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Ears Are Ringing

LAURENCE MASLON listens to the new sound of Broadway.

Ears Are Ringing hdl 814
Swinging into action: the anarchic moppets of Matilda
© Joan Marcus 2014

Blame it on the bossa nova.

Well, not exactly, but the increasingly loud, sometimes impossibly obstreperous volume of most recent Broadway musicals is the result of a perfect storm of the evolution in popular music, impact from other media, and innovations in technology — "storm" being the key word here, as the cumulative impression for many traditional audience members is that of being set out in the ocean in the middle of a sonic hurricane.

For example, when I attended the 2013 Broadway production of Matilda the Musical (from an orchestra house seat), I was amused by its battalion of anarchic moppets, its fascistic fire-hydrant of a headmistress and its supporting cast of authority figures displaying varying degrees of geniality. What I did not get, however, were the frequently clever, often moving lyrics of Tim Minchin's songs for the show. These words were happily recovered some hours later from a quick tour of iTunes and the application of some headphones (another technological advance, to which we shall return) — but didn't I want to hear them, er, in the theater, in the moment?

Matilda, like most Broadway musicals, has a complicated sound design, overseen by major artists who wield their technology and their artistry as skillfully as any other artists in their respective fields. The sound-design field has grown exponentially in breadth and depth in the past decade or so. (In fact, the Tony Awards committee acknowledged this artistry by adding the categories of best sound design for plays and best sound design for musicals in 2008, although the categories were removed from competition after the 2014 awards.) But for some theatergoers the end result of this expansion may take some getting used to.

The sound designer of Matilda the Musical, Simon Baker, described the design for the website Studio Live Design: "People assume we've got crazy technology on it, but it's pretty old-fashioned. My work is about delivering story really quickly and trying out ideas. We use QLab for our playback, a regular DiGiCo SD7T console, and many surround speakers, the Martin Audio Effect 3R cinema install loudspeakers. There's a lot of surround processing over the band, at match level, which is done with TC Electronic M6000 MKII Mastering units." If that's "old-fashioned," I can only imagine what Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer would make of it.

Of course, much of what can be nettlesome about over-amplification is a direct result of the kind of music that is at center stage in today's Broadway musical. A good deal is made of Ethel Merman's legendary ability to project, acoustically, to the back row of the balcony, but then, of course, she was fronting a different kind of score for a different kind of audience. Even back in the late 1960s, it would have seemed foolhardy not to tool the sonic enhancement of a musical score to its style: why shouldn't a performance of Hair, say, demonstrate the same sonic values as a Jefferson Airplane concert? 

In the early 1970s, a "rock score" on Broadway was a piquant anomaly. Since Andrew Lloyd Webber burst upon the scene, entire generations of composers of Broadway scores have grown up in the rock tradition, rather than in the Tin Pan Alley tradition (Jonathan Larson being an excellent example of a songwriter who was devoted to changing the sound of the Broadway musical), and obviously, that will only increase over time. Now, most of the scores that open on Broadway have some version of a rock score; certainly the composers of the more popular musicals of the past six seasons — Elton John, David Bryan, Cyndi Lauper — have their roots entirely in the rock tradition. And this is not to mention the burgeoning and meretricious "songbook revues" of rock groups and rock stars that keep appearing annually on Broadway, which appeal — as well they should, mind you — to a changing demographic.

Even those shows that flirt with older, more intimate performance traditions have their difficulties keeping pace with a changing world. The score to Matilda effectively employs some impressive Gilbert-and-Sullivan patter, heartwarming ballads and even some Latin stylings — but they are set against a more rock-oriented score, and even Simon Baker realizes that tunes from that genre have a heavier thumb on the scale: "The orchestra is used beyond the traditional musical," he told Studio Live Design. "They're playing a Sondheim-esque number one moment and a big band one the next. Then you've got a rock song or an incredibly delicate underscore, and at the heart of it is a nine-year-old girl whose vocal you have to get on top of, plus an ensemble of ten children singing Tim's very complicated lyrics. [For the sound team, the songs are] difficult to do, as they involve sync sound that is challenging to mix and produce live each night."

You might ask (and why does one feel so much like Tevye, trying to understand the pace of a changing world?): how do these traditions get started? The earlier generations of musicals didn't need them to succeed. Yet the desire to apply new technology in all media is rather like the reason, as the saying goes (here put more delicately), that canines will often fervently groom their nether regions — because they can.

