What Is Sound Design, and Why Did It Lose Its Tony?

Tony Awards   What Is Sound Design, and Why Did It Lose Its Tony?
 
Legendary sound designer Abe Jacob will be recognized for his career in the field at the Live Design Awards, but this season’s sound designers will not be recognized by the Tony Awards. Jacob explains why the art form is important and why these designers should be honored on Broadway’s biggest night.
Abe Jacob and Chita Rivera
Abe Jacob and Chita Rivera Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Abe Jacob has designed sound for 40 Broadway productions—among them, the original production of Chicago starring Chita Rivera. “I have known Abe Jacob for over 40 years, allowing me to be aware for the rest of my career, of the brilliance and importance of clear, creative sound,” Rivera says. “I never realized just how truly complicated and sensitive the art of sound design is. And Abe has been successfully designing and changing as the theatre and theatres change. My first knowledge of sound design was foot mikes. Then through the pioneering brilliance of Abe Jacob, it has been transformed into what it is today, and Abe is still doing what he loves and is dedicated to do.”

Despite these accolades and many more from others in the theatre community, the Tony Awards Administration decided in June 2014 that they would no longer be giving a Tony Award for sound design at the annual ceremony that celebrates the best of the Broadway season. (The June 2014 decision came with the proviso that the Tony committee holds the right to determine a Special Tony Award for certain productions that have excelled in this particular design realm.)

Jacob will be recognized for his work and legendary career at the June 13 Live Design Awards. In addition to bestowing this Lifetime Achievement Award, Live Design will honor Jacob by creating The Abe Jacob Award for Excellence in Sound Design as a permanent annual award.

The industry leader got his start on Broadway re-designing the 1968 production of Hair (he was billed as the show’s sound consultant) before his big break with the 1972 production of Pippin.

Before receiving the Live Design honor, we talked to Jacob about what goes into designing sound elements for the theatre, how to measure and critique the art form, how sound has evolved and his feelings on the Tony Awards’ decision.

In 2014, when the Tony Awards Administration Committee eliminated the sound design categories, I spoke with John Gromada and that year’s Tony-winning designers. There was a lot of talk about voters not knowing how to properly measure the art form—to which the designers said, “Let us judge it” rather than eliminate it altogether. How can the art form be measured properly?
AJ: It has to be relatively simple. If any theatrical production, whether it be a straight play, a musical or an event, [has] creative elements in that show that somehow move or affect you in a positive way—that give you an emotional judgment of what is happening and what the author is trying to compel—then that’s sound design. That’s what sound design is. Whether it good or bad, it moves you in some way. You don’t have to know how stitches are done on a costume or what color gel the lighting designer has used or how many nails went into the piece of scenery, but that’s still design. And so, to dismiss sound because people don’t understand what it is, especially in this day and age with the evolvement of virtual reality and social media [in which] more and more people are aware of sound or especially the absence of sound if it’s not there… Yeah, it’s simple to say it’s easier to judge something you can see, but sound is subjective, [and] it does have an emotional drive that propels entertainment or a theatrical event.

The ladies of <i>Hamilton</i>
The ladies of Hamilton Joan Marcus

Aside from miking the actors and sound-checking, can you explain some of the other aspects that audience members who know nothing about sound design, might not know?
AJ: Going back, for example, to the musical Evita, which I did: [In] the balcony scene, in which Eva sings “Don’t Cry For Me…,” the crowd reaction and the crowd responses to her move that emotional moment when she does that final crescendo. It’s all built upon the fact that there’s the sound effect of an audience and the crowd [as well as] the effect that has been put on her microphones. Even looking at that famous picture of Eva standing in front of a barrage of microphones, that’s sound design. That’s one of the things that happens. Today, Nevin Steinberg has created a terrific montage of sounds in Hamilton. Apart from just reinforcing the lyric and the instrumentation, [the design] creates a whole mood. That backwards movement that happens when they go back in time in the piece [during “Satisfied”], that’s sound design. Sound effects also create incredible moments in some theatrical events, so it’s not just the fact that you’re putting a microphone on a performer and turning it on, it’s how you balance that with everything else in the production.

