Fact-Checking Idina Menzel: Do Singers Only Need to Hit 75 Percent of Notes?

Fact-Checking Idina Menzel: Do Singers Only Need to Hit 75 Percent of Notes?

Screlt (verb): the act of simultaneously screaming and belting a song or note. Often unintentional, typically the result of attempting to belt a note that is out of the performer's range. 

If you were a doctor, how many patients would you have to diagnose correctly to consider yourself successful? Or if you were a general contractor, what percentage of houses that don't fall down would make you one of the best general contractors in the country?

Seventy-five percent is the success rate assigned by Tony-winning actress Idina Menzel to her own profession. She recently sang (or, really, screlted) an unpleasant note at the end of "Let It Go" when she sang the Frozen anthem in Times Square for New Year's Eve. She later tweeted that of the notes she has to hit, "If I'm hitting 75 percent of them, I'm succeeding."

Being called the wrong name by John Travolta at the Oscars was a blessing in disguise for Menzel, best known to most of the world for playing Princess Elsa in Frozen and singing "Let It Go." All the attention on "Adele Dazeem" worked out well for the actress, who’s currently finishing up the last few months of the Broadway musical If/Then, a show that received middling reviews from critics but performs decently at the box office, thanks to Menzel's name recognition. 

"Adele Dazeem" also served as a distraction from another flub that happened, moments later: Menzel didn't quite hit the climactic note, and the effect was a noise that can only be described as screlting:

It wasn't great, but it was understandable — Menzel was visibly nervous throughout the performance. Who wouldn't be? "Let It Go" was already a successful song, if not the behemoth it is today, and singing at the Oscars is a big deal, even for an actress who's won prestigious awards and done hundreds of live performances. Not to mention that that high note is a monster — belting an E flat, even under optimal conditions (say, in a recording studio with the opportunity to do multiple takes), is no easy feat.

Menzel has been one of Broadway's go-to belters for years, since she made her debut in Rent in 1996. That was followed by Aida and Andrew Lippa's version of The Wild Party, both of which involved lots of belting from Menzel. Those shows were followed by the role that won her a Tony: Elphaba in Wicked, in which she sang "Defying Gravity," the proto-"Let It Go."

That performance was 10 years ago, and she was struggling to belt the D flat at the end of the song in a live performance then.

Fast-forward to her performance for the 2014 New Year's Eve celebrations, when she really screlted the end of "Let It Go," a moment that resulted in criticism and remixes galore, including the looped version below.

Menzel responded to the haters with her "75 percent" tweet:

Idina Menzel performing "Let it Go" on New Years Eve
Idina Menzel performing "Let it Go" on New Years Eve
Screengrab via YouTube

She's coming from a good place with that quote, and the second half of it is certainly relevant to her New Year's performance (or really any performance of the song in the original key). But the first half has bothered many in the musical theater community.

"That's a terrible thing to say," says Calvin Remsberg, a Los Angeles director who helmed 2013's production of bare at the Hayworth. "What she should have said was, 'It was 5 degrees out there, and I've got eight shows a week, and I did the best I could.'" 

Ben Bram, a Grammy-nominated music director and arranger in Los Angeles who works with a cappella troupe Pentatonix and other groups, agrees: "I think she used this advice inappropriately to excuse her own poor performance. The bottom line is, Idina has bad vocal technique and has for years."

To Ovation-winning composer and music director Parmer Fuller, it depends on which notes you're talking about. "Most of the time, the pitch can be fudged in a song," he says. "Missing a climactic high note is something else, and if she missed 25 percent of her high notes, that would be disastrous."

Menzel isn't without her supporters. One Broadway producer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told us, "The fact is that she's an extremely talented, Tony-winning actress, and I daresay that in If/Then — as well as Rent, Wicked and Aida before that — she gives a performance where the percentage of notes hit correctly is closer to 99 to 100 percent, night after night, eight shows a week, week in and week out. In my opinion, the '75 percent' was just an exaggeration for effect."

Idina Menzel at the OscarsEXPAND
Idina Menzel at the Oscars

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"I think what Idina means in what she said wasn't literally 'It's not necessary to learn all the music,'" says Los Angeles music director Elmo Zapp, who worked on Remberg's bare. "What she's saying is once you start performing the material or song and you know it so well, as long as you keep yourself in the emotion of the song and sell it and make the audience believe what you're selling/saying, it's not the end of the world if you end the phrase the way it's written or switch up an article or conjunction during a performance.'"

Menzel's comments weren't well-received by the opera community. L.A. director Ken Cazan notes, "In opera, you should be able to hit all of the notes. Presumably, that is the principal reason you were hired in the first place." He adds, "Musical theater is a different beast."

While musical theater performers need the technical skill to hit the notes in the score, they're more easily forgiven than opera performers are for going flat or having their voice crack, so long as it reads to the audience as an intentional choice, something that's in character. Perhaps that's why the masses were so quick to attack Menzel — screlting that E flat didn't read as an intentional choice so much as a physical inability to produce the required sound. 

Annoying Actor Friend, a memetic Twitter persona and go-to source of snark for the musical theater community, was more surprised by Menzel's response than by the note she didn't hit. "It's easy to play Monday quarterback when it comes to how things should have been handled, especially under the guise of an anonymous account, but had I been Ms. Menzel's publicist, I'd have recommended she either not engage, or slap everyone back in their faces with a, "OMG GUYS, the cold DID bother me anyway, LOLZ" or something like that. Everyone knows Idina Menzel has a tremendous talent, and flukes like this happen to the best performers."


Katie Buenneke on Twitter:

Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter:="www.facebook.comlaweeklyarts"="">

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