Theatergoers of the 1980s will remember — and some will recoil in horror at the memory — a decade of hydraulics, enabling massive scenery (giant car tires, chandeliers, barricades, silent-film-stars' living rooms) to emerge or disappear magically onstage. Anyone with a passing knowledge of engineering realizes how much literal energy goes into creating those effects; and those effects (still used, if better refined in the twenty-first century) also make noise, as do the ever-growing automated lighting systems. That noise has to be covered up somehow. "There's very little true quiet in the theater anymore," says Tom Clark of Acme Sound Partners, a successful firm that designs the sound for many Broadway shows, including the recent revivals of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and Hair. 

Additionally, unless audience members have been beamed down from some other, quieter planet, theatergoers are part of a larger entertainment continuum. We have come to expect louder, more sonically present forms of entertainment outside of the theater. Movies blare their action and superhero-oriented wares at unconscionable volumes through increasingly sophisticated equipment; likewise, you watch, say, Lawrence of Arabia on your iPhone, while Maurice Jarre's score pipes right into your ear canal via some expensively sensitive earphones. Performance style has to be taken into account as well; the intimate naturalism of film and television has become the omnipresent mode of dramatic expression. Bold, presentational, project-to-the-back-row performance is not only no longer desired by most audiences or performers; it can be downright mocked or derided. How does one translate the kind of intimate acting found in electronic media to the contemporary stage? By using miking enhancements and sophisticated sound design to bring those intimacies forward to an audience. 

Once upon a time, the idea that a Broadway musical would be miked at all was absurd, but eventually, as more and more performers in the 1960s needed them, it became commonplace, out of the sheer need for balance. (OPERA NEWS features editor Brian Kellow, in his 2007 Ethel Merman: A Life, mentions that even the great Merman herself wore a body mike when she took over the lead in Hello, Dolly! if only because every one of the other leads wore one.) But now "body" mikes are so microscopically engineered that they can be hidden, apparently, in a hair follicle, and a sound system can do far more than project a singer's voice: it can allow for a performer to turn upstage and still be heard and even compensate for distortions caused by wigs, hats or costumes. During the original Broadway production of Billy Elliot, at one point, in order to enhance the young Billy's tap-dancing prowess, tiny microphones were sewn into the cuffs of the actors' (there were three Billys) pants to pick up the tapping. (Eventually, that approach proved impractical, so actual discrete panels in the stage floor were enhanced by microphones — which seems even more resourceful.)

As Billy Elliot's sound designer said in a 2009 interview for the online magazine Mix, "You have to adjust for what the score is trying to do: Elton John has to sound differently from Rodgers and Hammerstein." But the fact is, given the dazzling Pandora's box of sound technology on Broadway, even Rodgers and Hammerstein is sounding different from Rodgers and Hammerstein. When sound designer Scott Lehrer worked on the acclaimed 2008 Lincoln Center Theatre revival of South Pacific, he was able to send the enhanced sound of the production through more than one hundred speakers of varying depth and quality that reside in the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Working with a range of subtle and sensitive microphones (including one for Nellie Forbush that is, thankfully, shampoo- and waterproof), Lehrer was even able to mix the sound through the dozens of speakers in a way that allowed the singers' voices to arrive at each audience member's ears at the same time. Perhaps gilding the lily, Lehrer was even able to "double-mike" the actor playing Emile de Becque (originally opera baritone Paulo Szot), so that a second lavalier mike on his chest captured the rich bass frequencies that were missed by his head-worn mike.

In short, unless your idea of a contemporary musical-theater piece is William Christie conducting Charpentier's Malade Imaginaire on original instruments, frankly, folks, it's going to be loud. And "loud" seems to work for audiences on Broadway in ever-increasing scale. High-volume shows such as Aladdin, Kinky Boots, Matilda, Hedwig and the Angry Inch — even Mamma Mia! and Wicked this late in the game — dominate the box-office receipts (although, to be fair, the more discreetly amplified Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, which won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Musical, and Beautiful are holding their own), while more intimate shows of the past few seasons, such as The Bridges of Madison County and Grey Gardens, don't evince the same staying power — "power" being another key word here. It seems as if Broadway, like the rest of the entertainment industry, is well on its way to setting its cumulative amplifier, as Nigel Tufnel legendarily did in the film This Is Spinal Tap, to "eleven." spacer 

LAURENCE MASLON is an arts professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He is the editor of American Musicals (1927­–1969), a two-volume set of sixteen librettos, published by the Library of America.

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Current Issue: July 2015 — VOL. 80, NO. 1