Abe Jacob: Legendary Sound Designer

Two or three things you may not know about Abe Jacob: He got his start in San Francisco mixing sound for such 60s rock stars as Jimi Hendrix, The Mamas and the Papas, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, and designed the sound system for the Monterey Pop Festival. Born and raised in Tucson, he still spends his winters in Arizona, where he occasionally does work for the Arizona Theatre Company.

Legendary sound designer for theatre and opera, tireless champion of union representation for his fellow artisans, and an EDDY Award winner for both, Abe Jacob is simply, as Jonathan Deans says, the man. Jesus Christ Superstar, A Chorus Line, Pippin, Chicago, Cats, Evita–Jacob was the audio go-to guy for these and other seminal Broadway shows, virtually creating the position of sound designer in the process. In the past 15 years, Jacob has helped secure a charter for sound designers within IATSE (Local 922); and in 1993 he helped the Local achieve its first collective bargaining agreement with the League of American Theatres and Producers. And in 1999, he helped merge the sound designers with Local One.

ED editor David Johnson spoke to Jacob earlier this year, soon after he was announced as one of the winners of the 2000 EDDY Awards.

David Johnson: How did you get involved in theatre sound design?

Abe Jacob: It was easy, because no one else was doing it. Before theatre, I was doing a lot of concert sound. The whole idea was that I was doing concert sound and then started doing theatrical work on the West Coast, and through that got involved with other productions of Hair that happened outside of New York. And I ended up in New York at the time of the previews of Jesus Christ Superstar, when they had some sound problems as well as other technical problems. I happened to be at the theatre at one of the cancelled performances and re-ran into Tom O’Horgan, whom I’d worked with on one of the Hair companies outside New York, and he said, could you help? I was in town for a few days and did, and I guess I’ve been here ever since. That was early 1970.

And word just got around. We did Superstar, and it worked, and from that point on, various management offices would get in touch with me. I was actually planning to move to New York because I was going to manage Electric Lady Studios, Jimi Hendrix’s recording studio down in the Village. That was the secure job that I had to come here to so I could live, and then theatre was on top of that. But that lasted about six months and the theatre became much more lucrative.

DJ: There wasn’t really theatre sound design at the time.

Jacob: Theatre sound design at the time was handled by the show electrician and stage manager. For the most part it was merely a matter of putting in the dressing-room page system and five mics across the front of the stage. The stage manager would tell the electrician, who was hired to put the board in, that this is the mark you put the knobs at, and when the director’s in the house, you put them up or down a little bit–and that was sound. Now certainly there were individual performers prior to that time who wore wireless mics, so that was another thing that was turned on and off when the star was onstage, but again it was brought up to a mark and left.

DJ: How long were you working as a theatre sound designer before people started taking notice of it?

Jacob: It was almost immediate that critics started making comments about the sound in the theatre, and that it was going to bring about the death of the American musical as we knew it…

DJ: Which they’ve been saying ever since.

Jacob: They’ve been saying it ever since, yes. And now they’re saying it about opera, so I guess I have the distinction of being able to destroy both art forms!

But I brought in some people who had mixed concerts with me to run the shows now that we had the opportunity to design. And the things I insisted on were that the operator, since he’s running the show, needs to be in the audience where he can hear what the audience is hearing and away from backstage next to the dimmer boards. That meant another person to do it, and so that’s how the sound operator got to be a part of the crew. And it established sound design as a credit on the title page.

I suppose the first big musical we did from scratch, where I was hired before they went into rehearsal, was Pippin by Bob Fosse. And then it just seemed to go on from there. I was fortunate in that I was able to work with directors who shaped the American musical theatre in the early 70s through the 80s–Michael Bennett on Seesaw and A Chorus Line, Bob Fosse on Pippin, Chicago, and Big Deal, and Gower Champion on Mack and Mabel and Rockabye Hamlet.

DJ: Most of those directors embraced the idea of sound design?

Jacob: It was the directors who helped push it, absolutely.

DJ: What was their reasoning behind it?

Jacob: To make the form of the show itself more viable to the audience. At the same time, of course, scenery and lighting were coming way along in their effects, and sound was another part of it. Now I don’t believe that any of those people thought that sound would rectify errors in casting. The audience’s demands changed at the same time. The advent of personal tape machines and Walkmans gave the audience a whole new sense of sound, of what it was supposed to really sound like rather than what they imagined it sounded like prior to the advent of magnetic storage.

DJ: What are some of the projects you’ve worked on that stand out for you?