What was your initial reaction when you found out that the category was cut from the Tony Awards?
AJ: Well, it was interesting. I was on the Tony nominating committee for three years—you can only serve for three years—and as soon as my term was up, they cut the sound award. I thought it was sort of appropriate. It’s very unfortunate that the administration committee, in their very closed sessions, came to that conclusion through the influence of some of the older members of the administration committee thinking sound design was basically a technical craft rather than an art form. And that was their opinion. It’s hard to change somebody’s mind that easily, [and] the 30,000 or so signatures that John Gromada and others arranged for protesting the decision didn’t seem to make any difference to them. The other thing is that, in keeping with their decision to eliminate the award category, they also said, “We will take into consideration special cases where we might consider awarding a Special Tony if sound merits it.” Obviously, that’s not going to happen this year in light of the fact that if anything should have deserved a special recognition award, it should have been the Hamilton production, since that seems to have swept everything else today. And, the sound for that is really quite spectacular. To have that eliminated, it seems to me to be an egregious error.

You were part of ushering the sound design Tony Award into existence, yes?
AJ: Absolutely. That’s one of the things that I think this [Live Design Award] recognition is about. Many of the people designing sound in the theatre today, at one time or another, crossed paths with me and either worked with me or for me. And, that’s what makes me most proud—that we’re carrying on this tradition. Before I came to New York, there were other people doing sound for the theatre, but never credited in the title page or elsewhere as sound designers. I think since Pippin in ’71, that’s changed.

I believe it was 2008 [when the category was established]. The administration committee—the same committee that took the award away—were the ones who instituted it upon the recommendation of a number of theatrical personalities: musical directors, other directors, some sound designers who presented the case to them… I wasn’t there, and the affairs of the committee meetings are highly secret, so nothing official has ever been said as to how it came about, but it was through the influence of a number of folks that they decided at that time to institute the award. And, of course, we thought it was a valuable step, and it recognized the high level of design achievement that sound brought to the theatre community.

Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera in <i>Chicago</i>
Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera in Chicago Photo by Martha Swope

How has sound design changed over the years?
AJ: The physics of sound reproduction require that a microphone element be somewhere close to the sound source, so that’s how the head-worn microphones have now become prevalent in the musical theatre world that portends to the concert world. My belief and my feeling is that we still should have some kind of hidden values, so that microphones can be placed either in the forehead or [somewhere] without being totally visible to the audience, but it depends totally on the wishes of [the creative team], especially the composer as well as the director, as to how that is accomplished. For many years, we always had microphones attached to the costume like television announcers do, and many drawbacks to that were people moving their head, the rustle of costume noise and things of that sort. Totally by accident in the original company of Chicago, there was no place in Gwen Verdon’s costume to put a microphone or a microphone pack, so she said, “Let’s put it in my wig,” and not only did the microphone go in the wig, but so did the transmitter, and that was the first time that I know of that we had a microphone on a performer’s forehead. Then Les Miz in London took that on and eventually put everybody in the cast on head-worn microphones, and then it’s become [common]. Since the technology has evolved with ear-worn microphones with the little boom that comes down by your mouth, that gives you a greater presence, so now that’s used in shows that need that level of intensity and volume. But, there’s also been advances in both the mixing equipment in the digital world that now makes it easier to reproduce things with a consistency eight times a week. Additional equipment, loudspeaker design…has all evolved in the last ten to 15 years. You can do pretty darn good sound in a Broadway theatre and, as I like to say, the true good sound design is that every seat in the venue hears what it sounds like at the source, whether it be the performer or musician or effect. As long as its uniform, consistent and full, that’s good sound design.

