Following his success with Fiddler on the Roof at the Broadway Theater last year, Tony Award-winning sound designer Scott Lehrer muses on his latest New York production, Hello Dolly, starring Bette Midler at the Shubert Theater.
Lehrer examines every detail of both show and auditorium to ensure there is not a sonically bad seat in the house, choosing reinforcement support from d&b audiotechnik.
“I have worked the Shubert before; I put Chicago in there in 1999 for four years… The Shubert is not especially reverberant, not as dry as the Broadway, but you still need to put some life into it. It differs in that its balcony and mezzanine are steep, unlike the depth of the enormous Broadway Theater balcony. And they’re close; the throw distances are much shorter.
“Using all d&b elements we have developed three different L/R systems, one for each level: orchestra is V7P, mezz’ and balcony use Y8 arrays, plus a split orch/mezz center cluster of V8, delays and fills. It’s fairly intimate for each of the three areas, even the back of balcony feels vibrant and fully in contact with the performance.
“Just to add to the equation after we had done the production’s load-in it was realized that those seated on balcony couldn’t quite see some of the action on the front stage edge, so the balcony floor was raised, making it even steeper. Luckily because we had taken the three systems approach it was a relatively easy job to lower in the balcony L/R system, re-adjust the angles on the box hangs and, using d&b’s ArrayProcessing (AP), resolve any issues.”
That familiarity with the physical nature of the auditorium is a strong starting point for Lehrer and obviously influences his design decisions downstream, as is evidenced in his approach to coverage. His attention to detail is illustrative of how the demands of the production are balanced to the characteristics of the room.
“As with Fiddler, I once again covered the orchestra with d&b V7P point source loudspeakers, but for a different reason. We were going to use Y-Series line array originally but the set designer, Santo Loquasto, wanted the system hidden within the proscenium and it really didn’t fit. Besides we would not have been able to service it in there. The V7P solution works very well; the throw distance is not much so it’s really no big deal. We do have a center cluster of V-Series array, which provides coverage across the mezz’ and balcony as well.
“To achieve an ideal balance throughout the room I tend to favor the vocals in the center, maybe 3 or 4 dB above the band, and then from the L/R sides I favor the band, 2 or 3 dB above the voices. Having the voices in the side hangs helps keep the vocal pulled down in the sound image. So, I set a vocal level that makes sense from the center cluster, and then balance to the sides.
“There are a fair number of fills, mainly d&b E6. E6 downstairs, E6 delays for the mezz’ under-balcony; I also use three Y7P for delay on the balcony truss. There are E8 sidefills to the extreme corners of the mezz’ and balcony. Frontfills across the stage are E5s. There is no surround system for the show, but we do have E8 on stage for fold back and use them as source for a couple of onstage effects.”
While the rococo plasterwork of the auditorium helps scatter sound energy where flat surfaces would have only served to reflect and add complication, it was addressing the steep vertical nature of the room where Lehrer applied a tool he’d mastered so successfully the year before on the revival of Fiddler at the Broadway.
“All the arrays were AP’ed and that made a huge difference. The whole ArrayProcessing thing is such a game changer. I have The King and I on tour right now and went to the Kennedy Center in DC to hear it. I don’t always go to tours to re-tech, but I went there because I really wanted to hear how it was in an important venue for a five week sit down. . . . The house manager came to me and said ‘no touring system has ever sounded this good in the balcony;’ you can sit at the back of the balcony and the intelligibility is almost better than what you get in the orchestra.
“After the opening of Hello Dolly, for the first time Carin Ford (who mixes the show for me) was able to hand over the mix to her assistant and walk away from the console to listen around the room. The first thing she said to me was she couldn’t believe how similar it sounded, same balance, same tonality, same level, throughout.”
Having secured the technological platform of the sound reinforcement system, Lehrer brought the full force of his expertise to apply on the most critical element, the performance. Bette Midler’s vocal powers notwithstanding, this is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
“Dolly differs from The King and I in its content and presentation but the same benefits of AP apply. The show has a wide dynamic range. Bette has been accustomed to playing big arenas and concert venues for many years so the first thing I had to do was tell her it’s okay to be quiet here if appropriate. She doesn’t need to use her big voice, it will be delivered by Carin and the system. If the intro to a song is ‘conversational’ then make it conversational level. That took her a while, but she likes it now. The performance of the sound system allows for great intelligibility, even if she just whispers. That is a liberating experience for her. With the audience right there in her face there is that intimacy, so it’s really nice for her. As for her voice, she’s doing seven shows a week across five days . . . It’s tough but she does a great job and has a great cast around her, David Hyde Pierce in particular.
“When director Jerry Zaks chose Bette Midler for the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi she said ‘I’m going to have the time of my life’ and that’s exactly what she has brought to her performance. With such abundant energy available on stage it’s important to make sure every single audience member gets to enjoy that experience as if they were sat front row center. That’s not only about harnessing the latest technology; the sound designer’s role is as much about managing the performers’ energy. With Bette that’s a really exciting challenge.”