Getting into Theatrical Sound Design. “Sophisticated Ladies”
I had engineered and compiled a five record set of Duke Ellington’s music for M F Records. The work was done with Mercer Ellington, Duke’s son and very talented Band Leader/Writer in his own right. That 5 record set led to recording a new album with/by Mercer Ellington. (My memory is a little funny here as to whether it was Mercer’s music or Duke’s music, or a mix. But it was great pleasure having the real Ellington Band in the studio.) This involvement with the music of Duke and Mercer turned into a Broadway show, produced by my brother Manheim Fox. The show was called “Sophisticated Ladies”. He brought in 4 other producers to finance and co-produce the show. Manny then hired Gregory Hines, Judith Jamison, Phyllis Hyman, P.J. Benjamin, Terri Klausner, Hinton Battle, Gregg Burge, Mercedes Ellington and Priscilla Baskerville., and everybody else to do the show, including a famous Sound Designer at that time. I was not hired as Sound Designer at that time. Manny said he didn’t want the appearance of nepotism, and I had never done any kind of live theater sound before.
Show went to two cities, maybe three, before coming to New York. I wasn’t there so I’m not sure. Going out of town was the way to a perfect show before it came to New York and either failed or succeeded. Usually, a show went to other cities before getting reviewed by NYC’s powerful reviewers. But I didn’t go see the show. I wasn’t invited.
My understanding was the show was a disaster on supposedly many levels. To fix things, they brought in Michael Smuein to direct. My brother Charles was invited to see the show and suggested Michael Smuen. Then they tried some other changes. I think they even brought another orchestrator into the production. All I had heard that there were giant whooshing pops that would occur during the performance. When it was already in NYC and about 4 days before opening, it wasn’t fixed, and nobody knew what to do. MERCER said bring me in. He made Manny’s co-producers hired me. I was hired by Roger Berlind as another Sound Designer. I believed the show’s problems were all with the sound.
I had read the reviews from previous cities and realized that Tony Walton’s terrific set was lit by neon. As the neon was faded “up” (made to light) it generated radio frequency (RF) sweeps. Those sweeps were picked up by the wireless mics, and made giant explosions into the audience from the sound system. It is hard to have a production that is without a story line, when you are being distracted by really loud cannon fire during every lighting change. In theater I learned this kind of no story line musical production was called “All Sizzle, No Steak”. This means there really is no dialog of consequence or storyline sticking the songs together. It was more like a musical review. Hence, all the razzle-dazzle of the great songs and music, and dance, and set, and costumes, the “Sizzle”, and yet no storyline or character connection, the “Steak”
Also realized the band could not really play together. Tony Walton had made a very beautiful set with two giant lighted staircases between the Brass, Rhythm, and Reeds + French Horns. Beautiful, but nobody could hear anything or each other on the set. They were all sitting too far apart. They could not hear any thing, as the horns were 40 ft away from the reeds, playing in the wrong directions. At that time, shows weren’t using much in the way of stage monitors.
So I fixed that by putting in multiple stage monitors for the band. Reeds and Rhythm was sent to the Brass. Brass and Rhythm was sent to the Reeds. Rhythm mixes always favored Bass, Guitar and Piano for chords, and vocals were fed back to Rhythm. Only the Guitar and Piano were fed to the Vocalist and Dancers as rest of music was on stage anyway, and already loud.
I came in, rebalanced the band, fixed the problem with the RF Neon interference (Which is probably too technical to include here), and added the Stage monitors. I called a band balance rehearsal just before we opened in NYC. This is an unusual thing to do. Besides being costly, it was the only way to get the band mixes and house mix precisely together and very quickly. I treated it like a recording session. “Let me hear the first trumpet, alone, let me hear the second trump, alone, let me hear the third trumpet, alone, let me hear a trumpet pyramid. Etc.” I went through every instrument and balance. The band wasn’t happy about coming in for a rehearsal on that day but Mercer and others cooled them out.