Chita Rivera said, “I never realized how truly complicated and sensitive the art of sound design is” until working with you. What have performers learned from you on working with them and designing their sound?
AJ: Well, we’re there to enhance and to aid the performer in their task. It’s not easy being up on the stage in front of an audience every night. They’re doing really brilliant and very difficult, physically demanding work. If we can allow that the microphone and our sound system make it easier for them to project the feeling and intensity that they want, that’s how we help with performers. Sound design, in the last few years, has allowed producers to put performers onstage that in the past would never be heard because of their background either in television or film, so sound aids in that respect, as well. We’re all there to present what the [creators’] intention of the piece are, and if we can help make it a little easier to get that across to every member of the audience, then sound has done its job.

Austin P. McKenzie and the company of <i>Spring Awakening</i>
Austin P. McKenzie and the company of Spring Awakening Kevin Parry

What else have you seen this season that you feel deserves recognition for their work in sound design?
AJ: Well, I haven’t seen School of Rock or Fiddler on the Roof yet. I think those are the only two musicals that I haven’t been to, and I will see those next week. I thought that the revival of Spring Awakening was really brilliant, and the combination of the Deaf [actors] as well as the spoken actors in it—the integration between the two was really, really excellent. And then Bright Star, with the band onstage and telling the story for those performers’ point of view, was another piece that I thought worked very, very well. American Psycho, for what it was, was loud and very powerful—another piece that told a story with the emphasis that sound brought [the] same intensity that the visual world of American Psycho did. There have been some very, very good pieces on Broadway this season. It may be good that there’s not a Tony Award because it would be very hard to separate the good work from what’s there! But that’s one of the things that Live Design [Awards] is attempting to do—recognize all of the design elements in entertainment and have them based on real creative collaboration rather than [be] a popularity contest….

What can be a big challenge when sound designing for a show?
AJ: Well, my feeling—and I’m somewhat in the minority these days—[is that] I always prefer that the technical elements of the theatre piece, unless it’s for special effects, be basically invisible, both physically and aurally. My design concepts have always been that you don’t see microphones, that you try not to see loud speakers in a fairly obvious place, even though that’s where they have to be and things of that sort. My philosophy, I suppose, is that the thing that you don’t see is always the best. … But, I’m not really designing theatre much anymore because I’m basically about to retire this year, so that will remain to be seen what happens in the future.

What are some of your proudest moments in the theatre?
AJ: Well, who’s your favorite child?! [Laughs.] It’s hard to say. I mean, certainly working on the original A Chorus Line was a very specialized moment. And, I think that when I was doing sound and working quite a lot, it was the great distinction and being able to work with the great directors—with Michael Bennett, with Bob Fosse, with Gower Champion…. Dealing with their mentality was what made the shows in those days work, and that’s what drove all of us on the technical creative side along. But, certainly, Chorus Line, the original Pippin and Evita with Hal Prince all were very special moments. The last thing I did on Broadway was the concert version of Rain, the Beatles tribute band, where we recreated once again the sound of the Beatles. I thought that worked very, very well. I’ve done three Beatles shows on Broadway, so I’ll have to come back to that!

What are your hopes for the future and for this recognition by the Tony Awards? What would you want theatregoers to know so that sound design doesn't go left unnoticed?
AJ: I don’t think that it’s going to be left unnoticed. I would hope that the Tony Awards committee would eventually come to the conclusion that the recognition of sound design in the theatres is as valuable as the other design elements, but that sound is not going to go unnoticed. Things like the Live Design Awards and also the fact that the Oliviers in London recognize sound, that the Obies and the other theatrical awards that are given here in New York all recognize sound, so that’s still going to keep it in the forefront of the theatregoer’s mind and especially the fact that touring companies in America now are playing these theatres that are quite large, and without sound, they would basically be impossible to sell those seats, so sound has a validity and has a very practical purpose in the continuation of theatre in the United States as well as around the world. I’m hopeful that if Hamilton does in fact win some of the design awards at the Tonys that their designers will mention the absence of sound on the platform. Not to make it a political statement, but to just tell it as it is.

Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.

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