Sound designers will be ignored once again at this year's Tonys. Let's do something about it.
I know, I know, I said I wouldn't do it. And then the electronic mailbox began to bulge with requests for something I mentioned in my last column. So I apologize for doing something that I said I wouldn't and, even though it's painful to say, here goes.
Another calendar year has begun and we rapidly approach the New York Theatre's most sought-after recognition: the Tony Award. Most scenic, costume, and lighting designers smile when they think of the Tony Awards. Get all dressed up, go to a fancy party, sometimes you even win a coveted award from your peers. Hmm, that sounds very nice, but not for us sound people. Sound designers simply sigh, have a moment of mental yoga, and quickly shift their focus to happier things, like doing their taxes.
Why? Good Question.
Why should the mere mention of awards for sound make so many people, including sound designers themselves, so very nervous? Well, we might be afraid of community backlash when few people understand what we actually do (since you can't see how pretty a sound design is), but our fellow designers should have a good idea if their ears are not filled with wax. I suppose we should also ask why directors and producers can so boldly tell us to our faces how sound is sometimes more important perhaps even than scenery in pre-production on a musical, then forget our names when they go up to the podium to accept their awards. Most irksome is to witness a director you've worked for whip out a cocktail napkin speech and sound off, mentioning other designers by name, stage management, the dressers, front-of-house staff, and especially our fabulous stagehands, but not the sound designer.
A Broadway Thing?
After more than 30 years of working side by side with other theatrical designers, we're still the bastard stepchild of the design department. I can't believe that the early work of sound greats like Abe Jacob, Otts Munderloh, and Jack Shearing (to name but a few) made only a minor impact on their shows. It's definitely a Broadway thing, as other major cities feature awards for sound design in their theatrical categories. There are specialty awards for theatrical sound design in Sydney, Melbourne, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and even New York's Drama Desk awards, though fellow sound designer Paul Arditti had to inform me that in London there currently are no publicly recognized awards whatsoever for theatre sound design. Hmmm. That constitutes another good reason to be angry about the Brits (see “London Calling,” ED November 2002).
Don't try and lecture me that sound doesn't deserve a Tony. Sound designers are listed on the cover page, albeit usually in the fourth design billing position, but an obvious position nonetheless. I've also heard people whine to me that the live sound and broadcast audio of the Awards is not so great. Well, it's not so easy to make podium mics sound great for everyone who walks up to them with no rehearsal and no idea who the talent is (i.e., the award winners who will give speeches). Besides, an award show's production values have nothing to do with the fact that sound has been consistently overlooked by the award committee and the Tony organization as a whole.
Why is it still being ignored? I don't know. I can't believe the rumor that it is a plot of a small group within the Tony organization. I flatly refuse to believe that it has not been put on the table, and “just happened to be overlooked.” I'm also positive it's not the concern that the annual TV special itself runs long; sound designers would gladly accept their awards in the nontelevised preshow. What producer would not want the ability to say, “Hey, my show is the best-sounding show on Broadway; we have the Tony to prove it”? It would do nothing but better the industry.
We keep asking why our peers don't deem us eligible for the Antoinette Perry Award. Most people agree that sound is so subjective and differs so greatly from person to person that it's impossible to agree on “what sounds good.” I'll second that, as I have been hired many times to make shows sound great, and in the process my superiors have insisted on a sound I consider blatantly awful — not what I wanted the show to sound like, but what someone holding the purse strings to the show thought sounded good.
One of my worst memories is of a producer who set the theatre thermostat to 60° and promptly lectured the lighting and sound designers on the eve of the first preview. “It's just got to be funny, and funny means a cold, bright, loud show the audience can see, hear, and stay awake for,” he told us. “Oh,” we thought. “That's what we're doing. We thought we were trying to make art.” I certainly never thought of getting into sound to make sound effects obvious and voices overamplified. Sometimes that process is simply beyond our control. Hey, I'm hired by a producer to work for the director and producer. I'll do what they want, and try to accomplish the best work I can muster along the way, but sometimes we get railroaded. We all want to make perfect imaging, realistic sound effects, perfect music and orchestral blends, and perfect audibility in the worst of situations.
