Display Ad
Hide Ad

Mixing Margaritaville

by Bryan Reesman • in
  • June 2018
  • Theater Sound
• Created: June 6, 2018

The Music of Jimmy Buffett Comes to Broadway

Some musicals tackle weighty social issues and seek to inspire change. Some want to raise your spirits for the night. Firmly entrenched in the latter camp, Escape To Margaritaville is a breezy musical of love in the Caribbean written by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley and set to the music of pop music icon Jimmy Buffett. It features mostly classic and a couple of new Buffett tunes that help tell the tale of an unambitious, laidback bar musician named Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) who romances ladies in town during their island vacations, then shuttles them off once their time is done. But then he meets a brainy beauty, a no-nonsense environmental scientist named Rachel (Alison Luff), who challenges and attracts him, and he begins to rethink his commitment to bachelorhood. It’s a familiar tale spiced up with some unusual elements, including ghostly zombies and a volcanic eruption. The man behind the boards is veteran sound designer Brian Ronan, who recently handled Mean Girls and Springsteen On Broadway, so he had the pop/rock pedigree needed for the gig.

Photos by Matthew Murphy

‡‡         Moving to Broadway

Ronan worked on Escape To Margaritaville between its original incarnation at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego through its road trials to its Broadway destination at the Marquis Theatre in Times Square. Having worked at La Jolla before, he did not need to survey the venue. “I began putting pen to paper — or fingers to mouse — about six months out in order to get the equipment list in for bid and assemble my crew,” he explains. He created a dedicated design for La Jolla, then had to design a touring system that could handle the three other very different venues that the show played in prior to arriving on the Great White Way.

“Of the four branches of a sound design, the one that has to have the most flexibility is the one the audience hears,” says Ronan. “The other three branches — what the cast hears, what the band hears, and the show’s comm and video — remain basically the same, allowing everyone to play and perform consistently.

“When we got to Broadway, the branch of the P.A. system had to change to accommodate the seating plan of the Marquis. The other three branches were modified to apply lessons we learned on the road, making them more efficient.”

The La Jolla Playhouse is a popular spot for out-of-town tryouts, and Ronan offered his assessment as to why. “It marries very prolific artistic directors with top-notch creatives and cast,” he says. “They back this up with a decent budget as well as a nurturing spirit. They staff their departments with a great group of locals, and they have access to a great group of musicians. I don’t love the room sonically, but their sound people are always great to work with.”

Sound designer Brian Ronan

‡‡         Obstacles and Solutions

Located on the opposite end of the country, the Marquis also proved to have its own challenges for entirely different reasons. Ronan describes La Jolla as “a one-level auditorium that has a very live, bouncy almost barn-like feel to it. The Marquis is one of the deadest rooms on Broadway. They are both theaters that present challenges to hanging a solid sound package, the Marquis especially. Maybe because it was built within a hotel, but that theater lacks hanging positions that are common in other Broadway theaters. Luckily, the Marquis has a talented house staff that accepts the challenge to overcome these obstacles.”

The trick with Escape to Margaritaville was to balance the sound coming from an actively moving cast along with a six-piece band (five onstage, one in the pit) that is sometimes in view and sometimes hidden behind scenic elements. It was very important for Ronan to have the audience feel like they are hearing a bar band when the quintet is actively on stage. He adds that, once they move off stage, he uses a series of delay and matrixing to “allow that part of the band to blend into the other musicians in the pit and in the cabanas.”

‡‡         Mics and More Mics

There are three percussion players in the show — a kit drummer and a steel drum player onstage and a dedicated percussionist in the pit. There is also a bassist, trumpet player and saxophonist onstage, while lead actor Paul Alexander Nolan sings and plays acoustic guitar. Ronan close mics the drummer, and used a combination of closed and area mics on the pit percussionist. “The steel drums can’t really be close-miked without sounding harsh,” he says, “so I used an under/over approach and played with distance till we got the right amount of input from the steel drums and the right amount of rejection of the nearby drum kit.”

To mic the band, Ronan uses a mixture of dynamic and condenser mics with a varying range of diaphragm sizes dependent on the size of each instrument. Generally, larger diaphragm mics are used on larger instruments like tympani and smaller diaphragms are used on smaller instruments like bongos. The mics include Sennheiser MKH800, MKH40, DPA 4011, Shure SM81, Shure 52a, Shure 56, Shure SM91, Audix i5 and Neumann KM184.

The bass is DI’d using an Avalon Design U6. Ronan learned that Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band also use Kemper modeling amps, and the two guitars played by Nolan are also direct via Kemper amp emulations and a Shure UR1 BPTX attached to his guitar strap.

