Concert or Musical: Brian Ronan on American Idiot

Take a Grammy-winning band, a multi-platinum album, Tony Award-winning director and lighting designer, and you have the makings of American Idiot, the new musical that premiered at Berkeley Rep this past fall. The band is Green Day, whose award-winning album, American Idiot, serves as the score for the musical, directed by Michael Mayer, with lighting by Kevin Adams, a Tony-winning duo for their work on Spring Awakening. Additional design credits include sets by Christine Jones, costumes by Andrea Lauer, projections by Darrell Maloney, and sound by Brian Ronan, who successfully met the challenge of designing a hybrid concert/theatrical musical. Live Design chats with Ronan about his work on American Idiot:

Live Design: How did you approach a musical with a rock score... any differently than traditional musical theatre? Did you want the sound to be like a concert or a Broadway show?

Brian Ronan: American Idiot is a perfect blend of concert and musical. It has all the infectious spirit of a Green Day concert where you’re there to hear the music in a large room with people you don’t know-to feel part of something bigger than your own personal experience. However it also has a moving storyline to follow and characters to connect with which can only be experienced individually. I wanted my system to serve both sides this duality. To do this I concentrated less on imaging and transparency, qualities very important to me when designing a more traditional piece, and more on harnessing the strength of the show’s inherent volume.

LD: Can you describe the Meyer Sound rig, choice and placement of speakers?

BR: After talking things over with Meyer’s Design Services I went with three arrays of Melodie. The left, right, and center arrays covered most of the room. I filled in the uncovered seats with a various fill speakers. UPA-1Ps UPJ-1Ps, M1Ds and UPM1-Ps. The proscenium of the Roda Theatre in Berkeley is covered with a steel pipe lattice. We were able to find good hanging positions with plenty of options to grab onto. The tech staff there was amazingly collaborative and creative in finding ways to get things done.

LD: What was your primary goal for the sound quality?

BR: Creating a system that would deliver the power of Green Day’s music so that it would be felt in the chest while allowing the complexity of their lyrics to arrive at the audience’s ears with ease and comfort.

LD: Were there any particular challenges along the way, and if so, how were they solved?

BR: From day one the decision was made to place a rock and roll drummer mid-stage with no baffling or anything that would separate him from the audience. Every design decision was based on that. Working from onstage out I attempted to a make stage experience the cast could perform to. I needed to allow them to hear the other instrumentation that might get masked by the SPL levels of the drummer. I created zones onstage with different mixes to make a consistent performing space for them. If it worked at all it was a credit to the limitless adaptability of the performers on stage.

Another challenge was taking a band that was spread out around the stage on different levels and making a system that allowed them to play as a unit. Because of their placement within the picture frame of the set the band was as much of a focal piece as the cast and they needed the freedom to perform and yet be tethered by the technology that gave way to that freedom. Once again it was the band itself that allowed for both to succeed.

LD: Was the Yamaha board made to facilitate any specific issues or add parameters?

BR: To be perfectly honest I went with the Yamaha board because we couldn’t afford the LCS Cue Station that I wanted. The FOH engineer David Dignazio was very familiar with the operation of that console and I wanted the flexibility that it allows. No regrets with the PM1D though. It did a fine job but I could have used more outputs and I was interested in pursuing more current technology. When Yamaha breaks out the PM2D I’ll be interested to see where they’ve taken their approach to digital mixing.

LD: Were you pleased with the end result for the sound? How did the audiences respond?

BR: You didn’t hear it? Oh man, you better hope we get another chance. American Idiot drew a pretty lively audience wise to the ways of Green Day’s music. I witnessed a consistent reaction to the show. The audiences that came to see us were both vocal and physical in their appreciation for what they were experiencing. I think it was the result of their expectations met by the vision of our director, Michael Mayer, fusing with the Green Day brand. I was pleased to know the sound was part of that experience.

LD: Are there currently plans to move to Broadway? Would you make any changes to the design or rig (or does that depend on the choice of venue)?

BR: Most shows plan to go to Broadway. That’s not always spoken both most often thought. I would try to keep the system in tact but that would be dependent on the theatre we went to. Physical space would be the only reason I’d change speakers. I think Meyer was the right choice so I’d stay in that family. David Dignazio and I will discuss the pros and cons of swapping out the mixing board and come to a decision on that. As of today there are no concrete plans to get the show to Broadway this season.

Stay tuned for an interview with FOH engineer David Dignazio...

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