I know that anyone who only knows Dame Judi Dench for her Shakespeare roles and as ‘M’ in James Bond may think this is a crazy statement. For me, it is because of her Shakespeare background that she understands text and how to tell a story, be it Elizabethan verse or song. This video of Dench singing ‘Send in the Clowns’ from A Little Night Music is a masterclass in how to sell a song even when you do not class yourself as a singer, and it blows me away every time. I think a myth prevails that for musical theatre performers to be good they must be able to belt their face off. Granted no one wants three hours being forced to listen to a tone-deaf singer –we have X Factor auditions for that. However, as for any actor, a musical theatre performer’s job is to tell the story through a combination of dialogue, song and dance and this is what Dench achieves.
Some may watch that video and believe that it is as far as Dench’s foray into musical theatre goes, but she was in fact the original Sally Bowles when Cabaret first transferred to London in 1968. The director Harold Prince had been adamant on hiring someone who wasn’t an amazing singer (he turned down Liza Minnelli for the role which she then made iconic in the film version). Prince believed that if Sally was a good singer then she wouldn’t need to be performing in Berlin during the rise of fascism so he hired Judi Dench for the West End. The great Dame was also the original Grizabella in Cats before an achilles injury forced her out the show; her part was then expanded (to include ‘Memory’) and given to Elaine Paige. In 2006 I had the pleasure of seeing her in The Merry Wives of Windsor: The Musical at the RSC and was again blown away by her, proving that she could do comedy and drama with her limited singing voice.
I have friends who also agree to how amazing Judi Dench is but it was interesting reading through the comments on that video of ‘Send in the Clowns’. Most reviews were in praise of her performance but there were a few interesting comments; one individual claims that “She probably couldn’t get away with it if she wasn’t Judy Dench”. I find this an interesting point but I fail to agree, as in this day and age of social media and internet communication audiences are quick to attack anything they might dislike whether you are a big name or not. Another commenter declared that “as much as I love Judi Dench, she can’t sing to save her life, I was bored beyond words with this lacklustre performance, forget the emotions; the notes are flat and there’s no softness period!” This is of course proof that different people like different things in their theatre, but nothing will ever stop me loving Judi Dench and her ability to draw an audience in with her story-telling.
Photo by Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker under a Creative Commons Licence.