For the cast, which includes six leads and 14 ensemble members, Ronan picked Sennheiser EM 3752 receivers and SK5212 transmitters. “We decided to go with DPA 4066 boom mics to give the show more of a concept feel and because the cast would be singing in and around the onstage band,” says Ronan. “The principals are double-miked. The backups are Sennheiser MKE-1 elements attached to the primary boom. Boom mic mixing is a lot less forgiving in terms of the varying vocal levels. Most of the cast’s individual trim levels were applied during large group singing numbers to dial them in consistently. The folks that are dancing hardest often need the most help as they’re trying to keep air in their lungs from all the physical exertion.”

Escape to Margaritaville

‡‡         The P.A. System

In terms of the P.A., Ronan says the “heart of the system” is comprised of a combination of L-Acoustics dV-DOSC and Kara line array cabinets. The dVs tackle the majority of the show’s vocals, while the Karas — with their wider frequency range — are dedicated to the band. “There are seven arrays around the proscenium, including two that are nicely tucked under [scenic designer] Walt Spangler’s cabanas,” he says. “The fill speakers are Meyer UPjuniors and UPAs, which I like to use in fill areas that require more throw. Under-balcony speakers are d&b E8s. I like their warmth, and they cover a short distance very efficiently. I used a pair of Genelec 8030s as near-field mix monitors. This is something I rarely do, but doing so allowed the operator to hear what the majority of the audience hears level-wise more exactly.”

Ronan says that Margaritaville has an extensive “in-floor” monitoring system. Given that the band is onstage, Ronan wanted to make sure the cast hear what they need in the mix. “There are 12 d&b E5 buried around the show deck facing straight up,” he says. “They are matrixed via a Meyer Galileo that allows me to control what monitors need to be on/off and what they’re getting fed.”

For subwoofers, Ronan used L-Acoustics dV subs and SB18s on the band and a combination of Meyer 500HP, 700HP and a single 1100-LFC for the sound effects. “I find the L-Acoustics represents the low-end of bass, kick drum and hand percussion instruments more faithfully than other brands,” he says. “The brute force of the Meyer subs do a better job of creating the sound of a volcano exploding.”

For Margaritaville’s sound board, Ronan has a DiGiCo SD7T with 166 inputs; 26 matrix outs and 32 auxiliaries. His outboard gear includes four TC M4000 reverbs and a Galileo 616 to break to the FX subs. While the musical has a full sound, it does get overly loud the way that some jukebox shows can. “Honestly, a show’s volume is dictated by the music’s composition,” says Ronan. “Jimmy’s music is so story-based and so lyrically driven that to overdo the volume would be a disservice to the music.”

The hardest sequence for Ronan to design involved Tully and Rachel who, after she rejects him, split into different journeys in their lives that run parallel to each other. “The action takes us through an accelerated time span with multiple playing venues,” explains Ronan. “The board op, Craig Cassidy, has to be on his toes as we have a busy series of sound effects and mixing various kinds of mics, from boom mics to concert-style stand mics to interview-style handheld mics.”

The biggest challenge for Ronan on Margaritaville was supplying consistent listening levels to the cast “as they play on various performing areas through the show. Up on the bandstand, up in cabanas, down front with the band offstage, singing and dancing with cloud costumes wrapped around them, flying in planes. The cast needs support of varying level in multiple occasions so they can deliver their best.”

The creative team included Jimmy Buffett (center)

‡‡         Shake it Up

The sequence that opens Act II deals with a volcano exploding on the island. (Hey, what’s a tale of romantic passion without some seismic turmoil?) Different characters scurry about trying to get off the island, and one trio concern themselves with an allegedly buried treasure that one wants to find before it is lost forever.

“We slip in and out of various places on the island, and we keep hearing the threat of the volcano,” says Ronan. “It was fun to lay subs all around the theater to shake things up. The tension from the explosions works nicely against the urgency placed on the islanders looking to survive as well as realizing some of their dreams. We get to spend a lot of time in the night jungle. For a few years, I had a house in Costa Rica, and I got to use all the recordings I made down there in the show.”

When asked if there was anything new he learned working on the show, Ronan replies, “I did not know what a remora fish was. Also, what a cool guy Jimmy is.” Asked to elaborate, he says, “A remora is a fish that attaches itself to larger fish like whales and goes along for the ride. In the song ‘Fins,’ Rachel compares herself to a remora stuck to the sharks. As for Jimmy, he’s just who he is. The brand is the man.”

Ronan declares that he had a lot of fun working on Escape To Margaritaville. “[It was a] great group of hard working performers who were always in support of each other,” he says. “Our lead actors set a very positive tone throughout the company. Our director, Chris Ashley, is super efficient and has a very intellectual approach when dealing with the creative team. You always know what’s coming next. Plus the whole Jimmy vibe around the stage and the music just make for a good time.”

For a list of crew and gear supporting Escape To Margaritaville, cruise on over to Showtime, this issue, page 28.

Leave a Comment:

Check Out Some Past FOH | Front of House Magazine Issues