Jacob: Certainly, as I mentioned earlier, being able to work with those directors was a real high point. And then also being able to work on those original rock operas such as Hair and Superstar, Tom O’Horgan’s Sgt. Pepper, and Beatlemania, the original Rocky Horror Show, and the original American tour of Tommy. Certainly Beatlemania was successful far beyond what anybody thought it was going to be. And to have George Martin and Paul McCartney think it was a pretty good representation of their work, was a high point in my career at that time. And then A Chorus Line, of course. I suppose having designed the two longest-running musicals ever, between A Chorus Line and Cats, is significant.

DJ: What was the equipment like back then?

Jacob: Looking back, the equipment was not as sophisticated, but often I didn’t get to management in time to say that we needed to spend more than $25 a week for a piece of equipment because it sounded better. We didn’t have the strength then to get better equipment, even though the equipment was [NOT?] anywhere near as good as what’s developed in the last 10 years.

DJ: You’ve seen technology expand quite a bit since those early days. Do you think it’s close to where it should be, or does it have a way to go in terms of serving the designer?

To where we are now, unless there’s a whole other concept or creative way of doing sound for a live audience, it’s pretty darn good. But I don’t think it’s going to stop. For example, certain of these acoustical enhancement systems–SIAPS, ACS, LARES, V-RAS–I think could be adapted to a Broadway musical. And people will still say there’s a sound system, but at least there won’t be a radio mic on everybody, and the dynamic control under the hands of computers or electronics rather than just what the performer would do. And I suppose if I were going to do something else, that’s the area I’d like to look into. First of all, you’d have to find the right property, and then figure out a way to make it work in the theatre that it opens in, and then if the show becomes successful, to allow it to be reproduced either on tour or elsewhere. Basically all of these systems are designed for a venue rather than a production, so that would be the interesting next creative step.

DJ: What about the role of the sound designer today? Obviously you helped shape that a lot, but even in the theatre camp there are people who have not fully embraced it.

Jacob: I think it’s finally coming to a point where, especially in musical theatre, at least now they’re criticizing it on whether it’s good or bad, not simply criticizing because it exists. In England, for example, in London, when we went over to do the first musicals over there, it was accepted as a fait accompli, absolutely necessary to theatre. And that brought the forefront of the English designers and gave them the background to come over here and do great work in this country.

So it has to be good, and then secondly it needs to fit in with whatever the production is; it shouldn’t just stand out on its own as a separate part of the show. I’m also a firm believer that the content of much of the musical theatre today is lacking, so the form has to be the greatest exponent so the spectacle is there. And certainly sound is a part of that.

One of the best things that happened with the technology today is to allow a careful design to include not only reinforcement of all the speaking and singing and played parts, but also to allow you to have the image coming from where the source is. The problem in the early days–and it still is, to some extent–is that the sound comes from loudspeakers off the stage rather than off the performer. That’s still a big criticism today, but certainly people like Jonathan Deans are doing a lot to improve that.

DJ: Let’s move on to opera. How did you get involved in that?

Jacob: It was a pastime I’d enjoyed. But I had not done anything directly until about 11 years ago, when I did a national tour of The Sound of Music with Debbie Boone. And they decided at NYCO that they were going to book that for the summer. I went in and did it, and had some relatively good success at that first production. Because even at that time New York State Theatre was soundly criticized–pardon the expression–for not being favorable to the human voice. So we brought in a whole sound system. From then on, the theatre hired me as a consultant to redo the existing permanent sound system in the space, which we did. I stayed on as consultant to the City Opera, and then became the resident designer for the musicals they were doing, as well as other operas which involved things that happened off the stage–effects and things like that.

DJ: Opera, obviously, has been even less friendly to sound designers.

Jacob: Yes. It’s supposed to be the last stronghold of unaided, unamplified, unaffected human voice and musical performance. And to some extent that’s the way it should be. However, the reality of the situation is that in a room like the New York State Theatre, there are acoustical problems that cannot be solved other than by tearing down the walls and resurfacing and realigning them. But there are electronic fixes that can be brought in, which will enable the room to sound better. We are certainly not in any effect amplifying or reinforcing the voice or the orchestra. It is a series of microphones placed in the room to pick up the sound of the room and reproduce that at exceedingly low level from multiple speakers located in the walls to stimulate the sound of reflections that would naturally occur if those walls were proper acoustical surfaces.

DJ: Do you think this debate about the role of the sound designer will inevitably arise every couple years?

Jacob: It’s amazing when I look back on old files that the same words are used, especially The New York Times, in describing the death of the human voice as we know it, whether they’re talking about opera or musical theatre. They always come back to the same descriptions. So it probably will.

But on the other hand, no change is made without some kind of stirring up and throwing out established traditions that have been there for a long period of time, good or bad. And then we move on.