There is a reason Tony winner Ben Platt could sing the role of Evan Hansen eight shows a week for over a year and still sound fresh; and why Hugh Jackman could change to a pop sound for his Golden Globe-nominated performance in The Greatest Showman after singing musical theatre for 20 years; and why Tony winner Neil Patrick Harris could rock out and tongue a stranger in the audience seven performances a week in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and still stay healthy. Their reason—as they have each said—has a name: Liz Caplan.
Industry folk know: When it comes to the most demanding roles on Broadway, you don’t go to anyone but Liz. That’s why she counts Stephen Colbert, John Mulaney, Ana Gasteyer, Judith Light, Nikki M James, and the three men above among her dozens of clients, and why 14 Broadway productions in the last ten years have contracted her as official vocal supervisor.
The secret to her methodology lies in a holistic approach to the body.
In Caplan’s world, singing should always feel good (After Jackman’s first lesson, Caplan happily recalls, ‘He said, ‘That was fun”) and her approach aims to eliminate the manifestation of fear as tension in the body. Essentially, if a singer is “locked up” in their hips, chest, etc., they might compensate by pushing their voice, causing strain and fatigue that leads to laryngitis or vocal damage.
“I don’t just hear people’s voices, I watch their bodies when they’re singing,” says Caplan, according to whom singing goes far beyond diaphragmatic breathing and lifting the soft palate. “I’m literally working with knees releasing, tailbone tucked under, hip flexors engaging to connect the legs into the hips or the hips into the trunk, and making sure that there’s blood oxygen [pumping from head to toe], and then, on top of that, spinal fluid moving.” (The way Platt lifts his leg every time he sings the “ing” of “WavING through a window” is no accident; it releases his hip flexor to healthfully hit that note.)
Caplan’s X factor lies in her innate sensitivity and intuition. She can tell when you’re under-hydrated because she sees you locked up in your kidneys; she can tell when your pectoral muscle is knotted. Her ability to observe and catch minute details in musculature and alignment allows her to help ease the voice’s workload.
The vocal coach built the foundation of her philosophy 40 years ago, when she moved to New York and began coaching Broadway ensemblists as a side gig. Gradually expanding her roster over decades, Caplan felt the ante up in 2008 when Jason Robert Brown and Tom Kitt called her in to solve a crisis on their new musical 13. The kids were constantly losing their voices—not to mention the boys’ voices were changing. The Broadway-bound production needed a rescue, and Caplan provided one.
Caplan has maintained her status as Broadway’s vocal fixer by doing things her way. After exposure to other voice teachers during her undergrad at Florida State University and their cold, uncustomized regimens, she decided to ground her practice in providing a positive environment.
“All it was about was keeping everyone healthy with my techniques,” she says. And so much of singing with Caplan is not actually singing. In any given lesson, she may use Alexander technique, Linklater method, yogic breathing, and even color therapy glasses. “Each color, each chakra energy center corresponds to a pitch,” she explains. “At times when I feel like somebody is locked up somewhere, a note is not coming out, I go, ‘Put on the [green] glasses or put on the blue glasses’ because blue is the throat chakra and green is the heart chakra. They’re looking through the green and it starts opening up that area. That’s the Reader’s Digest version.”
Books about anatomy sit next to books about crystals. She encourages her students to supplement their voice lessons with chiropractors, acupuncturists, nutritionists, Pilates teachers, you name it because “the body supports breath; the breath supports sound.”
Maintaining the body also accounts for the stamina of Caplan’s students. “Everyone in theatre is in fight or flight mode all the time,” she says, because theatre is built on high stakes and emotional turmoil. “It’s that adrenal fatigue leading to adrenal failure that makes everybody feel like that’s a crawl to their stage door by the seventh or eighth show of the week. What I keep trying to do is give them physical tools as well as vocal tools to stay on top of their voices.”
Caplan’s work centers on getting her students to be attuned to themselves as a whole. “The thing that makes most artists crazy about themselves is the thing that makes audiences fall in love with them, which is they’re deeply sensitive,” Caplan says. “You’re hyper-aware of your body and your health and what your heart is sensing. But so much of performing is sense exchange” be it with your scene partner or with the audience. That emotionalism is what resonates. But it doesn’t work if you’re holding tension. By the Caplan method: Freer bodies means freer singing means freer emotion—and that’s what elevates these performers into the upper echelon.
And while her methods sound unconventional, they clearly work. Posters line her walls with scribbled notes of eternal gratitude from theatre’s biggest stars. But Caplan’s joy emanates from the success of her students—knowing she helped them find what was already there.
Make like Ben Platt and watch the video above to learn the Liz Caplan warm-up. To learn more about Liz Caplan Vocal Studios or start learning the method via her app visit lizcaplan.com.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.