a theatre, film & pop culture review
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.
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.
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 Sondheim‘s 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.