The whole show came together. It ‘smoked’ the audience and reviewers. No more cannon fire. No more distractions, just the greatest dancing and singing in front of the great Ellington Band like you never heard them before. Great, uninterrupted Sizzle!
At the end of the opening night show, Mercer jumped off the stage into the house and started walking towards me. I left the back of the house by the console and went down the isle and met Mercer in the middle of the house. We met in the isle in the middle of the orchestra section, and just hugged. We were both really happy. (A strange aside: As we were hugging and talking, a guy in a badly mismatched beige summer sports jacket and paisley shirt with a bad tie came up to Mercer and me as said “I just got to ask one thing, I just got to ask one thing” as he interrupted us. We looked at him and waited for the question. “Are there more black musicians or white musicians in the band?” I was dumbstruck. I never counted. I wouldn’t even been able to count from memory. Who would count? Why should I care? What kind of question is that? I don’t remember who said it, whether Mercer or myself, or even if we just thought it, but I believe Mercer just pointed at this guy and said “throw him out”.) We left the theater, went to the opening night party, and waited for reviews.
The reviews were great. It was all over the newspapers and TV. The best review from my perspective was from TV Channel 4, or 5, if I remember correctly. The reviewer said “$45 dollars?” (It was, I think, the first 45$ ticket price on Broadway). “I know its got great dancing, but $45 dollars?” “I know its got great music but $45 dollars?” “I know it got great sets, and costumes, but $45 dollars?” Then the reviewer said “Well it’s worth $45 dollars because it sounds so good!” Sound got a positive review on TV.
Then the problems started.
My name never got into the Playbill or on the NYC posters. I came into the production in the last minute and they were already printed, and I didn’t know to insist on that change. Three of the four other Producers, privately told me I saved that show, many times, but none of them actively sort to hire me again. There were no Tony Awards for sound at the time so I just faded back into the recording studio. My brother Manny never said anything about saving this show until about 25 years later. This was my first foray into Theater. I was not in the Theatrical Crowd so most didn’t know anything about me. The show’s sound mixer got the reputation for fixing the sound.
When the show also opened in L.A. the original Sound Designer refused to ship the special equipment I ordered so L.A. would also work. He was still the Designer of record and was not giving up that royalty and didn’t consult with me about it. The show would have been a disaster in L.A. as well, for almost the same reason. I had to do another 3 day emergency fix, almost the same fix, for L.A. as N.Y.C. Slightly a different fix as there is more strict earthquake code and less strict electrical code in L.A., so the fix was slightly different. It was another 3 day stressful event in my life. At least this time my name got on the posters.
The show in L.A. got even better reviews. A very well known big band arranger I didn’t know at the time, came up to me in the theater and wrapped his arms and one leg around me and said, “that was the greatest big band sound he ever heard!” Many years later, when he had his own show in NYC, he didn’t call me as he promised he would. I went to this (his) show on my own and heard it. It missed, the sound wasn’t helping, it was almost hidden. Many Sound Designers believe sound should natural and not be noticed. Natural and not noticed are strange concepts, especially when you consider they may mean inaudible. I could have fixed that show too. But sound gets no respect. People don’t realize, they don’t hear music or dialog when sitting in hundreds of seats, they only hear the amplified sound. And if the sound doesn’t translate what the musicians and performers are doing and emotionally deliver “that” it to every seat in the house, then sound is working against the production and not for it.
I spent some years after that back doing record albums and films. I was also getting called in to “help” other designers with doing (fixing) their shows. Fixing a show is very personally rewarding, but no matter what they pay you as a day rate for “helping” fix their shows, you never get over not having your name or the royalties tied to a fixed production.
Then Tom O’Horgan asked me to do “Senator Joe” the musical. Right away we knew there would be a problem. We had a live pit orchestra on stage on high risers, each member with their own instrument and an additional amplified MIDI sound system. How was I going to control that and get the voices over that? When I asked Tom he said, “you’re the sound guy, do whatever you think”. And with Tom’s directive and support came the invention of invisible head worn microphone.