Get out your dancing shoes. The stage version of Dirty Dancing is hot, hot, hot. It's the box-office darling, smash-hit adaptation of the 1987 coming-of-age film that tells the story of a 17 year-old girl who falls in love with a dance instructor during a family vacation at a resort in New York's Catskill Mountains in the summer of 1963. Screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein also wrote the book for the musical, which opened in Australia in 2004, and has seen subsequent performances in Germany, London, Toronto, and most recently Chicago, which was the first city in the current US tour that also includes Boston (February 7 to April 12) and Los Angeles (May 8 to June 14).
Directed by James Powell, this unusual musical has sets designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, lighting by Tim Mitchell, costumes by Jennifer Irwin, video and projection design by Jon Driscoll, and sound by Bobby Aitken. And what makes it unusual? “The movie was not a musical,” says Aitken, who joined the design team when Dirty Dancing opened in London's West End in 2006. “The book is almost like a film script, and it defies all the rules of musical theatre. The principal actors/dancers don't sing much, and singers come on to comment on what the principals are doing.” The singers wear Sennheiser RF mics, with a total of 40 each Sennheiser SK 5212 transmitters and EM 1046 receiver modules. The sound shifts from loud songs, such as “The Time Of My Life” to more intimate moments between Johnny and Baby.
Aitken describes the sound design as “an ever-moving soundscape with iconic 1960s songs and a lot of surround sound. It is very dynamic, very filmic, with a lot of movement. There is nearly always music playing, with a lot of atmospheric sound such as weather, including rain and thunder, as well as live music,” he explains. A 10-piece band is located in a sub-stage basement studio built in each theatre, so the audience almost always hears the live music through the loudspeaker system.
“When five of the musicians come on stage to play, they wear in-ear monitors to listen to the rest of the band,” says Aitken, who adds that instruments such as strings are added via playback to the band that includes two reeds, two brass, guitar, bass, and percussion. Record players on stage serve as sound sources for the ‘60s songs, with the sound systems sending cues to the record players which, in turn, use Sennheiser transmitters.
The heart of the loudspeaker system is a large Meyer Sound M'elodie line array: left and right hangs with 16 cabinets each and 12 for the center cluster. “The M'elodies are the right size, and this was very important,” says Aitken. “We don't have the luxury of lots of extra wing space like in a concert setting. The M'elodies provide a big sound from a small box.” The switch to the Meyer loudspeakers came when the show moved to the States; in London, the rig contains speakers by d&b audiotechnik and Martin Audio. “There is a slightly different sound with each kind of speaker,” Aitken adds. “The M'elodies are very open and natural sounding. An advantage to the self-powered Meyer system is not having racks and racks of amps. This saves a lot of real estate.”
For front fill, Aitken uses nine d&b E3s built into the front of the stage, with four d&b B2 subs on the forestage area. “I am familiar with the d&b speakers. I've been using them for years,” he explains. There are also two Meyer 700-HP subwoofers to cover the balcony's low end and two 600-HP subwoofers to augment the orchestra level, as the show has a lot of sub-40Hz distant thunder.
New York City-based Sound Associates provided the sound rig for the US tour, with assistance from Meyer Sound Design Services using the MAPP Online Pro acoustical prediction program. Aitken's associate designer in the US is Garth Helm (they also worked on Mamma Mia together), while US associate sound designer and programmer Simon King helped with the first move from Chicago to Boston. The crew also includes FOH engineer Bill Ruger and monitor engineer Allen Sanders.
Surround sound is provided by 16 Meyer UPJ-1P VariO loudspeakers, supplemented by 16 self-powered MM-4XP miniature loudspeakers. “The output of the MM-4XP is really impressive,” says Helm. “It's a little firecracker and delivers far more than one would expect from such a small enclosure. It also requires very minimal EQ.”
Additional orchestra seating coverage is provided by 12 UPJunior VariO loudspeakers, along with 14 M1D loudspeakers for delay. “We're using the UPJuniors in places where we couldn't physically fit a UPJ, and the coverage is seamless,” says Helm. At the end of the day, the rig allows the sound to swing from full cinematic underscoring to intimate conversations, as the cast relives the sounds of the ‘60s, having the time of their lives.