The new hit adaptation of An American in Paris is a unique hybrid of a big, brash Broadway musical and an energetic ballet performance.
Based on the 1951 dance-centric Hollywood film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, An American in Paris originated onstage in Paris in late 2014 and came to Broadway in April. Rapturous reviews and full houses followed, even though the lead actors, Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, are ballet dancers with scant theatrical experience.
“An American in Paris weds music and movement, song and story with such exhilarating brio that you may find your own feet fidgeting…longing to be swept up in the dance,” raved The New York Times. The show won four 2015 Tony Awards (scenic design, lighting, choreography and orchestrations; there is no longer a Tony for sound design).
Directed and choreographed by ballet luminary Christopher Wheeldon, An American in Paris is indeed a big-budget Gershwin spectacular that’s staged in one of the largest theaters on Broadway: the 1,740-seat Palace. Only a few of Broadway’s 40 theaters are larger.
The size of the room, while a boon for producers with a major hit on their hands, presented serious challenges to sound designer Jon Weston. Keeping the audience connected for two-and-a-half hours to a complex love story in such a big room is somewhat daunting for all involved, he says, adding that in a smaller theater, holding an audience’s attention is not as much of an issue.
And when you’re pumping out audio power in a loud show, it is also less of an issue, but with a period piece that is trying to be somewhat subtle and retro, such a large room can be a real challenge, “especially if you want to keep the show sounding somewhat acoustic and give the last row the same audio scale as the front row,” Weston notes.
Weston comes at theater sound from the idea that it is indeed sound reinforcement, not “obliteration” through amplification and effects. Notably, most of Broadway’s theaters were built long before sound reinforcement emerged (in the case of The Palace, 1913). Audiences long heard performers completely unamplified, via a theater’s acoustic properties alone. Weston’s plan for An American in Paris was to work with those acoustic properties, not against them, as befitting a show with its origins in the pre-amplification era.
“The whole job is to just do enough to excite the room; a good room will do a lot of the work for you,” he says. “In a bad room you need a hammer. If an actor onstage can’t be heard three feet away, it won’t work well. Then the voice is coming from the speakers, and the audience knows this and they may start disconnecting from the stage.”
“Subtle reinforcement” is the phrase Josh Millican, associate sound designer, uses. He says they walk a delicate line in reinforcement level in a story-dense period show staged in such a big theater.
Today’s audiences, of course, have entrenched expectations about clear, present sound, so, “You have to move a lot of air to make a person 80 feet away feel connected, Millican says. “If you’re under-reinforcing, and not moving enough air in a big room, people will be missing things, not getting it. If you’re over-reinforcing, people are leaning back, having things thrown at them. You need the audience to lean in a little bit in order to keep people involved in the intimacy of the piece. There are five major characters, each with their own story. We have to have the audience involved and following all the storylines.”
A key to keeping the sound natural and somewhat appropriately retro was to present the 20-piece orchestra as acoustically as possible, to create the impression that the sound was all coming from the pit. “The orchestra is in the sound system, but the baseline is what we can hear out of the pit,” Weston says.
To make that work in the big theater, he consulted closely with the music department on pit design, even choosing the finish for the wood floor because of the different tonalities wood coatings create. They also elevated the small six-piece string section on the upstage wall, “to help them, naturally, sound as big as they could.”
In keeping with the somewhat retro nature of the show, “Nothing is really close-miked in pit, there is air everywhere, which to me is great,” Weston says. “The minute an instrument stands out, we have a problem.” (Orchestra mics are a combination of Neumann, Sennheiser and Schoeps.)
However, as with many Broadway shows today, there’s a musician who’s not in the pit. “The biggest handicap is that the percussionist is in another room,” Weston says. “A lot of nice sounds would pop out into the room if he were there. So we ran speakers into the pit, fed with percussion. They’re not on very loud, there’s just enough to get out into the house.”
To further help excite the room’s acoustics, Weston mounted four Meyer UPA-1P speakers in a truss overhead, fed with orchestra. The Palace has what he calls a “minimal dome ceiling,” and so “the sound from these speakers reflect and rain down on front rows of the orchestra seats. It works nicely. When you get the big moments, the room itself wraps its arms around you musically, and you might think there are 28 musicians in the pit.”
There is only one electronic keyboard in the pit, to emulate a celeste (the small keyboard instrument that sounds like a glockenspiel). Eschewing most electronics, of course, went with the vintage feel of the show. “Modern shows all have electronic keyboards, not pianos. We have a real piano, a Steinway upright—this is Gershwin! We wouldn’t do it any other way.”
