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Head Over Heels

by Bryan Reesman • in
  • September 2018
  • Theater Sound
• Created: September 14, 2018

Broadway’s Pop Rockin’ Musical

Familiar tunes from the 80’s pop act are paired with the ornate plot twists of Arcadia by Elizabethan author Sir Philip Sidney. Rachel York as Queen Gynecia and Jeremy Kushnier as King Basilius (center) and the company. Photos by Joan Marcus

You might think a jukebox musical featuring the songs of the Go-Go’s (and a Belinda Carlisle tune) would tell the tale of their rise to stardom. But in fact, Head Over Heels uses their tunes to propel a plot derived from the 16th century narrative poem Arcadia by Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney that inspired, among other works, As You Like It by William Shakespeare. This musical, rewritten into iambic pentameter from the source text, was originally conceived and adapted by Jeff Whitty (and further adapted by James Magruder).

Tom Alan Robbins (left) as Dametas and Jeremy Kushnier as King Basilius; avoiding the use of boom headsets helps keep the play’s period look.

‡‡         The Story

The plot concerns a Greek king who fears a series of terrible oracle prophecies (his daughters will marry ill suitors, his wife will cheat, and his reign will end) that signal the loss of “the beat” in his kingdom. Thus, he diverts his royal family and entourage on an unnecessary hunt away from their domain in a vain attempt to stay in power and keep the prophecies from coming true. Throughout their journey, budding first romances — including a poor young man cross dressing as an Amazonian warrior to get closer to the king’s daughter — blossom among the throng, all of them connected to a greater theme of accepting all love in our modern LGBT+ era. The serious message is handled in a light and frothy way, which fits with the bubbly and often perky music energetically performed by the show’s ensemble.

Sound designer Kay Harada at work.

‡‡         Sound Issues

The scenery in Head Over Heels feels both modern and retro. While the story takes place in the past, the references and gender equality themes are very modern. “It is super timely, which is fantastic,” says sound designer Kai Harada, who spoke to FRONT of HOUSE after having conducted two seminars for sound interns at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The first seminar focused on system design, the second on the business and its relationships, and he shared an anecdote from Head Over Heels about the speaker cluster for the show’s Broadway debut at the Hudson Theatre.

“I had warned everyone early on that the Hudson, while a beautiful and good-sounding theater, has limited speaker positions, and that we would need to rely a lot on the main front of house truss,” explains Harada. “My associate, Josh Millican, did a full 3D drawing of what our speakers were going to look like, but nobody from any department truly looked at them and understood the visual implications. Many departments freaked out when they first saw them in the air. We ended up rehanging the cluster, making modifications to trim heights and speaker type, about six times, which is no fun for anyone, but sometimes it’s what you have to do. Unfortunately, you can’t force people to pay attention to drawings.”

That complaint aside, Harada enjoyed working on the show. As with his other work on musicals, he made it loud enough to fill the room but not crank it to overbearing levels as some shows do. It would not have befit the music of the Go-Go’s either. “It was my goal to make it rock-y and punchy but not screamingly loud,” he remarks.

Prior to its Broadway run, Head Over Heels got a trial run at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco this past spring. Harada says that the sound system there was mostly Meyer like the current production, “but in more of a touring package to get it in and out of the theater quickly — speaker towers instead of the more specific speakers,” he says. “We were there for a couple of months — a longer tech period but a shorter preview period.” He says while there were some music tweaks and storytelling changes, “the fundamental arc of the show has remained pretty much consistent between the two cities.”

Andrew Durand as Musidorus and Alexandra Socha as Philoclea.

‡‡         Mic Solutions

With a 16-person ensemble singing, dancing and moving around a lot onstage, one would imagine that there could be some audio concerns given the physicality of the show. As it turns out, only Bonnie Milligan, who plays Pamela, was double-miked. Early on, Harada and director Michael Mayer sat down to talk conceptually about some of the sound design elements of the show, specifically the microphones.

“I am not a huge fan of the boom [headset] mics we are starting to see on Broadway on rock-ier musicals,” he says. “It would be the norm for a show like this, but because it is a period piece as well, I really wanted to get away with using more hidden microphones. In our opinion, boom microphones would have been visually distracting. Fortunately, the costume and hair designers were very willing to work together to figure out where the microphones could go, close to the hairline. Some of the hairpieces or hair bands on the actors made it better for us because we could sneak the microphones down a little further and still keep them hidden. They are not as invisible as they would be on other shows I’ve designed, but we can get a good amount of gain before feedback, which makes me happy.”

The mics on the actors are all Sennheiser MKE-1s with Sennheiser SK-5212 transmitters. One Lectrosonics SSM transmitter is fitted into a headpiece as it is lighter in weight. The band mics are mostly Shure and Sennheiser mics, including MKH-40, E604, SM-91, SM-57, Beta-52, and Neumann U87s on the drums; beyerdynamic M-88s on the guitars with MKH-800s on the acoustic; and an A-Designs REDDI Tube DI and an Avalon U5 tube DI for the bass. The rental house is Sound Associates.

 

‡‡         The Hudson: Reborn!

The Hudson Theatre was closed a couple of years back for renovations, and it was mainly an event space before that. “I can’t recall exactly the last time it was used as a legitimate theater,” muses Harada. “I remember doing a special event for On The Town in that theater prior to its renovation, but there were no seats in the orchestra. It was just bare stage and bare floor. You could put banquet tables there. It was used for events like that. I think they did a gorgeous job on the renovation.”

Harada owns the distinction of designing sound for the first two musicals staged at the Hudson since its renovation. “I learned that it was a reasonably forgiving and good sounding theater, so I didn’t have to fight too much with the room acoustics,” he says. “The challenge in that space is finding the right spot to place speakers because we don’t have a wide proscenium. There are few good places that aren’t going to block sightlines, so I had to be very diligent in how I allocated what speakers and where they were pointing.”

