It was love of music, Abe Jacob says, that led to his groundbreaking, more-than-40-year career as a Broadway sound designer. "It was wanting to recreate sound in front of a live audience — not making records, not doing film or TV."
Jacob is a pioneer. He essentially established modern sound design on Broadway, and mentored many of the current generation of sound designers. His Broadway credits include the original productions of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Pippin, A Chorus Line, Chicago, The Rocky Horror Show and Evita.
The United States Institute for Theatre Technology has twice honored him for outstanding achievement. He is now the resident sound consultant for the David H. Koch Theatre and New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center.
Born in Tucson, Arizona, Jacob became involved in theatre at "six or seven or eight. We lived near the University of Arizona. Peter Marroney of the drama department was a neighbor. They needed a Tad Lincoln for Abe Lincoln in Illinois. I was Tad. It gave me a taste of theatre, but I wanted to be a musician. Though I never wanted to practice. I knew I'd never be any good. Sound was the next best thing."
His family moved to Oakland, California, when he was 11. He went to college in Los Angeles in the 1960s, "got involved in theatre arts and met music people." Next was San Francisco, "where the music scene was happening."
His first major client was The Mamas & the Papas. He did sound for Jimi Hendrix, Peter Paul and Mary, the Beatles' last touring concert (in August 1966, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco) and the legendary Monterey Pop Festival.
In 1969 Jacob did sound for Hair in San Francisco. Two years later he was in New York visiting friends in Jesus Christ Superstar, which was beginning previews. Its director, Tom O'Horgan, had also directed Hair.
"The first two previews had been canceled because of difficulties with sound. I was in the theatre seeing my friends. O'Horgan noticed me. He said, 'We're having sound problems. Can you give us some advice?' And I stayed on. From that time, I've been in New York."
O'Horgan also asked Jacob to redesign Hair, which was still running on Broadway.
How is what Jacob did different from before? "In 1971, nobody else was doing sound design. Before then sound was basically set up by the stage manager and the assistant electrician. I got the soundman from being backstage out to the audience area so he could hear what the audience was hearing. We brought the concept of sound design as another creative element to theatre. Not only sound effects, which had been done for years, either live or prerecorded, but creating moods, creating the atmosphere of sound. Now sound is absolutely vital to production qualities."
A major thrill was working with Michael Bennett on A Chorus Line. "Not only is it a show with great significance in theatre history, but it was probably the last major Broadway show for which there were no body mics. Staging individual numbers in front of the shotgun mics we had across the front of the stage was part of the concept, part of the choreography and part of the sound design."
Jacob says he has no plans to retire. "I tried it and got bored quickly. I want to stay involved in theatre. What we're doing at Lincoln Center is great, because we have a variety of artists and attractions coming in, and I'm still getting to do exciting things."