A quest for audio authenticity is also why they’re mixing on analog console, a Cadac J-Type (58 inputs on the main frame, 46 on a sidecar). “Nothing else sounds like it,” Weston asserts. “I’ve been on Cadac since the A-Type. No one who mixes on a Cadac says, ‘I don’t like the way it sounds,’ ever. And I don’t want my mixers thinking about numbers. I want them painting every night.”
“In Paris we were required to use the house system, and the console was digital, which doesn’t have the life that an analog console does—the soul, the breath,” Millican says. “Digital consoles are incredibly flexible but, in most cases, a bit sterile—it’s like the difference between a Pro Tools session and cutting to 24-track tape. An analog board is real and allows things to work more naturally. The analog Cadac has dynamic range that completely supports all the highs and lows. When a flute is just barely trickling, it will sound as good as a trumpet going full out.”
Weston also goes old school for outboard effects, using Lexicon 480L reverbs, “as everything else sounds cold to me; we’re certainly not using any plug-ins. The low-res converters in older gear add this delicious second order that we humans really want.”
Audience members in the front orchestra may notice one bit of modern tech that’s quite visible, however: RF mics on at least two characters that hang down to nearly mid-forehead.
“We always try to hide the mics,” Millican says. “A lot of shows require that the mic be quite low, you’ll see a mic literally between the eyebrows. The convention has been established that you can put a mic on someone’s forehead on Broadway. However, we try quite hard to keep the mics as hidden as possible.” Mic placement is all a compromise based on physics, he notes, and visible mics are another aspect of working in a bigger theater. The bigger the house, often the lower the mic has to be placed, for gain.
In fact, the center of forehead a half-inch below hairline often results in perfect sound, Millican says. RF mics are Sennheiser MKE 2 Gold, with SK 5212 transmitters and EM 3532 receivers.
Weston and Millican agree that the mixer’s role is especially important in a complex show with an orchestra of 20 and a cast of 32.
Sound designer Weston states flat out that, “The mixer is far and away more important than I am, absolutely. Mixing is not engineering—it’s not a slide rule and ones and zeroes, but a performer making decisions just like a conductor or an actor.”
He gives head sound engineer/FOH mixer Carin Ford tremendous credit. “Every breath a singer takes is hundreds of decisions in brain, ear and finger of mixer. My baseline is for the mixer to stay out of the way. If the performer one night chooses to be quiet, let them; don’t dig them out. And if they want to soar, let them soar.”
“On a night-by-night basis it is all up to Carin,” Millican agrees. “We rely on her consistency to land every cue. We need that reliability to deduce where any problems may lie. Problems can be small things, so she’ll just push up a fader, or larger issues, requiring physically moving the mic position on an actor in the middle of the show. She does whatever she needs to do to maintain the sound.”
The show uses a mostly conventional proscenium speaker setup in an A/B design.
The A/B approach—where the mics of actors who are scene partners are run through entirely separate audio systems, including separate, identical speakers—was especially appropriate for the slightly retro, more natural sound of An American in Paris. A/B “results in a much smoother, cleaner vocal sound,” Millican explains. “Because you hear less of the electronic properties of the sound system, it makes everything more transparent, which helps the story infinitely.” (The A/B approach avoids the phase cancellation that happens when a single sound takes two electronic paths, via the actor’s mic and that of their scene partner. Instead of being combined electronically, the signals from the scene partners combine only acoustically, in the air.)
Even with the doubling of vocal speakers necessitated by the A/B approach, the speaker total is on the lower end for a big Broadway house in 2015. The proscenium has four Meyer UPA-1Cs and four Meyer MLS-2s; the center cluster has three Meyer UPA-1Cs and three Meyer MSL-2s. The balcony truss has four Meyer UPA-1Ps.
Front fills are 12 EAW JF60; orchestra and mezzanine delays are eight EAW JF60s and 24 EAW UB12s. Surrounds are EAW JF80s. Subs are two Meyer USW-1Ps and two d&b QSubs.
Weston says he’s not a minimalist when it comes to inputs, but is considered so when it comes to output. “I did a lot of concert work, and you’d have situations where the monitors were too loud and you can’t get FOH over it,” he says. “The best way to attack that is to turn everything off, then play, and address the imbalances directly. Once you’re in balance onstage, you just ask, ‘What does anyone need to hear?’ instead of piling all this reinforcement on. It is too easy for the air to get full of reinforcement info we do not absolutely need. That’s my philosophy on it.”