Audience expectations for the quality of actors' voices have changed since the golden age of movie musicals. "Into the Woods" is the latest film to use actors not typically known for their singing in roles that require strong vocal performances. (Jayne W. Orenstein/The Washington Post)

Meryl Streep sings. Her fans know this. Meryl Streep sang in “Postcards From the Edge,” in “Ironweed,” on the children’s album “Philadelphia Chickens” and, of course, in “Mamma Mia,” the movie that improbably, given all the successes in her career, made her a box-office star. That Meryl Streep can sing Sondheim is something that music-theater aficionados are likely to question — until, at least, they’ve heard it.

Streep, as film and theater fans are well aware by now, plays the Witch in the new Rob Marshall film of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” Like most big Sondheim roles, it requires a certain level of vocal ability. Streep’s singing voice is recognizably her own; it’s also credible and moving, and it allows her, when called for, to chew the scenery in the best musical-theater tradition.

“I had to expand my chest and be able to hold a tone longer than I’ve tried to do in 15 years,” Streep said, laughing, sitting at a round, white-draped table in a large empty room at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, which Disney colonized, shortly before Thanksgiving, for its “Into the Woods” media blitz.

“I thought, you know, this is the height of arrogance, to think that I could sing this score, because I’d heard the great Bernadette Peters,” she said, speaking deliberately and thoughtfully, with few tangents. “But like everything that’s wonderful — every play that has many, many lives, they can expand the shape of the people who are going to make it.”

In short: There are a lot of ways to sing Sondheim, or any score, and get it right.

Once upon a time, actors in movie musicals had to meet certain standards of vocal beauty — or have their voices dubbed by singers who did. Audrey Hepburn was game to do her own singing in “Funny Face” but was dubbed by Marni Nixon in “My Fair Lady;” Nixon also became the singing voice of Deborah Kerr in “The King and I” and of Natalie Wood in “West Side Story.”

Today, however, actors who aren’t known for singing are routinely performing their own parts: Johnny Depp in “Sweeney Todd,” Richard Gere in “Chicago,” Russell Crowe in “Les Misérables.” And this opens up a whole range of questions among the increasingly voice-oriented audience about what it means to be able to sing, and what we expect from a singing voice, and whether the singing of an actor who hasn’t specialized in song — from Marlon Brando in “Guys and Dolls” to Crowe in “Les Miz” — ruins the show, or makes it more authentic.

Meryl Streep attends the premiere of "Into The Woods" at the Ziegfeld Theatre on Monday, Dec. 8, 2014, in New York. (Evan Agostini/Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

‘You’re going to make us cry’

So how does Streep sing? Not just how well does she sing? Or how does she physically manage to do it? But how does an actor who has spent her career honing her art approach singing, a separate discipline, to incorporate it into her performance? Does an actor approach singing as a separate art, or is it simply an extension of a lifetime’s work on a craft that already involves knowing how to work effectively with your voice?

The “Into the Woods” cast falls across the spectrum of vocal experience. There are non-singers such as Emily Blunt, who plays the Baker’s Wife, and Depp, who took a critical drubbing (unfairly, I thought) for his performance as Todd and who’s back here as the Wolf. But Tracey Ullmann, who had a full-on recording career for a while, plays Jack’s mother (as in “Jack and the Beanstalk”), and Cinderella is played by Anna Kendrick, who has been singing onstage and screen since age 12, when she played the role of Frederika in “A Little Night Music” at the New York City Opera under Paul Gemignani (who also is the musical director of this movie).

“The credit of doing ‘A Little Night Music’ at the New York City Opera does make me sound way more qualified than I am,” Kendrick said, sitting huddled in a hotel room at the Waldorf under a window that let both gray afternoon light and cold air over her small frame. “We had legit singers in that production. They just put into sharp relief the kind of singers that we are versus the kind of singers they are.”

