Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Tony Awards 2010: Sound Design

With one week until Broadway’s biggest event, it’s high-time I begin my series of predictions fro the 2010 Tony-Award winners. Because the Tonys are not exactly as talked-about as the Oscars, these lists almost entirely reflect my tastes only, but if I think voters will choose differently, I’ve put that prediction in orange (yes, this is the opposite of how I did the Oscar listings) — because, let’s face it: Red and Memphis will undoubtedly dominate in their respective categories. (Sigh.)  Let’s begin with the category I probably have the least critical abilities to speak on. That’s right: Sound Design.


1. Enron (Adam Cork)

2. Red (Adam Cork)

3. A View from the Bridge (Scott Lehrer)

4. Fences (Acme Sound Partners)

Only the first category, and things are already starting to get tricky. If you notice below, in the category of Best Original Score, Fences and Enron are listed there as well. But – gasp! – those aren’t musicals, you say. Of course you’re right, though I would argue that Enron‘s use of music/song should place it alongside such pieces as Spring Awakening (though SA is more conventional) — and therefore should be eligible for Best Musical. But I digress (I’ll speak more on this issue in upcoming posts).

If you haven’t seen the shows, or simply haven’t a clear recollection of their sounds, go here for some audio samples of each nominee.

If you’ve seen or heard, rather, all these nominees,  you too muttered a baffled “wtf?” during scene changes in the revival of the late August Wilson’s masterpiece, Fences. Almost the entirety of play’s sound design came in the form of musical interludes while actors not-so-quickly changed costumes or sets pieces moved in and out. If you’re anything like me — and I’d like to think Troy Mason is — you’ve given Kenny Leon’s otherwise proficient production one huge strike simply for entertaining the necessity of these superfluously static moments. But more to the issue is that Branford Marsalis’s finger-snapping jazzy tunes that accompany the multiple minutes-long plunges into darkness are entirely incongruent to the tragic tone of Troy Mason’s raging battle against death and prejudice in 1950s Pittsburgh (the Times magically managed to find the only 30 somber seconds of sound in the entire design, as heard in the link I included above). Instead of highlighting the complexities of character, the design simplified or completely ignored themes, all while slowing down the pace of a mostly engrossing production.

On the other hand, Lehrer’s aural urban landscape competently transplanted us into 1930s Red Hook, Brooklyn, in A View from the Bridge. But with two nominations, Adam Cork deservedly dominates this category. Of the three designers, Cork is far and away the most theatrical, seamlessly infusing his productions with music that is stylistically pitch-perfect and dramatically powerful. Red sounds like Abstract Expressionist Marth Rothko’s paintings look — or maybe more to the point, it sounds what it might be like to be inside Rothko’s head with swimming, sweeping strokes of musical chords building and building to a frenzy of color and sound. But even more impressive is a corrupt corporation devolving into aural chaos with a dizzying swirl of ’90s-styled techno and stock ticker quotes. The fact that Enron‘s score incorporates original songs – strangely patriotic anthems and chants of sorts – not only sidesteps boundaries of conventional “musical theatre,” but brazenly emphasizes and expounds the bizarrely over-the-top behavior of the company’s crooked corporate heads. And I love it. And if you had managed to snag a ticket in the two seconds it lasted on Broadway, you would have loved it too. Unless, of course, you’re Ben Brantley.


1. A Little Night Music (Dan Moses Schreier and Gareth Owen)

2. Fela! (Robert Kaplowitz)

3. La Cage aux Folles (Jonathan Deans)

4. Sondheim on Sondheim (Dan Moses Schreier)

Here is where my complete ignorance of sound design comes into play. We have the Original Score and Orchestrations categories, so what exactly is Sound Design of a musical if not those two things?  If I could recall any other kind of sound in the shows besides that which is written by the original composer and re-orchestrated for these productions, I  could maybe attempt to put these in some kind of order. Is it to do with amplification? Some other kind of technical prowess? If any sound designers are out there, please enlighten me. As it is, I’m assuming that Dan Moses Schreier is some kind of musical sound design master, since he’s nominated for two shows, so he’ll probably take home the golden guy for one of them — hopefully A Little Night Music, the infinitely better of the two in every imaginable way (surely Sondheim on Sondheims musical awfulness is largely due to Michael Starobin’s cheesetastic orchestrations that made me long for my high school showchoir days.) But I’m secretly hoping for a Fela! upset. Just because.

