There was a scene in the 2005 musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that I just adored. It took me a number of years to put my finger on why I enjoyed it so much. Once I did, though, I felt I discovered something that’s essential to acting. We’re writing for actors, of course, so it helps to know something of what they go through.
It’s a scene between Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz in which Butz’s sincerity is in question. At first glance, it would seem to be a plain love scene, in which a man and a woman grow closer, singing a pretty song. But, in the context of the whole show, the stakes are much greater. You see, Freddy is the pupil of a master con man, who takes him on very much in the manner that Higgins takes on Eliza in My Fair Lady. Also like My Fair Lady, there’s a delineation of class. The teacher is a high-brow con, impeccably tailored, which is part of what makes him successful. But Freddy has no class at all.
So, like Eliza at Ascot, there’s considerable tension built up over whether he can seduce an heiress. Can he converse with her without revealing he’s a fraud? And, to up the stakes even more, can he sing a love duet with her?
She starts the cleverly-titled Nothing Is Too Wonderful To Be True and it’s so rhapsodic, the audience falls in love with her. Not just a pretty girl with a pretty voice singing a pretty melody (music and lyrics by David Yazbek); there’s something about the way she chooses to celebrate the natural beauty all around her that makes her inherently lovable.
Then she turns to Freddy and puts him on the spot: what phenomena does he find Too Wonderful To Be True? Now the fun begins, as we watch Freddy struggle to think of wondrous things: Crazy Glue? The free toiletries hotels provide? Radio call-in giveaways? It’s a parallel to yelling “Move your blooming arse!” at Ascot and yet he’s just charming enough to put it across.
(couldn’t find Scott & Butz; these are high schoolers)
There’s a whole host of reasons to love this number, but the bit that I keep using in my teaching has to do with seeing Freddy in the process of coming up with all those Wonderful examples. As played by Norbert Leo Butz, who won a Tony for his performance, the struggle registers on his face, in his whole body. We watch him think, and there’s much fun in that, true tension.
And, to some extent, this is what should be going on in all non-diegetic musical theatre, and theatre in general. Characters, usually, haven’t memorized the speech they’re about to make, or the words they’re singing. So, too, the performer is involved with the thought process of coming up with what to say. When we see a dull portrayal by some singer-who’s-not-an-actor it’s often lacking in spontaneity because the lyric feels recited, not discovered. When we see actors in the process of giving birth to the lyrics they sing, songs are more believable, and the players more delightful.
Cast your show with folks who can do that and the results will be Too Wonderful, even better than free shampoo.