NEW YORK — Get Marc Kudisch talking about the baritone voice, and it feels as if he might never stop.
Indeed, it's highly unlikely that you could find a more enthusiastic and intense champion of the baritone and its intriguing place in musical history than this three-time Tony-nominated actor, known for roles in Broadway musicals including "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Assassins," and Michael John LaChiusa's "The Wild Party."
For the past several years, Kudisch has been busy developing a new show about the rise and eventual flourishing of the baritone voice over the past several hundred years, across opera, musical theater, and pop music. Dubbed "Baritones UnBound: Celebrating the UnCommon Voice of the Common Man," it gets its world premiere Oct. 8-20 at the Paramount Center's Mainstage, presented by ArtsEmerson.
"Our argument is that the baritone, because it is the closest register range to the male speaking voice, has become the voice of the common man," Kudisch says. "That's what the baritone represents on stage: the common man's plight against the extraordinary. Which means you've got great pain, great trial, great joy, pride, and angst. The baritone's job is to come out there and move the story forward and tell the average guy's extraordinary story."
Seated in Manhattan's Bryant Park on a bright and warm early fall afternoon, Kudisch is friendly yet laser-focused on the task at hand. He speaks in giant blasts of words, with a sometimes gale-force intensity.
"You can tell he cares a little bit about this subject, eh?" the show's director, David Dower, says with a laugh while speaking over the phone. "He just kept telling me this story, and I actually couldn't quite believe it. I hadn't been paying attention the way that he'd been paying attention. At the time, it seemed like overreaching to me. But it had a great song list. And Marc was very convincing."
The central thesis of "Baritones UnBound" is that the baritone voice has become something of an endangered species in song over the past few decades, largely absent in both pop music and in new Broadway musicals (at least ones that aren't pastiche or written by Stephen Sondheim or a handful of other composers). It wasn't always so: With roots in Mozart and the bel canto period of opera, the baritone flourished during the "Golden Age" of musicals through the 1940s and '50s, and on the pop charts in the '50s and '60s with the likes of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.
"It's surprising. From the get-go, the general audience is not going to believe that the baritone voice has somewhat disappeared from contemporary culture," Dower says. "But in the last 30 years, there's maybe, let's say, a dozen significant baritone solos in all of new Broadway music."
The idea for the show, Kudisch explains, was sparked after he happened to read a dictionary definition of the baritone voice one day. " 'It is the most common category of all male voices. Somewhere between the bass and the tenor, with some characteristics of both.' I was just so insulted by it. To define something through other things, without any sense of what that thing actually is, what purpose it's for, how it can be used. I was angry."
He decided he wanted to do a show about the baritone, and he began doing research. At first, Kudisch tested out the material as a solo piece, but realized it would work better with three performers — especially because it's such "a Big Sing," as he and his collaborators like to call it. The show unfolds as a conversation between the trio (with bits of audience interaction), tracing the story of the baritone as it has emerged over the past 200 to 300 years. It alternates historical detail with some 30 songs, ranging from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening" and the Arthur Crudup-penned Elvis Presley hit "That's All Right" to the famed "Largo al factotum" aria (a.k.a. "Figaro") from Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" and Sondheim's "It Would Have Been Wonderful" and "Pretty Women."
"Marc's personality is so strong and so clearly defined that he made an entire evening that was basically a flat-out defense of the baritone, almost on the level of a rant," says Dower of Kudisch's initial solo show approach. "All of his emotion and all of his sort of verbosity came into this thing — and also his innate competitiveness, which is part of what you love about the guy. So tenors took it on the chin, sopranos took it on the chin."
Instead, Kudisch decided to team up with his friend Merwin Foard, who's currently on Broadway playing Franklin D. Roosevelt in "Annie," Metropolitan Opera baritone Jeff Mattsey, his go-to music director Tim Splain, and Dower to help him create an evening constructed around three baritone voices, but one that also tells a distinct narrative.
"We've gone to great pains to make sure that it's not just another 'The Three Tenors' concert evening, with three guys just singing songs to you all night," says Mattsey, who will perform the show in Boston with Kudisch and Ben Davis, who recently appeared in the opera "Anna Nicole" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
In what the show argues was the golden age of the baritone, composers like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and Sondheim elevated the common man to the center of their stories.
"If you want the lovers, you go to the tenors. If you want the authority figures, the kings and the gods, you go to the basses. But when you want the men who walk the earth full of troubles and warts, you write for baritones generally," Kudisch says. "It's the baritone that is the jilted lover or the guy that's doing something that may not be right. It's the baritone that is the tension in the evening."
The show begins with the three singers taking the stage in tuxes to join Splain, who's seated at a grand piano, on a streamlined set. But as the narrative advances, the initial formality of the evening soon gives way to a bit of rollicking chaos.
"The evening comes off that pedestal," says Dower. "By the end of the night, these guys are sitting in a basement with a couch and a Barcalounger and beer in the fridge. But instead of being obsessed with football, these guys happen to be obsessed with baritones. A guitar comes out, and they're kicking it with us. In a way, that development actually mirrors the development of the baritone voice as it comes out of this world where music was precious and could only be sung by men in a church."
Kudisch hopes that the show will engage audiences in a give-and-take. It's important, he says, to avoid "shoving our point of view down your gullet."
"We talk to the audience," he says, "we don't talk at 'em. And we invite conversation. Why should I just tell you my opinion? Most importantly, our hope is that the audience walks away with more questions than answers."
Chris Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.