When most people think of sound design for a theatrical production, they think of microphones, but before I quizzed Leon Rothenberg the other day about the mics for The Nance, I asked him for a more general description of what he and his fellow sound designers do. "Sometimes my colleagues and I joke that our work involves the art of thinking creatively," he replied, "and then translating that into cable runs."
Rothenberg, who last month won a Tony award for his wonderful sound design on this Lincoln Center Theater production, has a strong academic background for his profession: a B.M. in Composition from Oberlin Conservatory and a B.A. from Oberlin in Computer Science. "I started out studying composition and learned about form and about how to structure something musically," he said. "I learned that programming problem solving and compositional problem solving are very similar."
After graduation, he worked in software for a couple of years before deciding that he preferred the creative collaboration of working full-time in theater and film. Since receiving an MFA a decade ago from California Institute of the Arts, he has worked all across the country. He designed sound for a couple of Cirque du Soleil shows, and received a Tony nomination for the 2009 LCT production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, on Broadway. He has been especially busy at City Center, in New York, where he has worked on the Fall for Dance festival and where, this summer, he is involved with two shows in the Encores! Off Center series: The Cradle Will Rock and I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On The Road.
As for his work on The Nance, Rothenberg credits the production's director, Jack O'Brien, for leading the way. "He had the overall vision. He pushed us to aim for the sound to be authentic, close to what it would have been in a 1930s burlesque house." Technically, this meant that the show's actors are not miked directly or individually, as they would be, for instance, in a Broadway musical. "There are mics on the stage," Rothenberg said, "but they are hidden in the floor. I sometimes like to say that this system 'lifts' what the actors are saying or singing." He added: "What we did is simulate the sound of a 1937 burlesque theater, rather than reproduce it exactly."
The subject of miked or unmiked actors is still one that can touch off passionate debate among older theater and concert lovers. "I understand the nostalgia for unmiked sound," Rothenberg said. "People remember how wonderful it was, and I'm sure it was. But the modern ear is conditioned differently." Rather than think of miked/unmiked as good/bad, Rothenberg views the topic more dispassionately. "Microphones are a necessary tool, as well as an artistic choice. Things always depend in part on the context."
And sound design, he added, has existed much longer than there have been microphones. "It's been around as long as there have been people backstage shaking thunder sheets." Even longer. "The ancient Greeks had no rock musicals that needed miking. But they had ways to convey sound. The amphitheater itself is the original sound system."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com