Getting stars to sing . . .

The stars of Chicago could all sing, more or less, writes MICHAEL POSNER, but a Canadian vocal coach gave them the confidence to commit their chops to film


If Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones and/or Renée Zellweger win an Academy Award for their performance in the hit movie version of the musical Chicago, don’t be surprised if you hear the name Elaine Overholt saluted in the thank-you speeches.

Overholt spent three months on the set in Toronto as the film’s vocal coach and, though she would never say it, it’s probably fair to suggest that Chicago would not be the same without her contribution.

Of course, Gere, Zeta-Jones and Zellweger could all sing, more or less, before they met Overholt. But they had not sung professionally in many years, nor had they sung with the sort of brash and reckless abandon required for the musical. As much as anything, it was Overholt’s assignment to give them the confidence needed to let it all hang out, at least vocally.

The results are there to behold in glorious celluloid. The three stars have earned nearly unanimous raves for their work, with particular attention paid to their singing. Just in case, Overholt, a fortysomething Woodstock, Ont., native now living in Toronto, has accumulated an impressive little dossier of testimonials to buttress the résumé.

Gere said she was “terrific — patient, passionate and inspired,” using an approach “that could help anyone connect or reconnect with their true voice.”

Producer Joel Moss called her “a magician,” delivering results “beyond all expectation. The performers were not only technically prepared to sing their numbers, but oozed with the kind of confidence that is only evident when one feels safe and assured. Elaine was their ever-present safety net.”

And music director Paul Bogaev (Aida, Sunset Boulevard), who has worked with vocal trainers all over the world, said Overholt was “the only one who encompasses all of the styles from opera to rock successfully. She especially understands the engaging of the legs, the gut and the relaxation of the neck and jaw to completely release the emotional power of the voice.”

Indeed, although she has never coached him, a photo of Mandy Patinkin hangs on the wall of Overholt’s home studio. It’s a shot of him in mid-song, fist clenched, leaning forward. You can see the intensity, the absolute emotional commitment to the song.

“The reason I have that is to show my students,” Overholt explained in a recent interview. “He acts the song. He’s 100-per-cent committed to every word, syllable and note. And he’s projecting forward energy — he’s putting himself out to the audience.”

Spend a few minutes in Overholt’s upbeat company and you’re likely to hear her expand on her philosophy of singing. It’s an approach she’s developed over more than 20 years of performing — in bands, as a solo act, as a studio backup singer, in dozens of radio and TV commercials, as a voice coach and as a producer (she’s done several of Sharon, Lois and Bram’s live concerts, including a two-week run on Broadway).

There is, she will tell you, no effective singing without “grounding,” a sense of physical connection to the delivery, beginning with the quad muscles in the legs and, of course, the stomach.

“It’s something I learned in my classical training [at the University of Western Ontario],” she recalls. “That’s where the forward energy comes from, the quads. That’s what enables you to commit to the note. I tell my students to sing every song as if it’s the first time you’re singing it. You know what Colm Wilkinson says?” A photo of the former star of Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera also hangs on her wall. ” ‘I sing every song as if its the last time I’ll get to sing it.’ ”

Performing a song, she says, is like reading an actor’s monologue: You take the lyric and find the character and give it a reading. “You have to go to a place in your own mind that is meaningful to you. Even a crooner like Frank Sinatra, though nowhere near as intense as a Mandy Patinkin, is telling a story. And he tells it so well. And he was very connected to who he was: ‘This is who I am, baby — take it or leave it.’ It’s the authentic voice.”

In fact, some of Overholt’s favourite singers are not great technicians. Bette Midler, for example. “She’s not a great singer technically, but God, I love it. There’s raw power and there’s trust. I use the word trust a lot. You have to trust who you are. You’re fine just the way you are, I say. Trust that. My objective is to make the singer make a whole bunch of discoveries about themselves. The whole power is in who they are.”

And to those who have fabulous basic equipment, she may say: “You’ve found your outer voice, but you haven’t yet found your inner voice.”

For such advice — and the various vocal exercises that accompany it — Overholt is much in demand as a teacher. Her students, ranging in age from 10 to late 20s and 30s (and one senior citizen), are paying as much as $100 an hour for her time. And such is her reputation that, on a regular basis, A&R recording executives drop by to see who she might be recommending.

“They know that I get them at an early stage. I had a guy in here last week, 20 years old, incredibly developed. He’s written 150 songs. Plays piano. Sings like a dream. Poignant lyrics. He had an inner voice I’d never heard before. A huge heart. A record company would love that package.”

Many new students arrive for lessons expecting simply to sing. But Overholt devotes the first half of most sessions to relaxation exercises designed to loosen the jaw, find the grounding and bringing the voice forward. “Energy has to keep flowing. Choral directors at schools get their choirs to stand very still. No, no, no, no. Energy has to move.”

Her Chicago gig came out of the blue. Music director Bogaev called her to say the film needed a vocal coach — was she interested? How soon can we get together, she asked. How about tonight?, he said. She gave him a lesson that evening, to demonstrate her approach; Bogaev hired her on the spot. She started the next morning, working with the three principals, as well as Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Christine Baranski and the chorus.

“Richard Gere’s pipes were just rusty,” she says. “He hadn’t sung in 30 years. I could see the trepidation in his eyes. He couldn’t look in the mirror, which I use so they can see if they’re holding tension in the jaw or neck.”

Then, on his first day in the recording studio, Gere wowed the producers with his opening number.

“Richard, that was fantastic,” said Rick Wake, who has produced Celine Dion.

“I owe everything I am to Elaine,” Gere declared. “I live to sing for Elaine.”

Renée Zellweger had “the smallest voice, but it was the most magical,” says Overholt. “What she didn’t do, which made it more powerful, was try to be something she’s not.

“But she was terrified. For the first 10 minutes it was, ‘I have to go the bathroom. I have to get more water.’ She would do anything but sing.

“And I would literally put my arm around her back and ease her into it. She couldn’t look in the mirror for the first three weeks. Catherine? Right up there at the mirror. ‘Okay, what am I doing wrong?’ But don’t misunderstand. It’s not as if I’m this wizard.”

Overholt came to music early, studying classical piano, practising four hours a day. By age 11, she was playing organ in the local Pentecostal church. At age 14, they made her the choir director. In her final year of college, she switched her major to voice. “I wasn’t going to be a concert pianist anyway.”

After a period of postgraduate study in Europe, she decided to explore other genres beyond classical.

“I enjoyed that other sound, and I wanted to go beyond the limits imposed by classical.”

Personally, Overholt has known her share of adversity. Her marriage ended in divorce about 10 years ago, and she has sole custody of one daughter, now 15. Three years ago, while performing abroad for Canadian armed forces, she arrived in Egypt to learn that her house had burned down, her dog had been hospitalized and her bird was dead.

“But I’m very philosophical about those things. The little things drive me crazy. The big things? Oh, so I lost everything. I’ll start anew.”

It’s a positivist outlook that she tries to impart to her students. Anyone, she believes, can sing. “Very few people are tone deaf. But there’s a fear factor, a lack of confidence. But everyone can sing and everyone should sing. It’s so good for the soul.”

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