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Meticulous Balance: The Sound Design For “Follies” At The Kennedy Center

“This is a classic type of show that was written before productions became too over-arranged. The various sonic elements are balanced naturally, so I wanted the sound system to be as transparent as possible.” - Kai Harada, sound designer

By Keith Clark June 13, 2011

A scene from the Current production of Follies at the Kennedy Center (Photo by Joan Marcus).

The current production of the multiple Tony Award-winning musical Follies at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., presents a beautiful yet haunting study of youth as seen through the eyes of age and experience.

Featuring a score recognized as one of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest works, Follies originally opened on Broadway in the spring of 1971, running for more than 500 performances in the Winter Garden Theatre.

The limited-run revival at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, which began in early May and continues through June 19, features a stellar cast that includes principals Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines, and Elaine Paige.

A New York Times review noted that the show “glitters with grandeur, lyricism and an uneasy undercurrent of fragility. It is the sound of beauty with fracture lines, just about to crack.”

It’s appropriate that the review makes an allusion to sound, because the sound design for the show presents another interesting study, carefully conceived by veteran theatrical sound designer Kai Harada and mixed live by Patrick Pummill on a Stagetec Aurus console surface.

A 28-piece orchestra presenting Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations joins the vocals of the cast of veteran theatrical performers as the primary elements in a soundscape that requires meticulous balance.

“This is a classic type of show that was written before productions became too over-arranged,” Harada explains. “The various sonic elements are balanced naturally, so I wanted the sound system to be as transparent as possible.”

Original Sources
The Eisenhower Theater seats 1,100, and is the smallest of the theaters on the center’s main level.

It contains an orchestra pit for up to 40 musicians that is convertible to a forestage or additional seating space, as well as a main (“orchestra”) seating level followed by a box tier and then the balcony. The walls are of East Indian laurel wood, and the stage curtain of hand-woven wool is a gift from the people of Canada.

A perspective of the Eisenhower Theatre at the Kennedy Center.(Photo by Roy Blunt)

“The theatre is a very well designed acoustic space, which enhances the natural elements of the production,” notes Harada, who has sound design credits for several top shows such as Million Dollar Quartet on his resume. “It works with my primary goal, which is to present the superb original sources of the actors and the orchestra in their native state, without noticeable electronic enhancement that would detract from their innate power and beauty.”

A modern sound reinforcement system was installed in the theatre a few years ago during a renovation of the room. Comprised of premium components, it was deemed well-suited to serve the needs of this production. Line arrays are JBL VerTec Series incorporating Drivepack (DP) electronic modules with Crown Audio amplification and dbx digital signal processing.

Key elements in this set are a center cluster for the main level seating and box tiers made up of seven JBL VT4887A compact modules and five more VT4887A modules serving the balcony.

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About Keith

Keith Clark
Keith Clark

Editor In Chief, ProSoundWeb & Live Sound International
Keith has covered professional audio and systems contracting for more than 25 years, authoring hundreds of articles in addition to hands-on work in every facet of publishing. He fostered the content of ProSoundWeb (PSW) from its inception, helping build pro audio’s largest portal website, and has also served for several years as editor in chief of Live Sound International (LSI).


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J. P. Reali says

The information in this article pertaining to the theaters construction is incorrect.  The walls are made of ash not laurel wood, and the curtain is not wool and was not a gift from the people of Canada.  The laurel wood walls and curtain from Canada were features of the theater before the 2007 renovation.

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