5 comments on “Tony Awards 2010: Sound Design

  1. Robert Kaplowitz
    June 7, 2010

    The sound designer for a musical determines the way the sounds (music, voice, effects) interact both the audience and with each other. S/he uses the tools of the sound system to teach the audience about the world of the musical. A successful sound design reflects this world. It adds layers otherwise not present in the space. It disappears when its in the way, and reaches out and pulls you to the stage when that is called for.

    In evaluating a sound design for a musical, you might ask yourself some of the following questions: How does the sound help to craft the environment? If the musical is intimate, has that intimacy be transmitted to the audience? If brash and cocky, has that been transmitted? Is it full or loud? Lush or overwhelming? Intimate or inaudible? Does the sound come from the actors or the environment? Is the music conveyed dynamically? Does the world reach out and kick you in the stomach when need be? Is the sound the right size? Does the music move you, connect to your viscera? Do you feel connected to the performers and musicians? Does your butt wiggle in the seat on the groovy numbers, and stay perfectly still when simple attention must be paid?

    Every musical has an essential sound – a sound it SHOULD be conveying. Did the designer do so successfully? Scott Leher’s design for South Pacific is brilliant, in my opinion because, while you always connect the voices with the actors, the entire design is just that tiny bit larger than life, in the way the production is just a tiny bit larger than life. It gives you, the audience member, insider information about the world, without you ever realizing what’s happening.

    An friend once asked to me, as I was a part of a team agitating for the sound Tony “If you were an actress, famous for her hair, would you thank your wigmaker?” I disagreed with her – the sound design of a musical is not always about “invisibility” – tho some feel it should be. For my money, the sound design for a musical is about creating an environment in which the work of the composer(s), orchestrator(s), musicians and actors, (all different, and often of different worlds) can meet, embrace, and create something that is truly specific, truly anchored to this particular production, and truly unified. Every show has a design that suits it. Did the designer create that design WHETHER OR NOT YOU LIKE THE AESTHETIC? For example – I am surprised by the fact that Brian Ronan, who did a spectacular job creating the absolute right sound for American Idiot was not nominated for this award. My take? Tony voters (who tend towards conservative, when it comes to sound design) don’t love true rock n roll sound. Brian provided a design that conveys that sound perfectly for the show – its only a shame he did it too well for the Tony Voters to like it…

    There is actually a guideline, developed by a group of sound designers, that is meant to be given to every Tony Voter (similar to the one for lighting designers), to help them understand this field.

    And, hey, Julie – don’t dismiss your critical abilities – if you feel you can understand a play, textually, contextually, emotionally and conceptually, you have the skills needed to understand the design elements. All of them. Simply stop and think about musicals you have seen and attended. To some of them, you connected, sonically. To others, you didn’t. Next time you watch one, and find yourself responding, one way or another, ask yourself why…


    • Julie
      June 7, 2010

      Robert, thank you so much for your thoughtful response. It’s very helpful to think of musical sound design in terms of how the sound (dis)connects to the audience throughout the course of the show. And I completely agree with you: American Idiot deserved a nomination… and not just for sound design (it seems its choreography was also too unconventional for Tony voters). Thanks again, and my best to you.


  2. Pingback: Tonys 2010: Best Orchestrations + Choreography « Critical Confabulations

  3. Pingback: Tony Awards 2010: Best Revival « Critical Confabulations

  4. Pingback: Tony Awards 2010: Best Book of a Musical + Best Original Score of a « Critical Confabulations

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This entry was posted on June 7, 2010 by in Award Predictions, Sound Design, Theatre, Tony Awards and tagged .



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