There’s some news items going around about Idina Menzel defending her performance of “Let It Go” on New Year’s with an excerpt from an interview she gave where she talked about how there’s more to live performances than hitting every note. It’s on her instagram account if you want to read it. Here’s the thing; I don’t think she had anything to defend. I watched her performance, and it looks to me like a pretty solid live performance that really connected with the audience (you can hear them singing with her, and see the joy on their faces in crowd shots). She cheats some notes throughout, and the last “rage on” is a bit unfortunate, but overall it’s fine. She’s outside in cold weather and doing her best to move around the stage to engage with the audience. It’s certainly not something to write home about, but I think calling her on the carpet for it is a bit much.
The fact that she’s getting criticized for that performance highlights one of the more bizarre double standards that we have when it comes to live performances; we expect all musicians and singers to be able to perform live without assistance, but when they do we want them to sound exactly like the recording that was made under carefully controlled studio conditions and (possibly) edited together from several takes to get the best aggregate version of the song. Because we can have these “perfect” performances and listen to them as often as we like, we seem to expect that live performances will be the same just, you know, standing in a room with a bunch of other people. That’s not the case, and there’s no reason for performers to apologize for that.
From my time working backstage on major theatrical productions, I know that even when someone is performing a standard Broadway eight shows a week, it doesn’t sound exactly the same every time they go out there. The human body is a dynamic thing, and while consistency is the mark of a professional, there’s a million little things that can affect any performance. Sometimes it’s for the better, I remember one performance of The Lion King I worked on where a soloist performed the night after his son was born, and the exuberance in his performance that night was incredible to hear. Sometimes, as with Ms.Menzel on New Year’s Eve, it means people cheat notes that they know they can’t hit, or you get some hoarseness creeping in on the more extreme ends. Live performances can be wonderful that way, or they can be risky that way. Anyone who works with their body as an athlete, artist, or performer understands that sometimes things just go a little weird and don’t work the way they’re supposed to. Sometimes things go far better than they should, and you have no idea why. Even for those of us who don’t perform for a living, there’s just those days where it seems like you drop everything you go to pick up or days when you just feel great and manage to get through your whole to-do list by mid-afternoon. We’re funny little critters like that.
Bottom line; if you want exactly the same pristine performance every time, you’re better off staying at home and listening to a recording. If you want the energy and excitement of a live performance, you’re going to be taking a slight gamble on what it’s going to sound like. If I’d taken that gamble on this performance by Menzel, I’d have been happy with the outcome.