referring to!
Molly is the founder of Molly’s Music. She is a dedicated singer and pianist whose musical journey spans 2.5 decades, with stops along the way to sing for the pope, pass Certificate of Merit at the highest level, study with Gwen Verdon and Ben Vereen, and record an original album.