‡‡         Dealing with the Band

The five-woman band for the show — conductor/keyboardist Kimberly Grigsby, guitarists Anne Klein and Bess Rogers, bassist Catherine Popper, and drummer Dena Tauriello — plays atop a catwalk suspended at least 10 feet above the stage. Harada says that the Hudson Theatre has “a very small, shallow pit that’s never really been used. The first musical when the theatre reopened in January 2017 was Sunday in the Park With George, which I also designed, and we also put the orchestra on stage.”

He says the key to doing this show was to keep the stage volume reasonably low to avoid too much band sound getting into the actors’ microphones. In fact, Tauriello plays downstairs in a box that was built in the trap room (technically the pit) for 95 percent of the show. The only time she emerges is for the finale when the scenery is flown away and the band is revealed to the audience. That is when she plays the second drum kit. In the isolated position, “Dena could play as loud as she wanted, and get the proper sound appropriate for each song. We send a mix of the drums — and some of the other instruments — to the stage through a variety of speaker systems but we have complete control over the dynamics, so the levels on stage are reasonably quiet. All the power that you hear in the audience comes from the main P.A. The actors are happy and not oversinging because they are not competing with uncontrolled live sound from the band.”

Another sonic revelation here: None of the guitars have active amplifiers. “They have all their pedals and a traditional amplifier cabinet, but instead of going into an actual speaker, they go into a Palmer Speaker Simulator,” says Harada. “It takes the load from the amplifier, pretends it’s a speaker, but just gives me an XLR line level out. The musicians can get the dirty tone they want without screamingly loud stage levels or huge isolation boxes. The same is true for the bass and keyboards — one feed from the bass, and four feeds from the guitar. The only live sound comes from the acoustic guitars.”

‡‡         The System

The main P.A. is all Meyer speakers. “There are a lot of UPQs because it’s hard to find locations in that theater to use bigger line arrays, so a lot of the nearfield coverage comes from Meyer UPQs,” explains Harada. “There are two LEOPARD arrays from the main truss that cover the balcony, the mezzanine, and the middle of the orchestra section. These speakers contain mostly band information. The center cluster is Meyer M1Ds, which are my go-to Meyer line array for vocals since they are reasonably small and I know what they are going to sound like. Originally, we had some different speakers doing fill duty, but we’ve switched all of those to Meyer UM1 horns. They’re just the high frequency driver from a UM1 speaker. Meyer doesn’t love us using them this way but they are doing exactly what I need them to do, which is a narrow focused beam of high frequency energy. Plus, they’re smaller and impact the visual picture a lot less.”

The overall mix is excellent, and Harada also gives credit to his “fantastic mixer” Douglas Graves. They have known each other for two decades and have worked together on numerous projects. “He and I hear similarly, so there’s great communication between us,” says Harada. “I expect him to try some things and make some decisions, and let him do what he thinks is right until I tell him otherwise.”

In selecting a mixing console, Harada chose a Studer Vista 5 with approximately 120 mono inputs and 24 stereo inputs. It is his go-to console. He thinks it is one of the two best sounding digital consoles that he has used. For Head Over Heels, he requested the newer Studer Infinity Core, rather than the older S-core. “It’s a different DSP brain for the console,” he explains, “and the Infinity Core not only gives me more IO and more buses but onboard dynamic EQ, which I used quite a bit of on Head Over Heels.”

The sound designer says that the biggest challenge for him here “was discovering where the show ultimately needed to sit, dynamically speaking. How loud did we want to get it? I never wanted it to be painful but I wanted to preserve that rock impact. I spent a lot of time just making sure the drums sounded right as opposed to loud. I just wanted them to sound good no matter what volume they were at. I think that’s also why I like Meyer Sound speakers so much. I can push them or pull them and they sound very linear across different amplitudes, so the sound quality doesn’t change the quieter or louder we get.”

An earlier challenge was doing the show at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. He describes it as a big barn with a lot of reflections. Due to the nature of the theater’s architecture, he found it more difficult to get the show sounding good there. “The Hudson is way more intimate and has a really good sound to the room,” he explains. “You’re close to the action, and there’s also a fair amount of acoustic sound coming from the actors themselves, no matter where you’re sitting in the auditorium.”

‡‡         Fun? Absolutely!

Harada says he had a fun team to work with on Head Over Heels. “We respected each other most of the time and got along well,” says Harada. “I can’t say more good things about our music department in particular, like Kimberly Grigsby our music director and Tom Kitt our arranger. They’re all just lovely people to work with, and I definitely had a good time. Those are the people that I’m usually closest with, aside from my wonderful sound team.”

 

Head Over Heels

 

AUDIO CREW

Rental House: Sound Associates

Sound Designer: Ken Harada

Associate Sound Designer
: Josh Millican

Head Mixer
: Douglas Graves

Production Sound
: Darren Shaw, Mike Wojchik

Assistant Sound:
 Bill Gagliano

 

AUDIO GEAR

FOH Console: Studer Vista 5

Main P.A.: Meyer UPQs, Meyer LEOPARD

Center Cluster: Meyer M1Ds

Fills: Meyer UM1 horns

Actor Mics: Sennheiser MKE-1s

Band Mics: beyerdynamic, Neumann, Sennheiser, Shure

Wireless: Sennheiser SK-5212, Lectrosonics SSM

DI Boxes: A-Designs REDDI Tube, Avalon U5

 

Head Over Heels opened on Broadway on July 26 and continues its indefinite run at the Hudson Theatre.

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