“Sondheim is unique,” she added, “in that Sondheim is really, really hard to sing and really fun to act. . . . It’s funny because the rest of the cast looked at me like I’m the old pro; ‘Oh, well, Anna knows what she’s doing.’ And as much as I enjoyed kind of rocking up to the set like I knew, just full of confidence, you know, I went home and the music just kicked my ass. It just destroyed me.”

“I wanted to work with a coach,” she said, “but frankly, I literally didn’t have time, because I was coming off of ‘The Last Five Years.’”

Here’s one thing singers and actors have in common: When your work schedule is full, it’s hard to put in the time to learn new roles. Acknowledging this, and working to counteract it, Disney Studios took the highly unusual step of setting aside six weeks of rehearsal time, with the full cast and musical staff, before filming even began. By the time they were done, the cast felt ready to perform the piece onstage.

Streep didn’t work privately with a coach, either. “I didn’t want to inflict that on anyone,” she said, laughing. Instead, she practiced herself, drawing on resources and exercises learned when she was studying at the Yale School of Drama.

“In graduate school, we had lots of acting classes, and I didn’t really understand a lot of what they were talking about,” she said. “But my singing class: I had a great teacher, Betsy Parrish, and she said, to the assembled class, ‘Every single one of you, men and women, is going to stand up here on the stage at the end of this term and you’re going to sing a song and you’re going to make us cry.’ And a lot of the boys said, ‘Well, I don’t sing, so, you know, f--- that, I’m just not going to do that.’ And what was really interesting was that, when she got them to a point of expanding, getting the support of their diaphragm, connecting breath to emotion, to thought, they were the ones that cried. Because the connection in music to your emotional center is direct. There’s no impediment. . . . That was really fascinating. And that I understood. That was an acting lesson.”

Meryl Streep as the Witch in “Into the Woods.” Based on Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical of the same name, the film will be in theaters on Dec. 25, 2014. (Peter Mountain/Disney Enterprises)

From the heart

There’s a common misconception about formal singing training, which is that it teaches you to learn an affected, stylized sound: Witness all those YouTube videos of young people singing in plummy voices with lots of vibrato, and calling it operatic. The fact that many trained singers sound artificial further obfuscates the point of the exercise. Vocal training, in any style, is about finding ways to amplify and deepen your ability to express yourself. Luciano Pavarotti had one of the most distinctive voices in opera, but it wasn’t put on, and it was always immediately recognizable as himself. Ultimately, the sound you make comes from your emotional center, not from the technical apparatus that you build around it.

Perhaps as a result of this, Streep, who listens to music continually as part of her preparation for a role, didn’t have a particular vocal model for this one. “I just listened to myself,” she said. “And I was very interested to find my voice, because I hadn’t sung out of the character of, I don’t know, in ‘Ironweed’ or ‘Mamma Mia,’ a sort of pop voice — I was using different voices for different things. But I wanted to locate, especially in ‘Stay With Me,’ ” — the witch’s signature song, the plea of a mother to the daughter she can’t let go — “sort of the center of what I would sound like. Because there are so many layers of the Witch that it just didn’t seem necessary for her to have any voice other than mine.”

Streep, coincidentally or not, has had singing particularly in her sights of late. The death of Mike Nichols may have put an end to the project of filming “Master Class,” which would have allowed Streep to play Maria Callas, lionized in the popular imagination, for better or worse, as the greatest singer of all. She is, however, going ahead with a project involving one of the worst: the eccentric patron Florence Foster Jenkins, who early in the 20th century used to rent out Carnegie Hall for concerts that became cult favorites among people who went, without her fully realizing it, to laugh. Her recordings remain extremely popular, particularly at parties.

After spending time trying to sing well, how do you prepare to sing badly? “If you listen to those recordings,” Streep said, “she was almost good, and then there was a point when she was off. And that is what makes it funny. It was almost there. It doesn’t start out badly. It starts out hopefully.

“I think I’m going to try to be as good as I can, and then — we’ll see.”


‘Into the Woods’ aims for successful Hollywood ending

Point/counterpoint: Two critics debate the movie musical