A quirky and wonderful musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, Sunday In The Park With George made its Broadway debut in 1984, as inspired by the famous pointillist painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, by George Seurat. The current Broadway revival, staring Jake Gyllenhaal as Seurat in 1884 and his illegitimate grandson in 1984, is at the newly renovated Hudson Theatre. It was designed by: Beowulf Boritt—sets; Ken Billington—lighting; Kai Harada—sound; Clint Ramos—costumes; and Christopher Ash and Tal Yarden—projections. Live Deisgn chats with sound designer Kai Harada.
Live Design: How did you approach the design for this production and was working in a newly renovated theatre a challenge in any way?
Kai Harada: It was definitely a challenge in the new space, but fortunately the City Center Gala version from November was still fresh in my mind. At City Center, we only had a day and a half of tech, so having four and a half days felt almost like a luxury. Nevertheless, it was a daunting schedule, but not a lot in terms of staging changed significantly between the gala and the Hudson Theatre.
I was in Los Angeles for the run of Amélie when I first heard we were doing the show, so getting drawings of the theatre was paramount, and I put together an equipment list as quickly as I could, running over to the theatre as soon as I got back to New York. I had only done one special event—a press event for On the Town—in the Hudson Theatre a few years prior, but I did remember that the orchestra, in the same upstage position as we would use for Sunday, did not overwhelm the voices naturally—sound on that stage tends to go up rather than out.
Loading in was a challenge for the team, working among contractors finishing bathrooms or plasterwork, with dust everywhere. A consulting team for the theatre renovation had designed a lot of audio patch points for underbalcs and surrounds so my team (associate Josh Millican and production sound engineer Mike Wojchik) was tasked with integrating our show sound system with many of these points, which sometimes required some creative solutions, and they showed much patience working in a theatre that was a construction site until just a few days before tech started.
Much discussion was had about the center cluster speaker positions; the Hudson has a relatively high proscenium, but I needed real estate for the speaker array for the prime seating areas in the center of the orchestra- without getting into followspot shots or projection shots. With some finagling we came to a mutually acceptable solution.
LD: What were the challenges — or pleasures — of having the band on stage? How do you make sure we can hear the orchestrations and the vocals?
KH: Although there is something that kind of resembles a pit at the Hudson, it would not have been big enough for our 14-piece orchestra. I love having the band visible onstage; although in some shows in other venues, this setup can present some sound challenges, I knew that although the orchestrations were thick at times, they weren't overpowering, and the orchestra is primarily acoustic instruments (two keyboards being the exception), so I felt we'd be okay with the orchestra upstage at the Hudson. Microphone positions on the actors was sometimes challenging with the significant number of hats in the show—obviously you can't do Sunday without hats, so between Clint Ramos, the costume designer, my great A2 team (Stephanie Vetter and Bill Gagliano), and I, we found some creative placement solutions.
LD: Some of the moments are very introspective and intimate—how do you shape those aurally?
KH: Basically, by not overmixing. Dave Dignazio, my engineer for this show, is an extremely talented mixer with a great ear, and he, like me, appreciate and understand the dynamics of a well-written show, and we let the introspective dialogue and song be just that- it's the way the show is written, and in many ways what the show is about. We just have to follow the arc of the show without fighting it.
LD: How do you choose the gear —is the console chosen in collaboration with the board op?
KH: No. How the show is programmed is up to the mixer, but the console is my choice. I have used the Studer Vista5 system on many shows, and I appreciate its functionality and especially its sound quality compared to other alternatives. The Stagetec Aurus is my other favorite choice but unfortunately it is too big to use in many Broadway theatres. I know that Dave is very used to Digico consoles, so the Studer presented a bit of a learning curve, but I stand by my choice to use it. As for microphones and speakers, I tend to stick with what I know and am comfortable using- Sennheiser analog wireless and MKE-1 and MKE-2 capsules, and a full complement of Meyer Sound powered loudspeakers (M1Ds, MELODIEs, UPQ, UPJ, UPJunior, UPM, UPA, UMS, etc).
Photo by Matthew Murphy
How complicated is the playback system? How complicated is the vocal control and mixing?
KH: There are only a handful of playback cues in the show- all centered around the Chromolume in Act Two. The show's original orchestrator, Michael Starobin, created a revised Chromolume music cue and gave us about twenty-four stereo stems of different instruments that we could route to different areas in the theatre— some left, some right, some in the surrounds, some in the center, some overhead, so we could truly envelop the audience and provide a different image compared to the rest of the show. Josh added some additional sound effects to the cue in QLab, and that was about it.
The vocal mixing is just as complicated as any other Broadway musical; although there are some beautiful solo ballads, in typical Sondheim fashion there are also very fast sections with interwoven lines in "It's Hot Up Here" and "Putting it Together." These just take practice, but the end result is that nobody in the audience has to think about the mixing.
LD: How would you describe the sound of the show?
KH: I would hope for "transparent." My goal on 99% of the shows I do is to NEVER get in the way of the words and the music— to simply reinforce what's already there and not create a sonic barrier—either due to too much level, too little level, or "speaker-y" sounding audio—between the audience and the performers.