Wednesday, September 19, 2007


I've blogged before about the problems created by amplifying singers in the theater. I have more to rant about now.

On Saturday, I saw Stephen Sondheim's great opera musical Sweeney Todd at ACT, in the touring version of last year's stripped-down Broadway production, with ten performers who both take the principal roles and play the orchestral instruments.

I love the piece and loved the production, and thought the cast ranged from very good to excellent. David Hess and Judy Kaye are both excellent as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, though neither is quite in the class of the splendid George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, who can be seen in the 1982 film of the stage production.

The production has one huge flaw, and that's the amplification. The ACT Theater is not huge and everyone in the cast is a trained singer. I sat audience left, in the orchestra section, and perceived all the sound as coming from about 20 feet above the stage. The amplification thus removes any sense of people moving on stage.

Why on earth did ACT or the director think this necessary? What's gained?


pjwv said...

And that's why I didn't even go to this production, much as I love Sweeney Todd -- I saw this version in NYC in 2005, and was third row orchestra right, directly below a speaker -- all the sound came from above my head and not from the stage. I paid $100 for what sounds like a recording? Baffling.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yeah. I didn't know in advance about the amplification, and it took all of two notes for me to notice. I think I will email ACT about this.

pjwv said...

I'd love to know what, if anything, ACT says in reply. And their amplification is so bad -- I went to Urinetown a few years ago and two elderly ladies near me had to move to the back of the theater because the sound was so distorted they couldn't make out any of the words. That's why I've pretty much given up on musicals. My brother-in-law works in theater and according to him the accepted wisdom is that audiences insist that the performance sound like a CD. I hope it's not a lost battle, but it certainly seems to be a losing one.

Alex Shapiro said...

It's not only a problem in a relatively small venue, but also in large ones: after the Hollywood Bowl spent awholelottamoney to renovate the amphitheater in L.A's hallowed hills a couple of years ago, I joined a friend in a box seat moderately close to the stage to hear Gil Shaham perform the Beethoven concerto. Or was it the Bruch? Who could tell? The sound was so annoyingly overamplified that, as everyone above has noted, I heard the music solely from the speakers and not at all from the man and orchestra in front of me.

Equally sad was that despite being able to have seen the wonderful visual of Gil and the band passionately sawing away, instead, the enormous rock-concert sized video monitors that flanked the stage diverted my and everyone else's attention away from the live performance, luring us to see it "close up." Just like TV. Waitaminute! We were close up! I could have enjoyed this concert just as well or better had I gone to a friend's house with a 50" LCD screen and cool speaker set up. No traffic, not parking hassles, no chardonnay bottles rolling unceremoniously down the concrete steps during the pianissimo moments (hmmm... maybe I'd miss that). Live events have become truly Post-Modern: they are no longer the event itself, they are ABOUT the event.

Obviously, in a venue that seats thousands of people like the Bowl, the choices in this case are made to serve the nose-bleed section ticket-holders, and I understand that (having suffered from altitude sickness up there much of my life). But the result is that the only reason to consider buying "the good seats" is the see-and-be-seen factor; there's absolutely no artistic advantage whatsoever, as far as I could tell.
Unless you like the added aleatoric percussion of wine bottles on concrete.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Patrick, I've got some comments from ACT. I am mulling them over and may reply to them; in any event, I should ask if I can quote what they said.

The accepted wisdom seems insane to me. I assume what audiences want has to do with the kind of music they listen to. Opera and classical fans know that recordings and live performances are different and shouldn't sound alike.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Alex, wow. That sounds so awful.

David Gockley had some monitor screens up in the rafters of War Memorial this past summer, as an experiment in the upper balcony. I need to find out if they are still there - I never minded being far from the stage when I stood or sat there and I think it distorts the whole experience to have the sound be far away with closeup visuals.