Another year, another round of Tony Awards, and another resurgence of the heated controversy: the elimination of the Best Sound Design category. In 2014, the Tony Awards Administration Committee decided to eliminate the category because, as Patrick Healy wrote for The New York Times, it believes “sound design is more of a technical craft, rather than a theatrical art form.” Of the 800 Tony voters, few understand sound design or how to judge it.
For Tony, seeing is believing, but the theatre community begs to differ: Hearing holds just as much impact. And a sound design shaped around Hamilton’s 20,000 words that are spoken at a rate of 144 words per minute? That can make believers of us all, experts in sound or no. As Rolling Stone puts it, Hamilton’s sound designer Nevin Steinberg is “getting screwed out of a nomination, if not a win.”
Many expect Hamilton—the hip-hop musical that’s winning hearts across the nation, from President Obama to Rosie O’Donnell (she’s seen it 12 times as of February)—to sweep the Tony Awards, but its more than worthy design team may very well be denied this particular recognition it so greatly deserves.
Creator and star of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda does not condone it, telling Rolling Stone:
"Sound design is an art form as integral to the success of a theatre piece as any other element. Set designers sculpt with physical materials, lighting designers sculpt with light and sound designers sculpt with sound. They are responsible for your aural experience at a Broadway show—literally the sound of Broadway. To omit them from recognition—I simply don't understand it."
Miranda considers Steinberg’s artistic contributions to the production significant. There is one moment in Hamilton where time suddenly moves backwards, and Steinberg’s musical collage, which Miranda calls the designer’s masterpiece, plays an integral role in the transition between the two scenes that rewind to unravel a new perspective. "The band actually stops playing at that moment," Steinberg tells Rolling Stone, "and we go to a pre-recorded, very heavily processed piece of audio” as the large turntable on stage spins and everything happens in reverse. That’s just one moment where Steinberg’s art helps propel the musical. Miranda could tell you at least 50 more, according to Rolling Stone.
Steinberg, who was nominated for a Tony six times before the category’s elimination, still believes that the journey is the reward in itself, and Hamilton is certainly one hell of a ride. Nevertheless, there’s still hope: The Tony Awards state that special awards may be granted for exceptional work in years where it is especially warranted. Fingers crossed that Tony will finally hear the artistic beauty that rings true with every note.