Movie stars break the song barrier

Kate Hudson sang songs from “Annie” around the house as a kid, but she never had a professional singing job until she auditioned for the movie “Nine.” She walked in and started a song from the show, “A Call From the Vatican.” After her first line, a soaring “Guiiiidoooh,” the director, Rob Marshall, stopped her.

“Does anybody know you can sing?” he said.

Hudson blushed. “I don’t think so,” she replied.

Hudson, who landed the role of Stephanie, is one of many stars to reveal a secret singing talent, as movie musicals have become more popular in recent years. “Nine” is a clown car of bold-faced names -- Hudson, Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren and Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role of the film director, Guido Contini.

This month also saw the opening of “Crazy Heart,” in which Jeff Bridges plays an over-the-hill country singer whose protégé is a Nashville superstar played by Colin Farrell. These days, dubbing a performer’s singing voice is not as acceptable as it was in the days when Marni Nixon was the singing voice of Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady” and Natalie Wood in “West Side Story.”

So how do so many actors just happen to be able to carry a tune?

A remarkable number of them have caught this current wave of movie musicals, starting with “Chicago” and followed by “Hairspray,” “Enchanted,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Mamma Mia!” These days, actors sing on albums (Scarlett Johansson), in bands (Russell Crowe), onstage (Jessica Biel), in awards shows (Hugh Jackman) and on “Saturday Night Live” (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Jim Carrey and Jake Gyllenhaal are attached to a remake of “Damn Yankees.” Tom Cruise too has said he’d like to do a musical.

“The only one who told me at a party he basically can’t sing at all is Brad Pitt,” says Neil Meron, a prolific producer of musicals. “He said, ‘Never come to me. I can’t sing a note.’ ”

Practice? Skill? Genetics?

How to explain this explosion of latent musical talent? Making melodious notes come out of your mouth does not appear to have any connection to pretending to be someone you’re not. Or does it?

The connection could begin in childhood, when actors are more likely than others to encounter music. Many get their start in community or high school musicals, and some come from artistic households.

Bridges’ family sang “Guys and Dolls” songs at the dinner table. His father, Lloyd Bridges, played the lead in “Man of La Mancha” and came close to starring in “The Music Man.” “I can remember Meredith Willson singing the score of ‘Music Man’ before it came out, and coming up to me as a little kid and slapping me on the knee and saying, ‘You got trouble, right here in River City,’ ” Bridges recalls.

Hudson’s father, Bill Hudson, was a member of the Hudson Brothers musical group (her mom, Goldie Hawn, started as a go-go dancer), while Kate participated in musical theater as a kid and was married to Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes. “I feel like I’ve been around music a long time,” she says. “I never had the opportunity to do it with acting. It just wasn’t the path I went down.”

Another theory is that singing and acting require similar tasks, such as expert manipulation of vocal chords. “Really good actors have really good ears,” says Eric Vetro, Cruz’s vocal coach on “Nine.” “They have good ears to mimic dialects and they have a good ear for different voices for their characters.”

It still takes practice to turn those skills into smooth solos. Bridges, an amateur singer-songwriter, was already halfway there, says his “Crazy Heart” vocal coach, Roger Love. Before he coached Joaquin Phoenix to play Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” Love said, “I can’t guarantee that he sang ‘Happy Birthday’ at parties.”

Cruz studied ballet for years but had never sung on screen before “Nine.” Vetro coached her on her audition and then later in rehearsals, having her practice by singing songs like "(I Like to Be in) America” from “West Side Story.” “I wanted to stretch her range as much as possible,” Vetro says. “The song she sings in ‘Nine’ has a really wide range -- it goes up to a really high note, but most of the song she’s belting it out in a really low voice. One day she went to the high note and it was really good and we both kind of burst out laughing at the same time.”

But technical skill is not as important as it seems. “The musical actor is not expected to be a recording artist,” Meron says. “They’re supposed to be able to tell a story with a song. It’s a different skill set.”

The idea that expert characterization and pure charisma can translate into a great musical performance -- regardless of technique -- makes the casting of Day-Lewis, a musical neophyte, so tantalizing. “He’s one of those actors who even if he couldn’t sing, he could sing,” says “Nine” producer Marc Platt. “It just so happens he can sing.”

At first, Marshall says, “he sang in a beautiful, very small, lovely, light sound and it was such a pretty voice, but I knew that the challenge was going to be to bring his vocal range as an actor to his vocal range as a singer.”

Skeptics will say that movie stars -- who probably lucked into that status in the first place -- are no better at singing than anyone else. Not all of them succeed at it: One critic called Pierce Brosnan’s warbling in “Mamma Mia!” “the best imitation I’ve heard of a water buffalo.” Clint Eastwood has said of his musical performance in “Paint Your Wagon,” “I vowed I’d never do that again.”

In movies, actors have to make only one good recording of a song, and pitch correction technology, which can automatically tweak a singer’s voice so that it’s more in key, is widespread, Love says, but he adds, “You still have to get close to the note if you want it to sound real.”

The scholars weigh in

It might be that singing just isn’t that hard to learn. Michael Dean, the chair of vocal studies in the UCLA department of music, says that only 5% of people cannot improve their voices, to match the 5% who are confident choir stars. “Everybody else in the middle can sing, but they feel that they’re terrible at it and that feeling makes them so vulnerable and makes them so frightened to sing that when they sing, of course, they sound terrible,” he says. Toddlers don’t mind shouting “The Hokey Pokey” from the roof, but inhibitions come with adolescence.

Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University and the author of “This Is Your Brain on Music,” says that among early humans, singing was typically done as a group, in primitive rituals. “It’s only in the last 500 years in the West, since the building of concerts halls, that we’ve seen a difference between a class of performers and the rest of us,” he says.

So everyone loves to sing, and actors just happen to have the opportunity to get paid to do so. Although Day-Lewis and Kidman -- who sang in “Moulin Rouge!” -- were offered their roles in “Nine” outright, Hudson and Cruz joined a stampede of at least 30 major actresses rushing to audition, something they would never agree to do on a nonmusical. (On some musicals, stars come in for “work sessions,” which are more informal.)

Besides fulfilling a desire to show the show world what you’ve only performed in the shower, musicals offer collateral benefits. Although great female roles are scarce in Hollywood, musicals give juicy parts to the divas. In addition, “Nine” required six weeks of vocal and dance rehearsals and another two weeks of recording, allowing extra time to deepen the characters. “It was like we were all in camp together,” Platt says. “You don’t really get that kind of experience often on a film.”

On movie sets, like in stone-age caves, singing brings people together. Bridges says he always brings his guitar and has sung “Guys and Dolls” with everyone from Francis Ford Coppola on “Tucker” to Ewan McGregor on “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” On “Against All Odds,” he says, director Taylor Hackford had the cast harmonizing to the Beatles.

“That’s basically what you’re doing when you’re acting -- you’re harmonizing,” Bridges says. “Singing and acting is all basically the same thing.”