Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Amplification: Back to Before?

Here is one on amplification on Broadway from August 18, 2007. This is one of those topics that never seems to go away.


One of the theatrical controversies that always pops up in theatre books, documentaries, and message boards is the microphone debate. I’ve honestly never heard a great voice un-miced, which I think would be an awesome experience, but there are other considerations to take in mind when it comes to this issue. It’s about so much more than just actors on Broadway being able to sing with that kind of projection and clarity.

First of all, we have to acknowledge what Marin Mazzie said in one of the American Theatre Wing seminars, which is that microphones in the theatre allow for a more nuanced style of acting. Everything still needs to be sold to the back balcony, but it can be taken down a notch because the voice isn’t required to do so much work. We still have some remnants of that style of acting left on Broadway, but it’s still often prevalent in high school and community theatres when big facial expressions and gestures replace genuine emotion. Thank God that’s slowly going the way of the dinosaurs! By today’s standards, set by film and television, the sort of acting un-miced on a stage in a theatre the size of the Palace, the Broadway, or most touring houses would require would be a major turn-off.

The presence of microphones has also allowed for more naturalistic staging. Not everything has to be sold out front all the time anymore. Book scenes can happen with one character facing the back of the stage, turning around, or whatever. I’ve often wondered how spectacular the revered acting performances of the past would seem today now that we have the ability for more nuance in acting style and staging.

We also need to acknowledge that audiences have changed. Cameron Macintosh said this in the Broadway: The Golden Age documentary, that modern audiences require amplification. When I attend reputable regional theatres that don’t have amplification, it’s a major frustration for the first twenty minutes or so because you do miss words or partial phrases. It’s not even the actors. It’s that guy with the cough, the woman with the squeaking seat, or the guy who needs to take his pill twenty minutes in. These are common occurrences in the theatre, and the presence of amplification takes these distractions away.

Heck, even in a movie theatre I get annoyed if the promised THX or DTS sound doesn’t kick in. I panic about not being able to hear properly or easily get distracted by popcorn crunching or soda slurping. Of course you settle in and survive, blocking out the distractions, but as an average person from the generation of stereos, headphones, car stereos, and concerts, my ability to block out distractions and hear clearly is limited. Add to that any other theatrical distractions (like air conditioning in theatres as one sound person pointed out), and you have someone paying $120 for a show they can’t hear clearly.

Then there are the shows that require amplification. Amplification, for example, pumped Tarzan with some much-needed energy. Other shows with rock scores require, by the nature of the genre of music, to be amped. You can’t have Amneris rocking out “My Strongest Suit” and not have those guitars and drums pulsing through the theatre.

I particularly hate when people use this issue as an excuse to attack actors. There are plenty of people out there who could do classic shows eight performances a week without microphones. As someone on the Broadway World message board recently pointed out, many modern scores are too taxing to perform eight times a week without amplification. Could you imagine trying to be Jekyll/Hyde without it? Or Aida? Or Eva Peron? But there are plenty of actors who could do traditional scores without mics.

But more importantly, there are many, many more who could easily learn to do it. There are the Betty Buckleys of this world who are born with pipes o’ steal, but that’s not a requirement. It’s usually about technique. Actors don’t develop that part of their voice because it’d be a waste of time. There’s no need to spend time learning to sing in a huge Broadway theatre without amplification because that’s not the scenario anymore. We have nuance now. In the old days, if Gertrude Lawrence, Sam Levine, Gwen Verdon, and Barbara Harris could do it—all extremely talented people who starred in un-miced musicals but were not known for strong singing voices—then there’s no reason why most contemporary performers couldn’t learn to do it too. Right now, I can’t drive a semi-truck, but with the proper training, there’s no reason I couldn’t do it. It’s the same thing for actors and singing un-amped.

This is not to say that amplification is the ideal. When I went to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, I sat in the orchestra section under the balcony in the Imperial Theatre, and the speakers sounded like $99.99 Wal-Mart specials. When that happens, it just takes time for your ears to adjust and get used to it. So if there is amplification, the speakers have to be of a quality to help make the sound appear to be natural, not like it’s emitting from a tin can.

I also remember sitting in the front of the balcony for the tour of Titanic and literally being unable to make out 85% of what the men were saying because the sound system was such crap. This was really sad because it was the first Broadway show for two of my friends, and they really didn’t get much out of it for obvious reasons. The actors were doing their thing. The producers and the theatre were the problem.

I will agree that no mics would be best. I’ve often sat close to the stage, wondering what it would sound like if there were not speakers audibly sending out sound from my right or left. But I also know that I appreciate the benefits that amplification brings—namely nuanced acting and staging techniques, not to mention the comfort of hearing comfortably. Personally, I’d love to go to un-amplified concerts, but as for my Broadway shows, I want to enjoy the story without any distraction.

the Broadway Mouth
August 18, 2007

2 comments:

kitty said...

I’ve honestly never heard a great voice un-miced, which I think would be an awesome experience,
Why don't you just go to opera?

I know it's an old post and I am not sure if you even read it, but seriously, it's not that difficult today to listen to a great voiced un-miced. If you are in NYC, just go to the Met and you'll hear great voices un-miced.

A few misconceptions here:
- to be heard the singers don't need to be in front. Operas today have very realistic staging, and there is no amplification in opera.
- while unlike Broadway singers opera singers don't sing every day, they don't put any more strain on their voices - look at how long opera singers' careers are. With the right technique, there is no strain.

Seriously, just go to opera or a classical singing recital in a strictly classical venue. It is indeed an awesome experience.

Broadway Mouth Blog said...

Thanks for the input. I never thought of that. I will have to put that on my To Do list.