By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Broadway had failed to attract a new generation of theatregoers. Stephen Suskin asserts that “the early '70s saw one disappointing musical after another from former hit-makers like Rodgers, Lerner, Styne, Bock, Strouse, Herman, Kander, and Coleman” (Suskin 2006, 133). Legendary Producer Stuart Ostrow attributes the problem to the fact that, by the late 1960s, “Broadway was recycling too much of its past…and we lost a generation of creators.” It would take at least two decades for Broadway to reinvent itself, but one could argue that the revolution began at Joseph Papp's new Public Theatre. Abe Jacob's sound designs, which brought a powerful aural experience to such productions as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, as well as the later megamusicals like A Chorus Line and Cats, were instrumental in attracting new audiences and enabling the work of Broadway's new hit-makers.
After 14 years of staging Shakespeare in New York's Central Park, Joseph Papp decided that it was time to create a new theatre to speak out more directly to the society around it, and for its first production, he chose Hair.
The production grew into a major hit on Broadway, but producer Michael Butler followed the Broadway success by doing something radically different: rather than tour the production to different cities, he created whole new productions in other cities, including Copenhagen, London, and Los Angeles.
Things were going well for Butler and for Hair except for one rather significant problem: generally speaking, the sound for these productions was horrible. “We were very unhappy in the beginning,” recalls Butler. “When we opened on Broadway, the electricians' union gave us somebody who was tone-deaf to run the sound system,” (Butler 2006).
Actually, the problems were much more severe than a tone-deaf sound mixer. Hair was rock and roll — even if much of it was acoustically based, it still required microphones, amplification, and a sound system capable of rock and roll sound, and rock and roll sound levels. This was not the type of sound system found on the typical Broadway musical at the time.
What Hair really required was the type of sound system that Jacob had pioneered for rock and roll. In February of 1970, Jacob set about designing a sound system for “Wampanoag,” the Boston Hair “tribe,” as the different companies came to be known.
In Boston, Jacob brought to Hair the combination of rock and roll sound systems that he had pioneered with McCune's, and the sensibilities to traditional theatre he learned in high school and college. Jules Fisher, lighting designer for Hair, noticed the improvements immediately: “Abe…came in and said, ‘Hey, we can add better speakers, we can put microphones behind the borders upstage, behind the legs upstage, so as actors moved upstage there could be other microphones that could pick up what they were singing or saying. Jacob brought a lot of that to the theatre.”
Producer Michael Butler also immediately heard the difference in the quality of the sound and echoed a thought often added by those who worked with Jacob: “I liked him personally. He's a very nice guy.”
From Boston on, Jacob designed the sound for every Hair production and redesigned all of the existing productions, including the Broadway production in January of 1971. The many iterations gave Jacob tremendous opportunities to explore what worked and didn't when rock and roll combined with theatrical performance.
Suskin, Stephen. 2006. Second Act Trouble: Behind the Scenes at Broadway's Big Musical Bombs. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books.
Ostrow, Stuart. 1999. A Producer's Broadway Journey. Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.
The book will be available for the first time at the USITT Conference & Stage Expo in Houston, March 19 to 22. It will also be available in the USITT online bookstore at www.usitt.org/bookstore.
The Designs of Abe Jacob
By Richard K. Thomas
Published by USITT in cooperation with Broadway Press (March 2008)
Paperback, 128 pages
Price: $35 (USITT members: $30)