Original key? Key that’s best for me? What do I do?
There can be a lot of reasons a song is published in a particular key. The limitations or the skills of the person originating the role, a compilation in which the publisher seeks to find “every man’s” key (usually putting the song in a key that is awkward for everyone), or a publisher hoping to make a piece easier to play, often simplifying the original music and including a melody line in the accompaniment. Quite often a Broadway song is not in the original key when it gets published outside the score. (Kudos to Hal Leonard for the Musical Theatre Anthologies, which are all from the original scores.)
What to do if the key you have is not a key that you can sing the song in? The advancement of music software has made it pretty simple to change key at will. But is that necessarily the best choice? We all have zones, or sweet spots, where songs sound particularly good in our voices. If you’re at the top of your game, that zone should be substantial. AND you still don’t want to go into an audition or do a cabaret where the song poses a challenge on a day when you’re a bit under. Sing in keys and ranges that work for you.
That said, here are some very important considerations:
1) Text: Does the key suit the text? For example, published versions of Cole Porter’s “Find Me a Primitive Man” are in a soprano range. The text is very sly and seductive (“find me a primitive man… I could be the personal slave of someone just out of a cave”)—lyrics that are much better sung in a lower register to compliment the intentions.
2) Character: Are you taking the character out of the song by changing the key? Taking Hammerstein’s “Lonely Room”, a song sung by Judd the antagonist in Oklahoma, up a 4th or a 5th would just make the character and his pain sound like a pubescent boy’s whining. On the other side of the coin “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful”, the Prince’s song in Cinderella is rather low for the type of young man that usually portrays the prince. Taking the song up a 3rd into the tenor range is stunning on the right fellow.
3) Key: As you consider the key, examine how the transposition looks: Are there a lot of accidentals? Is it awkwardly placed below or above the staff? Is it in 5 or 6 sharps? Think about the accompanist. Not all transpositions are created equal.
So tread carefully as you think about transposing a song for yourself! If it puts the tune in your sweet spot and enhances the character and the text, and doesn’t look frightening, go for it!