Sound Designer Scott Lehrer Talks CHICAGO, Plea to Tony Awards Committee
New Orleans, LA (NOLA)--The fall season official began, but it felt like summer in the lower 80s °F, when BroadwayWorld.com, alongside a small group of Filipino journalists, huddled around Tony Award-winning sound designer Scott Lehrer ("Chicago," "Honeymoon In Vegas") at the dim-lit main floor of the famed Saenger Theatre early October.
On Bourbon and Royal Streets, nearby the Saenger, stomping and syncopated beats on the drums were joyously accompanied by the vintage melodies bursting out of brassy trumpets and clarinets on every corner. Unmistakably, we were in Downtown New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz--the sound that has put the city on the map since the mid-1910s.
The New Orleans Jazz, also known as Dixieland music, was the exact same sound aesthetics that inspired Broadway's legendary composer-lyricist team John Kander and Fred Ebb to collaborate on the original 1975 Broadway production of CHICAGO, "arguably their best musical," according to Lehrer. "Some will say it's 'Cabaret.' I say it's CHICAGO."
That distinct sound of the New Orleans Jazz, which became popular in Chicago in the roaring '20s, together with the sounds of boisterous fast cars, speakesies, and homicides, is what CHICAGO, which parodies judicial corruption and false celebrity at that time, needs to translate well to the stage. Luckily, that technical aspect of the show rests well in the hands of Lehrer, who was there in the beginning, doing live sound mixing, at the City Center Encore's stripped-down revival production of CHICAGO in 1996, which, later that same year, transferred to Broadway.
"At City Center Encores in May 1996, the audience went completely insane. It was so much fun. Suddenly, we're seeing a great forgotten show," recalled Lehrer, in reference to the 1975 Broadway production of CHICAGO, which was completely the opposite: the show received mixed reviews and was trumped by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban's landmark musical "A Chorus Line."
America's constant exposure to scandals in the courtroom, which were further aggravated by media sensationalism, could have also contributed to CHICAGO's renewed relevance in the '90s. Now close to clocking in 7,846 performances on Broadway, pointed out by Scott Garceau, editor at Philippine Star, has surprised even Lehrer: "What? We have already done more than 7,000 performances?" he asked amusingly, is considered a priceless "gift to any theater designer," he said.
"As the sound designer of the show, I usually go out to get the tour started. New Orleans is the first city in the revival of this tour [CHICAGO's 16th U.S. National Tour, which will wrap up another busy year with a special Philippine premiere at The Theatre at Solaire in Manila]. Then the people that are back there [he drew our attention to the sound technicians] will take over," Lehrer explained. "Once in a while, every few months, I'll go out again, and check to make sure that the show is going OK."
In CHICAGO, he continued, "the courtroom scene is unbelievably difficult to run because there are so many things that are going on: the music, the effects, and different people are talking all the time."
Designing sound for musical theater is similar to "mixing a record," he said. "...You would want to build the words and music together; you would want to hear all the words and not lose the music."
Fighting Anew for What They Fought For
Lehrer, whose extensive portfolio also includes "Once on This Island" (1990), "Angels in America" (1993), and last season's "Lucky Guy" (2013), was the first recipient of the Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Musical in 2008 for his work in "South Pacific." The last time the Tony Awards Administration Committee revised its set of awards was three years earlier, when the categories for Best Costume Design, Best Set Design, and Best Lighting Design were distributed separately for plays and musicals.
However, just five months ago, The Tony Award Administration Committee announced that Best Sound Design of a Musical and Best Sound Design of a Play will be omitted in the list of competitive categories in next year's Tony Awards. Generally unacquainted with what is good or bad sound design, around 800 Tony voters usually skip out the Best Sound Design categories in their ballots, was one of reasons behind the decision that naturally upset Broadway sound designers and more than 33,000 people around the world, including Hugh Jackman, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Diane Paulus, and Stephen Sondheim.
"It took us a long time to gain the respect of being part of the Tony Awards. And having been the first recipient of the Tony Award for Best Sound Design for 'South Pacific,' I felt a real attachment to that. When I went on stage to get that award, I felt I was representing the entire profession. It was a big thing for us as a profession," Lehrer said, who could not hide his teary eyes.
"Sorry, I'm getting a little emotional about this," he admitted.
"[Nevertheless] we're appealing to the Tony Awards Administration Committee to reverse its decision," he said. "We did a big petition back in June when that happened. We got like 33,000 signatures from all over the world. We'll have a meeting at some point to talk about it again, and we'll see if they will bring it back."
Lehrer is aware though that judging what is good or bad sound design for the theater can be really tricky because creating, recreating, and mixing sound for a stage production should be done as quietly as possible to keep the focus on the storytelling.
"The problem of doing sound is you can't see it. People have a hard time evaluating sound because it's abstract. I think for a lot of Tony voters, they felt like they couldn't tell what is good sound, and what is bad. The point is they'd be able to hear the show. Every show I went to, I could hear the show. But you don't want to hear CHICAGO, the same way you'd like to hear 'Rock of Ages.' If I made CHICAGO sound like 'Rock of Ages' or a big rock show, then it'd be wrong for this show. There's an aesthetic to it," he said.
Besides designing for theater, Lehrer also does albums, TV documentaries, radio dramas, film soundtracks, and museum installations; he also runs his own recording studio in the Lower East Side. An alumnus of Sarah Lawrence College, Lehrer taught music recording and sound design at Bennington College in Vermont for 11 years.
CENTER: Broadway favorite Terra C. MacLeod leads CHICAGO's current 16th U.S. National Tour (2014-2015) and upcoming Philippine premiere (December 2014).
CHICAGO, on the other hand, is a musical adaptation of Chicago Tribune reporter-cum-playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins' 1927 play of the same name. Its story was inspired by the real-life murder trials of acquitted celebrity criminals Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner.
Now celebrating its 18th year on Broadway, CHICAGO is poised to claim the title Second Longest-Running Show in Broadway History from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "Cats" this Sunday, November 23, when CHICAGO plays its 7,486th public performance at Ambassador Theatre on 49th Street.
Don't miss out the Philippine premiere of CHICAGO at The Theatre at Solaire in Manila from Wednesday, December 3, until Sunday, December 21.
For tickets, visit ticketworld.com.ph.
Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, David Atkins Enterprises, and Concertus Manila--the team behind "Wicked," "The Phantom of the Opera," and "Mamma Mia!"-- are bringing CHICAGO, featuring Broadway stars Terra C. MacLeod as Velma Kelly and Bianca Marroquin as Roxie Hart, to Manila.