Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

2013 Tony Awards Predictions: Best 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.

BEST SOUND DESIGN OF A MUSICAL

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1. PIPPIN
Jonathan Deans & Garth Helm

2. KINKY BOOTS
Harvey Fierstein

3. RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA
Nevin Steinberg

4. MOTOWN THE MUSICAL
Peter Hylenski

Every musical has an essential sound – a sound it SHOULD be conveying. Did the designer do so successfully? — Robert Kaplowitz, sound designer

Sticky wickets, these sound categories, whether for theatre or film. Essentially, your guess is as good as — probably better than —  mine.

Motown The Musical sounds exactly like what it essentially is: a loud, brassy pop/r & b concert, with emphasis on the loud. The clarity of the sound and lyrics does not go unappreciated and the authenticity of the experience should be applauded, but I could’ve sworn I was going to Broadway, not Madison Square Garden, and didn’t bring along my ear plugs (for the first few songs, I thought my right eardrum might explode from the insane vibrations of the house right speakers; eventually my ears numbed to the aural blasts). Most critics disagreed and found the design by third-time nominee Peter Hylenski (Rock of Ages, The Scottsboro Boys) to expertly crafted, but still: I predict Motown, nominated for four awards, will not walk away with a single one.

This marks the sixth nomination for Nevin Steinberg, who, to my mind (and often in collaboration with Acme Sound Partners), has created some of the more memorable sound designs of the past few years (Bengal Tiger, for example). For Cinderella, he nicely augments the richness and warmth of R & H’s score and Danny Troob’s shimmering orchestrations, but its unlikely he’ll receive his first win here.

John Shivers’s design sounds as though it went through a bubble-gum pop generator, which makes sense considering who wrote the score. Kinky Boots is loud — though not as loud as Motown — and rather processed-sounding, but it works well for Cyndi Lauper’s poptastic score. The first-time nominee could spoil here, but it’s unlikely.

The bar was set high for Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm’s sound design for the first Broadway revival of Pippin. The original 1972 production was designed by Abe Jacob, who essentially established modern sound design on Broadway and mentored many of the current generation of sound designers. (His impressive list of credits includes Hair, Jesus Christ SuperstarA Chorus LineChicagoThe Rocky Horror Show and Evita, but because this category wasn’t created until the 2007-2008 season, Jacob has no Tony to speak of, though he continues to design for Lincoln Center.)

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. — Abe Jacob

For the revival, Masque Sound provided a custom-designed audio system, and the result is not entirely unlike Kinky Boots: It’s strangely processed-sounding, but the vocals sound crisp and clear, and each lyric is distinct. That clarity, coupled with the enormous amount of goodwill for this revival, will earn both Deans and Helm their first Tonys.

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