05/22/2012 09:01 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Project: Song Blog #2: Here a Captive Heart

Project: Song Blog is a YouTube series with established Broadway actors singing brand new musical theatre songs composed by myself and other up-and-coming writers. Go here to find out more about the project.

How high -- and how low -- can YOU sing?! This is a really important question I always ask the singers I'm writing for. EVERYONE has a different vocal range, and the same song can sound completely different in different performers' voices.

Traditionally, principal roles in musicals were broken down by four voice types. For example, Maria in The Sound of Music is a soprano (think Julie Andrews), Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) in Cabaret is an alto, Che in Evita (Mandy Patinkin or Ricky Martin) is a tenor, and Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) in Guys and Dolls is a baritone. However the late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen many new musicals and new roles emerge where these vocal types are not so strictly adhered to. Hearing an alto "belt" really high can be incredibly exciting -- think Elphaba (Idina Menzel) in Wicked -- but she belts much higher (and has a completely different sound) than Liza Minella does. And because of roles like this (not to mention the influence of pop music singers like Kelly Clarkson and Christina Aguilera), young aspiring musical theatre singers are having to learn how to expand their ranges to meet these demands.

With all that in mind, there is still that "sweet spot" in a singers voice where, as a composer, you want your song to sit. It is where they will be able to hit their highest, strongest note (the "money note") and thrill the audience, and still not have their lower notes compromised. And, of course, the body of the song has to sound good too! So when I'm writing a song for a specific performer, I need to have all that information so I don't write outside of a singer's range.

Alysha Umphress, for whom I wrote "Here A Captive Heart," has an incredibly versatile voice and vocal range (not to mention a gorgeous timbre). In the Broadway production of American Idiot she had a show-stopping moment ("Too Much Too Soon") playing the best friend of Heather, the pregnant girl, where she stood center stage and riffed her head off, showcasing her vocal prowess, as Heather packed her bags and left her couch-potato boyfriend behind! Now, as you watch this Song Blog, take note around 2:24. The high note Alysha sings on the word "busted" is close to the top of her "belting" or "chest voice" range, and therefore she's able to convey an amazing emotional intensity on that note. Then she riffs down to the lower end of her range for the end of the song, allowing her to capture sorrow and emptiness on the words "no more." So my final decision of what key to write this song in was based on where Alysha would sound best singing those two phrases - and for those who are curious, it's in A minor! Click here to see what MY vocal range would be on the same two words (keep in mind I'm a composer, NOT a singer!), and you can also submit a video of yourself doing the same!

Please enjoy Alysha Umphress singing "Here A Captive Heart", with music by Carmel Dean and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein (lyricist for the Broadway Musical "Little Women").