Why are so many accents on stage so awful? They aren’t in the movies.
I first noticed this problem as a child on a family trip to London, where my parents for unfathomable reasons brought us to a production on the West End of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. The British cast was affecting a flat American accent broadly and badly enough to irritate the least discerning seven-year-old (me).
As if for equal time, the very British musical Matilda opened on Broadway in April with a largely American cast to what was the most critical praise of any Broadway show of the season. The one negative aspect of the production that popped up, directly or indirectly, in even the most over-the-top raves was the accents.
Ben Brantley in the New York Times made it a parenthetical remark: “(One caveat: Though the child performers have mastered their English accents nicely, they need to strengthen their diction, the better to put across Mr. Minchin’s tasty lyrics.)”
(My own parenthetical remark: How can one say that you’ve “mastered” an accent if the audience can’t understand what you’re saying?)
Richard Zoglin in Time (praising Matilda as a “wondrous new musical" ) was more direct: “(T)he combination of shrill child voices, British accents and heavy miking causes many of the lyrics to get muddled, at least to this American ear.”
My own annoyed take on the accents Matilda evoked the villain of the musical: “There is something a touch Miss Trunchbullish in hiring almost all American actors and forcing them to put on British accents, which wind up being difficult for the audience to decipher.”
At least nobody said the accents in Matilda sounded fake.
But that is what I found so grating about a whole spate of shows featuring characters from New York, and especially from Brooklyn. I grew up in Manhattan, and nearly all my relatives are from Brooklyn, and yet nobody I know or knew sounds anything close to the characters as performed in the latest (short-lived) production of Brighton Beach Memoirs, or (long-running) Newsies…or Annie…or Golden Boy…or A View From The Bridge. The accents sounded to me so uniformly exaggerated…so fake, and foreign...that I started questioning my own judgment: how could they ALL get it wrong? I wondered whether, since all these Broadway shows take place in the New York of at least half a century ago, maybe accents have changed.
But if I was the only person I know who seemed to find Scarlett Johansson terrific in A View From The Bridge in everything EXCEPT her accent, her next foray on Broadway, Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, brought attacks because of her accent. The most vivid was probably from Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal, who said that Johansson “is no good at all this time around as Maggie, speaking her lines in a half-intelligible pseudo-Southern accent that suggests a concerto for ice pick and eardrums.” He wasn’t picking on Johansson; he also included Ciaran Hinds, who played Big Daddy, in “the weird-accent department,” calling his “Irish blowhard” accent “as inexplicable as it is inappropriate.” (The rest of the cast, Roma Torre of New York 1 said, had Southern accents that “come and go.”)
Yet, in all the movies I’ve seen of Scarlett Johansson—and I’ve been a fan of her work since Girl With A Pearl Earring when she played a Dutch peasant—I never noticed a wayward accent.
Sometimes, the accents on stage don’t necessarily sound fake or grating; they just seem odd or unnecessary choices. In The Glass Menagerie, Zachary Quinto has donned the peculiar cadences of the playwright Tennessee Williams. Shuler Hensley affects a Southern American accent as Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, a production co-starring the British Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, in a play that Beckett originally wrote in French.
In all of 2013, there were only three put-on accents that, in my hearing, enhanced the performances, rather than detracting from them or making no difference: Patrick Page’s oozing Southern prosecutor in A Time To Kill, Debra Jo Rupp’s German-born sex therapist in Becoming Dr. Ruth, and Holland Taylor as the late witty, down-home Texas Governor Ann Richards in Ann.
Why were these accents able to stand out?
I decided to find out from Jessica Drake, who was Holland Taylor’s dialect coach.
Drake grew up in a family steeped in theater—her mother Sylvie Drake was the long-time theater critic for the Los Angeles times; her father Ken Drake a classical actor on stage and a character actor on TV; her brother is the producing director of the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. Drake herself attended Juilliard for drama, with the intention of becoming an actress in a Shakespearean repertory company. (“Nobody told me they only paid $160 a week.”) It was only her incompetence as a waitress—“I got fired one summer from every restaurant from 62nd to 81st Street”—that led to her side job of dialect coaching for her fellow actors, which eventually became her career.
Nowadays, however, she plies her trade almost entirely with screen actors. She taught Russell Crowe how to shed his Australian accent for L.A. Confidential, Johnny Depp how to speak Castilian Spanish, Gary Sinise how to sound like Harry Truman. She’s coached Tom Hanks in half a dozen of his films, from the Alabama drawl in Forrest Gump to Walt Disney’s Midwestern twang in Saving Mr. Banks. It was Hanks who recommended Drake to Holland Taylor.
“She is a great teacher,” Taylor says.
Drake’s task was to teach what was in effect a foreign accent to Taylor, who grew up near Philadelphia, and “has a very elevated style of American speech,” akin to Katherine Hepburn’s. Ann Richards’ style of speaking was distinctive—“not just any Texas accent; not just any Waco accent,” but a uniquely Ann Richards’s accent, “with all her little peccadilloes.” The way she pronounced the word “was,” for example, as “wahz,” while the normal West Texan accent would be “wuhz.” But it’s not just the accent; if you’re doing a specific individual, Drake says, you also have to nail her voice, her tics.
Drake has built a library of thousands of dialect samples (“I go out constantly and record people”); for this specific real-life character, she and Taylor listened to tapes of Richards’ speeches and to personal recordings that Taylor had gathered. Drake wrote out the entire script in Ann-speak using what Drake calls “lay phonetics,” since there is an official International Phonetic Alphabet, but “most clients don’t know it.” For “I’m going to the store,” Drake wrote “Ahm gawn da the stor.” The coach and the actress worked together for a total of some 50 hours spread out over two years, “an enormous amount of time,” Drake says. “I have not had anything like that amount of time on other plays I have done.”
They could do this because Taylor was the writer of the show and, for much of that time, its producer as well. Most cast members in a play work with a dialect coach only during the four weeks of rehearsal period…if at all. If an accent seems off, Drake suggests, “It’s usually because the production hasn’t given it enough time—i.e. money—or doesn’t care.”
She adds, “I’m not blaming actors. They’re just not often given the time it takes to prepare”—to “retrain” the voice. “If you’re a ballerina, and you decide you want to be a tap-dancer, you have to retrain the muscles. It’s all dancing, but you have to use the muscles differently.”
But why, I ask, do accents on stage seem so much worse than the accents in films?
“Very good question. The answer probably lies in the difference in the process,” says Drake. “In film there may be prep, a coach on set during the shoot and then another chance to tweak an accent in post production sound—ADR (I think that stands for automated dialogue replacement; it used to be called looping.) That gives you a lot of opportunity to control the outcome. The stage just doesn't have that. On stage there are no nets. There’s nothing you can do for an actor in the theater once that curtain goes up.”