It is official. Hell has frozen and pigs are flying through midtown Manhattan. As of June 19, 2007 there will now be a Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Musical and Best Sound Design of a Play. Are you shocked to find out there wasn't one? People still seem surprised to find out there has never been a Tony for sound design. It used to be one of my favorite facts to tell people to show how downtrodden we poor sound folk are, but no more. We have a Tony now. So what does this mean? What is in the future for sound design? Will this have any effect on designs or designers? I talked to some Broadway sound designers to get their reaction to the news, and also to find out what recent designs deserve Tonys.
“In a craft where the highest goal is not to be noticed, it is going to be strange to get an award for it,” says Brian Ronan, sound designer for Spring Awakening. When asked if it would have any effect on sound design he answers, “In some ways it is just one more thing to worry about in an already neurotic field. Sound has always been the bastard child and, like it or not, now we are sitting at the big table, which puts more responsibility on the sound designer. I hope in the future to see a further attempt to integrate sound with the shows. What I don't want to see is designers throwing in the kitchen sink because there is an award to win now.”
When asked how the perception of sound might change Ronan speculates: “It may provide more scrutiny. Those who write articles may pay more attention or find themselves straining to find a way to critique sound design.” As far as a show that stands out in his mind as deserving a sound Tony, Lily Tomlin's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life In The Universe (sound designer: Otts Munderloh; sound mixer: Bruce Cameron) tops Ronan's list. “I stood behind Bruce and it was one of the most impressive shows I have ever seen or heard. All the sound cues were on cart machines, they were constant, and Bruce never stopped moving.”
Jon Weston, sound designer for The Color Purple, believes that much of the resistance in years past to a sound design Tony came from the producers. “I think that producers, for years, didn't want to acknowledge the importance of sound in the theatre. While the audience's ears were being developed and trained at home with CD players and home theatres, sound designers were busy trying to bring an even higher level of sound to the stage. It's also very tricky to judge such a subjective art. The producer can't see it or lay hands on it. My hope is that it may affect not only the sound design, but also the entire artistic process. Sound designers can be a great help in a musical production if we are brought in early on in the development phase of a production.” As for the future of sound, Weston says, “Quality and taste, let's hope.” His picks for a previous production worthy of a Tony for sound include Phantom of the Opera, (sound designer: Martin Levan; sound mixer: Steve Kennedy), and The Who's Tommy (sound designer: Steve Kennedy; sound mixer: Lucas Corrubia).
Tony Meola, sound designer for Wicked, points out the subjectivity of sound over the other design disciplines. “The problem with sound is that people want it the way they want it,” he explains. “It is not offensive if a white light comes up instead of a blue light, but people get offended if a sound happens that they weren't expecting. I try to get the story moving forward without people knowing what I am doing, and I think that attempt to be invisible is what has kept sound from being acknowledged for a Tony.” Meola's picks for Tonys include Medea (soundscapes: Mel Mercia; sound designer: David Mesher), and Dreamgirls (sound designer: Otts Munderloh).
I hope a Tony for sound design brings more recognition for the quality sound that is out there — I also hope it helps create a vocabulary for people to critique sound. “It's too loud,” could one day become, “There was too much sibilance on the lead's voice and the cello overpowered the clarinet.” Instead of just ignoring sound, maybe critics will start pointing out the good and the bad. I also hope to one day be involved in a Tony Award-winning sound design, not because of a need to be noticed, but I want my craft to affect people who hear it.
So now we have a Tony; in less than a year one or two of our own will stand in front of the microphone and give thanks. Wow. I better go brush the locusts off my console before they open the house.
Shannon Slaton is a sound designer and engineer living in New York and currently mixing Jersey Boys, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Spring Awakening on Broadway.