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As the title suggests, it's crucial that we hear Holler If Ya Hear Me. The new Broadway musical, in previews now at the Palace Theatre, is built around the late rapper Tupac Shakur's lyrics and poetry, and it's often up to John Shivers and David Patridge, the show's sound designers, to make sure the words are clear.
"If the audience doesn't understand the lyrics and the dialogue, they're not happy," Shivers says. "They're not getting the story."
In the last few days, theatrical sound design has been in the spotlight because the Tony Awards Administration Committee announced its will eliminate the awards for sound design of a play and musical. Shivers, who won a Tony himself for designing Kinky Boots, speculates that this decision could stem from a lack of understanding about the art form. "I think it's a real shame that the importance of sound design has been diminished to some extent by this decision," he says. "When there's bad sound people know it, and good sound sometimes goes unrecognized. However, it is very important to the success of a show. It's just not so apparent to people what exactly it is."
So what do sound designers do? On the technical side, they specify the equipment and sound system that will provide proper coverage from the speakers to the audience, making sure everyone in the house can hear the same thing. That's a simple-sounding concept, but it requires an enormous amount of expertise that involves everything from creating a speaker array to setting sound levels to properly to placing wireless microphones on actors' costumes and wigs.
Meanwhile, sound design also involves purely artistic decisions. When a show needs a sound effect, for instance, the designer is responsible for creating the right telephone ring or blaring siren or eerie noise. Plus, during the tech period, the designers make constant adjustments to make sure the sound of a production is consistent with everything else. (Imagine a tender love scene that was almost drowned out by traffic noises. Those sounds would have an obvious artistic impact, and the designer would need an aesthetic reason for making the car horns so loud.)
"I think that's where the art comes in," says Shivers. "The technical side is one thing. It's quite important to set the system up properly, and we do spend a fair amount of time getting all that right. The art, however, is more in the fine tuning of the details that you really only can do when you get the orchestra and the cast together."
In the case of Holler If Ya Hear Me, which uses Shakur's music to tell a fictional story about an ex-convict returning to his old neighborhood, the team was faced with both technical and artistic challenges. For one thing, the volume is louder than in a typical Broadway show, so Shivers and Patridge had to make sure to produce the sound levels cleanly and avoid feedback. Also, the show uses a lot of high-speed rapping, which can be hard to understand. In order to deal with those issues, Shivers and Patridge were in conversations with everyone from the director and actors (about diction) to the music director (about the tempo of certain songs.)
Another reason this show is unique: the producers gave the Palace a stadium seating renovation. "In terms of sounds, in some ways [the seating] actually simplifies things because there is one less seating area that we have to cover," Shivers explains. "Instead of having an orchestra, a mezzanine, and a balcony, we had one continuous orchestra/mezzanine section, so there are only two seating areas. It's simplified things a bit for us, but nothing is simple. With sound design even the simplest show can be very complicated."
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: the cast of Holler if Ya Hear Me