I joined the UK sound company Orbital with a baptism of fire, diving straight into Bombay Dreams — the latest musical from Andrew Lloyd Webber to take London's West End by storm (see “Staying Afloat,” ED July 2002, page 40). Now into my sixth month with the company, I was given the equally heady challenge of coordinating all the sound and communications requirements for the first International Festival of Musical Theatre (IFMT) in Cardiff.
The festival was staged by a team of experienced West End professionals, including Jo Benjamin and Clive Chenery, who chose the capital of Wales as the home for this inaugural event. The Festival was a celebration of one of the world's most popular art forms and it generated huge interest from companies, writers, and performers from around the globe. An enormous range of shows was presented, from the European premiere of Ragtime to The National Youth Music Theatre's version of Oklahoma!
The scale and ambition of the festival was impressive, playing host to over 50 shows — yes, 50 — from around the globe including 10 West End musicals, several Broadway classics (Carousel, Anyone Can Whistle), and a range of world premieres. The Festival was also a golden opportunity to dust off a number of legendary shows that don't often get to see the light of day.
While not everyone's cup of tea, the Festival was certainly an opportunity to overdose on musicals. It gave me the chance to work on a huge range of productions of every scale, from two-handers to full-on Broadway hits. It is always rewarding to work on such a groundbreaking event, particularly one of such a high artistic level, and one which involved some of the great names in musical theatre, both on and off the stage.
Working with such a diverse group of producers, directors and casts was inevitably going to be a challenge. Not only were we working on very tight lead-in times on-site, but also with production teams ranging in experience, nationality, and approach to audio.
Luckily my previous experience at Edinburgh's Fringe Theatre Festival came in handy, and braced me for the logistical challenge of working on 50 productions at five different venues. With many of the shows running simultaneously, the atmosphere of ordered chaos certainly brought back fond memories of my years at the Fringe. The big difference in Cardiff was that everything was moved up a few notches: no student shows here, but big-name directors and star-studded casts. The shows were unquestionably much more sophisticated and sonically demanding. Meeting the expectations of modern musical audiences did not change just because there is only a single day to rehearse the show.
I knew it was essential to work very closely with the artistic teams of each show, particularly with the directors and orchestra coordinators, to ensure that each sound design met their demands. While I handled this liaison during preproduction (spending hours on the phone, e-mail, and fax machine to piece together the details of each show), my colleagues on the sound design team worked to translate these requirements into systems that were flexible enough be reconfigured to meet each show's very different demands.
The scale of the Festival loomed large over Orbital's warehouse. Manager Eric Simpson and his team burned the midnight oil to prepare and tune the five systems, which were then loaded onto two trucks for delivery to Wales. Seventeen members of staff worked on-site to meet what were often extremely tight deadlines. For the Opening Gala — a huge tribute to the greatest musicals of the 20th century — we had less than 10 hours to install and configure the system at the New Theatre. System designer Scott George managed to survive almost 24 hours with no sleep. The typically torrential Welsh weather added to the pressure situation of the first night but fortunately was not a bad omen for the rest of the festival.
Scott worked with Crispian Covell on the system design for the New Theatre. After the Opening Gala the system was transformed for Babes in Arms, this year's featured musical, and then used for the BBC Voice of Musical Theatre Competition. The competition formed the heart of the festival, with each round being broadcast on BBC radio and TV, showcasing musical theatre stars of the future. Scott liaised closely with Huw Thomas and Kate Jones at the BBC to ensure that all the correct feeds were available at their OB truck.
Orbital's Sebastian Frost designed the system for St. David's Hall — Wales' leading classical music venue — where shows like Ragtime, Carousel, and the astonishing Czech musical Joan of Arc were staged. His design centered around one of Orbital's brand new Digico D5 consoles, the first time the D5 had been used in a theatre environment. The D5 played a crucial role, handling major orchestras on a daily basis and providing all the necessary feeds for the live and broadcast sound. Experienced West End operator Borneo Brown got to know the console very well over the three weeks of the festival, working closely with production engineer Chris Ekers and radio mic specialist Alison Dale. Orbital took the opportunity to try out the Nexo Geo line array at St David's Hall.
The team at St. David's Hall had a phenomenal task, turning around major West End musicals on an almost daily basis. Although we were dealing mainly with concert performances, handling 60-piece orchestras and 24 soloists required careful preplanning as well as a fair degree of last-minute busking. The tight rehearsal schedule meant that on many occasions we did not get to see the show until the afternoon of the performance, really testing Sebastian and Borneo's professionalism and experience to achieve a tight sound in limited time.
The highlight of the festival for many was the European premiere of Ragtime, which played to a packed house. The production proved to be a particular audio challenge because the concert staging was taken to an extreme with the choir and several acting areas integrated within the orchestra. The performance was greeted with a standing ovation, a proud moment for all those involved.
Sebastian also worked closely with the BBC's Martin Gifford to match up input lists for each concert as Orbital was also providing splits for the broadcast and recording teams. The D5's optical multicore made our life easy, with only a single fiber cable to run between desk and stage. The BBC's task was a little harder, with hundreds of lines of analog multicore linking the stage to their in-house studio two floors below.
Orbital's Simon Whitehorn opted for a more conventional approach at Cardiff's student theatre, the Sherman. The two performance spaces here played host to a range of shows including Greenwich Theatre's acclaimed production of Sadly Solo Joe, with Clive Rowe, and the Watermill Theatre's great new Ten Cents a Dance, a new compilation of the music of Rodgers and Hart. The talented National Youth Music Theatre joined us for a week in the main auditorium with their sell-out hit Oklahoma!, with sound design by Gary Dixon.
The studio theatre was home to more “fringe” productions, including the world premiere of Exit Allan, a coproduction between students of the Orpheus Centre and the Guildford School of Acting. The Orpheus Centre trains disabled performers, and sound designer Tom Lishman achieved stunning results, mixing their talents with those of the Guildford students, and producing sound effects at a moment's notice with his ProTools system.
Even once each of the venues was up and running there was no let-up in the pressure. The constantly changing program and endless last-minute alterations kept everyone scrambling. I was kept fit running between the venues ensuring that cast and crew were up to date and that there were not too many last-minute surprises. I'm sure I lost several pounds over the course of the three weeks — although many were recovered in Cardiff's splendid pubs!
The festival concluded with another Gala Concert, although this one was a much simpler affair. Four top soloists performed at Llandaff cathedral, accompanied by just two pianos — quite a change from the symphony orchestras and choirs we had become accustomed to. It was a welcome change, however, and worked well in the difficult acoustic space of the cathedral. Chris Ekers took charge of this event, and was assisted by Mark Dunne in yet another tight fit-up and performance schedule. The simple d&b audiotechnik system employed was well suited to this black-tie event, which paid tribute to all those who had participated in the festival. It was quite an emotional evening as it marked the end of many months of hard work.
It was very rewarding to make a contribution to many productions which might not be seen were it not for an event such as this. I'm sure this is a sentiment shared by all those involved on the sound side and I thank them for their endless professionalism and consistent enthusiasm through good and bad times.
I did get attached to the event and met some fantastically creative people whom I hope I will bump into again. Due to their success, a number of the productions including Babes in Arms and Ten Cents a Dance might transfer to the West End. The festival is scheduled to take place again in 2004, and I look forward to it.