Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

2011 Tony Awards: Sound Design of a Musical

Note: My personal rankings are listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite, while predictions for the actual winners will be in orange.

SOUND DESIGN OF A MUSICAL

1. The Scottsboro Boys

2. The Book of Mormon

3. Anything Goes

4. Catch Me If You Can

I fear I’m about to disappoint Mr. Robert Kaplowitz, Tony Award winning Sound Designer for Fela! (who was kind enough to explain to me — in detail — what a Sound Designer does for a musical here). Based on his comment that “Every musical has an essential sound – a sound it SHOULD be conveying. Did the designer do so successfully?” here’s my attempt to rank this year’s nominees.

Steve Canyon Kennedy’s design for Catch Me If You Can made me feel like I was being aurally attacked — all the way up in the upper balcony of the huge Neil Simon Theatre. Sure, Marc Shaimon’s score is big and brassy (super-similar to his work on Hairspray), but the production’s sound was so aggressive and punchy that I felt as though I was getting whacked in the face repeatedly (not unlike how I felt during American Idiot, but for what was essentially a Green Day concert, that made much more dramaturgical sense).

Beyond Kennedy’s misfire, however, I’m at a loss. One can probably assume that Brian Ronan (who coincidentally designed American Idiot), who is nominated twice here –for The Book of Mormon and Anything Goes — will take home the award for the immensely more popular of two shows, Mormon. He’s also one of the two designers here who’s been previously nominated (Next to Normal), so that doesn’t hurt. (To learn a bit about his approach to design, go here).

Of all the nominees, however, only Peter Hylenski’s work on The Scottsboro Boys (at least to my memory) includes some sound effects in addition to the obligatory amplification of the actors and orchestra.  For the tale of the 1930s trial of rape and racism, he creates traffic on bustling Alabama streets and the chilling clink of prison cells locking down. Previously nominated for his design for the loud and cocky Rock of Ages, Hylenski’s work here is the most subtle and thoughtful of the nominees, and it certainly helps that this show, the last of the masterful Kander and Ebb, was a critical darling. But Tony voters tend to have short memories, and Scottsboro is the only of the nominees no longer running, having long since closed in December.

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2 comments on “2011 Tony Awards: Sound Design of a Musical

  1. J-Bob
    May 16, 2011

    While sound design is a brutally difficult craft to master, for the majority of musicals, the sound designers’s brief (as communicated to him – it’s almost always a “him” – by the producers and director) is exactly as you suspect: Make it so I can hear the actors. Then make it louder.

    Which really means that, for a musical, the only way to evaluate the sound designer’s work is whether there was clarity and warmth. There are certain people nominated this year who do nothing but slaughter the audience with amplification; certain others of the nominees are far more nuanced and musical. But the nominators are to be blamed for this particular selection – it is as random a grouping as you could imagine, having virtually no relation to the quality of the work presented in Broadway theaters this season. I imagine a hat with names in it, if you get my drift.

    Returning to my earlier point, however, it’s not always fair to blame a sound designer for the work presented, just as it isn’t necessarily fair to blame a costumer or an actor or an orchestrator – ultimately, these are jobs, and the guys who take these jobs are trying to make the employers (be they the producers, the directors, the general managers) happy. I’ve heard some very gifted designers do some extremely crass work, and when I pressed them about it, they sighed and said they had fought the Machine as best they could but ultimately were forced to put their names on work they didn’t feel represented their own aesthetic. Such is life in the commercial theater.

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    • Julie
      May 16, 2011

      While I should always keep it in mind, I consistently (idealistically?) forget that there’s always someone to answer to – whether you’re the actor, designer, director, or writer – and yes, of course, some of these designs were surely influenced by the powers-that-be.

      Thanks so much for your comment; it’s especially helpful to hear a composer’s thoughts on musical sound design. I’d be interested to hear which designs you (dis)liked and why, specifically, off-blog — or on-blog, if you’re up for it.

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This entry was posted on May 16, 2011 by in Award Predictions, Broadway, Musical, Sound Design, Tony Awards.

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