What Anne Hathaway’s “I dreamed a dream” can teach us all about performing

Before Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables” hit our cinemas…

… everyone felt the need to comment whether Anne Hathaway’s interpretation of “I dreamed a dream” was up to scratch.

Les Misérables (musical)
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

First of all: What does this mean anyway? What is deemed appropriate or not? Is there some divine force who decides that “because it has always been done that way, it will have to stay that way”, or “you have to sing West End/Broadway/insert-term-of-choice repertoire with a voice like this”, or “you need to sing this particular line like that”?

I found the amount of (mostly negative) feedback after people had heard one minute (!) of her singing in a trailer astounding: We are not talking about a recording of one song out of context (maybe that’s the “Susan Boyle effect”), but a performance in character here. People were commenting on how it was not “right” (again: Who said this? The Musical Theatre Police? What is “more right” then?), how it sounded “too shaky and weak and not at all beautiful” etc. In my opinion, it actually sounded quite appropriate for someone who is terminally ill and has no hope. I thought it made a refreshing change to the versions you often hear on stage these days (some of them sound interchangeable if you ask me, but that’s another subject for another blog post).

Then the movie hit the cinemas…

… and almost everyone is raving about her performance now (quite rightly so in my opinion).

I won’t go into details about singing technique in this post because it would forfeit the purpose. What we all can learn from Anne’s performance is that the purpose of any performing art is to communicate what moves us artistically, and to share this with other people. It quite frankly doesn’t matter if you can take it apart, analyse it, or do it better from a technical point of view – if it hits people were it is supposed to hit and makes them forget that it is “just a performance”, it worked. If not, audience and artist are not on the same page, for whatever reason. That’s fair enough, and we don’t have to like everything. What I am specifically worried about sometimes though is the comparison element: “So-and-so did it better than so-and-so, and that’s the way it should be done.” I quite firmly believe we should judge every performance in its own context. And if you are one of the people who tends to zoom in on technical mistakes (I am sometimes guilty of this myself), I’d urge you to switch off your technical mind every so often, because you will miss out on many wonderful performances that way.

Tweet: The purpose of any performing art is to communicate what moves us artistically, and to share this with other people. @singingtutor

Of course the purpose of singing instruction/vocal coaching is to enable us to use our voices in a healthy and sustainable way. It is also about being stylistically appropriate, and I am, with my own Musical Theatre background, the first to admit that there are certain rules we don’t tend to break (NB: I say “tend to”, because sometimes, it needs to be done to create something new). Musical Theatre is, in certain ways, a very restrictive art-form when it comes to “ideal sound” (although the “flavour of the month” changes over time, but this is also a subject for another blog). The artistic choices you are free to make are vastly different from e.g. Pop. Let’s not forget however that Musical Theatre is about acting (through song). It is about characterisation and being believable, not about ticking off technical boxes. And this is where I get to what every (!) singer can learn from a great actor or performer:

Technique (be it vocal or acting) is a means to an end, not a sole purpose. It gives you artistic freedom – not more, not less. And sometimes, we simply shouldn’t worry too much about it.

Tweet: Technique (be it vocal or acting) is a means to an end, not a sole purpose. It gives you artistic freedom; not more, not less. @singingtutor

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© Petra Raspel 2013


  1. I thought it was an incredible performance. More emotional than technical, but in my opinion that’s exactly how it SHOULD have been in context. I loved it. I have to admit that after hearing a clip of it, I was a little worried about how it would sound but in context, it was fantastic.


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