A Tony Voter's Guide To Sound, Part One

The Nance, with sound design by Leon Rothenberg
(Joan Marcus) The Nance, with sound design by Leon Rothenberg

At the Tony Awards in 2008, sound designers were among the recipients for the first time. Sound design is an art, after all, and finally, everyone knew it. “I had always thought if I show up and do my job well, everyone will understand and recognize what I do. The value of that work spoke for itself,” says Lindsay Jones.

So when the Tonys decided to eliminate sound awards for the 2014-15 season, it surprised sound designers everywhere. “When the Tony thing happened, after we sort of had the initial shock and hurt, what a lot of us in the sound community experienced was total bewilderment. We checked in with playwrights and directors. ‘You know what I do, right?’ They all said, ‘Yes.’ Then we went to each other. ‘Is it us? Did we miss something?’ There was a lot of reflection,” Jones recalls. 

Jones says his good friends are scenic and lighting designers, not so much other sound designers, because he rarely collaborates with them. “These past few years, since the Tony Awards situation took place, a lot of sound designers have been able to bond as a community that didn’t exist before.”

An informational campaign began, and from that, a group of sound designers created [an organization called] Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers to educate average theatregoers, critics, award voters, even the people who pay sound designers to do their jobs.

In April 2017, the Tony Awards Administration Committee Association announced that sound design awards for a musical and a play will be presented again in 2018.

South Pacific, with sound design by Scott Lehrer

But Are The Voters Ready?

Scott Lehrer, who won a Tony for South Pacific in 2008 and was nominated for two others during the brief sound-Tony era, believes the sound awards were dropped because voters didn’t know how to evaluate sound. “It’s not as obvious how you evaluate these things as it is costumes and sets. People think, in a musical, you put up microphones and turn on the PA,” says Lehrer, explaining that where you place speakers, how you balance them, how you create the image of the sound in the room, and a whole lot more goes into sound reinforcement. With inadequate speaker placement, some in the audience would complain it’s too loud, others would say it’s too quiet. “Creating a distributed sound system is another big part of the job.” 

“It’s hard to talk about sound or music,” says Darron L West, who took home a Tony for Peter And The Starcatcher. “How do you properly describe Stravinsky to someone who’s never heard The Rite Of Spring? It’s already inherently built into the discipline.”

Yet, Lehrer notes that a general music listener can distinguish between concert music and punk, between a classic musical and a rock musical. He believes on some level, we know more than we think we do.

The Nance, with sound design by Leon Rothenberg

“For a lot of people, sound design seems a little scary because they think they don’t understand it,” notes Leon Rothenberg, who won a Tony for The Nance and shared a nomination with Lehrer for Joe Turner’s Come And Gone. “But they do understand it more than they might realize. Certainly, nobody has any trouble not liking it, but when you’re talking about the subtler gradations of what is good about a sound design, there’s a bit of a stretch there for people, but it isn’t a stretch that should be scary, just a little different.”

“If sound is mentioned in a review, it’s almost inevitably a poor review, very rarely an acknowledgment of a sound designer,” notes Nicholas Pope, sound designer for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812, for which he won a 2017 Drama Desk Award.

One complication is that sound is the only design field with two different functions: creating music and effects for a soundscape that helps tell the story and reinforcing a show so performers can be heard clearly. Some designers do both. (Maybe one day we’ll have a Tony for each sound design area.)

In many cases, audiences aren’t supposed to notice the sound design.

Check out Part Two!

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