Is sound considered an imperative part of the theatrical experience? Is it a design element? Without sound, would our modern musicals be a complete disaster? Yes, yes, yes! Even the non-reinforced plays in smaller, Off Broadway houses and LORT theatres would sorely miss sound designers. Without walk-in music, scene change music, proper sound effects, compositional underscoring, and our often imperceptible audio sweeteners the entire experience of theatre is undercut. And without our ancillary systems (video, communications, assisted listening, and backstage monitoring) shows would run less than smoothly, to say the least.
Oh, if only we could strike out for our cause, yet do it nicely, to inform the theatregoing public. We could have a Quiet Night on Broadway to make our point! How about we turn off all the playback sound systems, the sound reinforcement systems, backstage monitoring systems, infrared assistive listening systems, video systems, communications systems, walkie-talkies, and Aiphones to see what people really think about theatre without our work. Take that, Broadway!
But we don't do it. Sound designers are rarely the “get angry and do something about it” type. More often we'll quietly complain in our small circles and share information about whom we like working for, exchanging war stories as we make our livings. No, if we ever want an award for our Broadway recognition, we'll have to take the situation into our own hands and do it ourselves. That is the only way we'd ever get a fair shake, isn't it? Otherwise we might begrudgingly get a single award but no nominating committee would be able to differentiate between reinforcement, composition, sound scoring, and sound effects. As long as we're doing it ourselves, let's think about what we'd need to accomplish.
An Award of Our Own
For pure theoretical exercise, we'll call our pretend awards the Jimmys (hey, I'm risking my career to even mention this topic, so I get to name it after my least favorite nickname, alright?) Every Thursday night in March at SMNO (NYC's unofficial Sound Man's Night Out, a weekly post-show gathering of engineers and designers) we'll accept nominations for Jimmy Awards in the following categories: Best Sound Reinforcement for vocal and orchestral audio support; Most Natural-Sounding Show for reinforced shows that sound wonderfully acoustic; Best Composition for original works within a show's scoring (musical show composers are not eligible as they have their own category already); Best Sound Score Design for soundscapes and sound scoring of non-original elements as a whole; Best Sound Effects for specialty effects or naturalistic effects; plus one undesirable award, called the Earbleeder Award for Loudest Show, which speaks for itself.
The Nominating Committee would be comprised of six sound designers (four standard and two alternates), elected by the Local One IATSE and 829 Sound Designers at a special meeting which would be open to any sound designer/ composer in the NY metro area who has worked on Broadway, so that the group is equal and arbitrary yet with a guaranteed level of responsibility and an understanding of our industry standards and practices. These six would be responsible for seeing all of the Broadway shows who desire eligibility by providing comp tickets for the committee (as they do for the Tony Awards). Up to four shows could be nominated for a single award with no award ever being mandatory in a given year. After nominations, an additional six designers would see the nominated shows and the 12 sound designers would vote to determine a season's winners.
Trophies would be announced and awarded at a special pay-your-own-way dinner the first Monday night in June at a standard Broadway eatery (like Sam's, Sardi's, Gallaghers, Playwrights, Puleo's, etc.) that features a full bar of classic liquor, wine, and fine beer. I can see such an opportunity to eat and drink with our friends and competitors so popular we would have to add categories for other live events, including industrials, rock and roll, television, and even webcasts. As the Tony committees evidently don't feel qualified knowing how to award sound its deserved accolades, we'll have to make do in the interim and hopefully educate them ourselves. Jimmy Award, anyone?
Jim van Bergen's sound designs have been experienced by live audiences ranging in size from 99 people (Off B'way) to 170 million people (international television broadcasts). He estimates he deserves at least two Jimmy Awards so far in his career, but hopes neither would be an Earbleeder. He can be reached at JvB781@aol.com.