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“Pretty Woman – The Musical”

by Bryan Reesman • in
  • December 2018
  • Theater Sound
• Created: December 11, 2018

New Broadway Production Takes a Bold Audio Approach

The year’s runaway Broadway success, Pretty Woman — The Musical, has been packing in audiences since officially opening on Aug. 16, 2018 at New York’s Nederlander Theatre.

Directed by Jerry Mitchell from a book by Garry Marshall and with songs by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, this new show is a loyal adaptation of the hit 1990 movie starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. It retells the story of a Hollywood prostitute named Vivian (Samantha Barks) who is hired by a single businessman named Edward (Andy Karl) to be his companion during a week of meetings and parties in Los Angeles. But what starts off as a paid arrangement sparked by initial flirtations on the streets of Hollywood soon blossoms into something more, and it also threatens to fall apart when they each question what they are each in it for.

Sound designer John Shivers and associate sound designer David Patridge

‡‡         A Sound Foundation

A colorful, sassy musical requires a big sound, and sound designer John Shivers (along with his associate David Patridge) was the man to deliver it. Shivers’ resume includes numerous big budget extravaganzas like Cirque Du Soleil’s Paramour, Kinky Boots and Tarzan. He seems to have working on such productions all down to a science.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a template per se,” muses Shivers, “but there are some aspects that are duplicated from one design to the next. Things like the basic layout and structure of signal flow, inputs, and outputs are often similar and then modified to suit the specifics of the project.”      

Pretty Woman director Jerry Mitchell had ideas about the visual aesthetic of the show that affected the sound design. Shivers says those ideas impacted the choice of speakers to meet that aesthetic. The most challenging aspect was dealing with the passerelle downstage. It acts as a stage extension that comes out over the pit and practically thrusts into the audience. The cast makes use of it from time to time, such as during Vivian’s shopping spree, the opera performance, and scenes in which she and Edward walk along the hotel hallway outside his penthouse suite.

The scene where the two lovers attend the opera required creating a “theater within a theater” approach to sound design. Photo by Matthew Murphy

‡‡         Audio Complications

Shivers says that Mitchell and scenic designer David Rockwell wanted to bring the show closer to the audience, thus the need for the passerelle. “But for us, it made things a little bit difficult in that when you’re downstage of the P.A., at some points you’re almost directly in front of the speakers,” explains Shivers. “It’s difficult to maintain amplification at a higher level that’s needed without running into feedback. That adversely affected the sound by hearing the microphone amplified here.”

These sonic issues were worked out during the tech run. “When you’re experimenting with it, you have to find what your boundaries are, so there were a few moments that we had to deal with feedback and resolve that issue,” says Shivers. “The other thing about this show is that it is pop music, and I think everyone’s expectations were — and I think it’s correct for the show, for the music — to have it at a pretty high level at times. Whenever you’re really trying to get it nice and punchy and big in the house, that’s when you start pushing the envelope and you start getting into the edge of what physics and acoustics dictate as capable to achieve certain levels before you start to feed back. There were definitely challenging moments there.”

Patridge adds that “It was critical to spend time judiciously reducing the frequencies in the vocal system prone to feeding back with performers placed just off-axis of the orchestra system. Pitsch Karrer, our mixer, will tell you that it is in the hands of the operator to keep the show where it needs to sit artistically, while not attracting feedback when the performers are lined up directly over the orchestra pit, rather than within and upstage of the proscenium, where the action is typically confined.”

Andy Karl and Samantha Barks recreate the story’s classic tub scene. Photo by Matthew Murphy

‡‡         Inside the Mix

With regards to live mixing, Shivers remarks that some of the songs are complex in terms of vocal arrangements. “They can be a little bit tricky because there’s a lot of different people with a lot of different lines,” he explains. “There’s so much information coming at you that the mixer has to be really on top of what microphones he has on at any given time.”

As expected on a large-scale musical like this, live engineer Pitsch Karrer is riding the levels during the show. “It gets programmed in and the various singers’ strengths and levels are set on the inputs of the console,” says Shivers. “When we do ensemble things, we will often have a preset. If we need more basses or more baris or more tenors or altos, that we can do sort of a premix on, so the mixer is not having to necessarily do the blending every night for the ensemble. But he certainly is active from line to line, making sure that every word is being heard and presented at the right level. From one day to the next, and we’re all human, the cast is going to sing a little bit differently. As consistent as they try to be, some nights they’re going to be a little bit more on, a little bit more output, or a little bit less. So the mixer is constantly active in terms of maintaining an appropriate level.”

Pretty Woman alternates between large cast numbers and more intimate moments. Shivers explains that a lot of the show’s dynamics were developed in collaboration with the music department to achieve a common goal. “The writing and orchestrations often dictate what we do with the sound to enhance or support the intention of the moment,” he says.

While the show has a sprightly pop score, the mood and tone vary from song to song, and at one point the couple head off to a night at the opera. The musical format certainly veers off sonically from the main score and requires a different approach. “The opera [scene] really goes off into a different world,” notes Shivers. “We tried to envelop the audience and make them feel like they’re actually sitting in the theater watching an opera as participants, like a theater within a theater. By the use of a surround sound system, we were able to add a very effective ambiance to the performers to create the effect of being in another theater space.”

“It is the musical arrangement that typically drives the transitions and when that job is done well, we simply reinforce that,” adds Patridge. “The writing of the opera scene [La Traviata] seamlessly evolved into the rock sections [“You and I”], which is one of the highlights of the show musically.”

‡‡         Vocal Miking

For Pretty Woman, Shivers and Patridge picked Lectrosonics SSM transmitters and Venue2 receivers for their audio quality, cost-effectiveness and their small size, which Shivers say was helpful in hiding them in the costumes and wigs. Patridge remarks that the ability to fit 36 receivers in six rack spaces was also beneficial, given the limited amount of available rack space in the basement of the Nederlander Theatre.

“We’re once again using DPA 4061 mics on everyone, and we had three actors double miked as a safety,” Patridge says of the cast. “For the double rigs, we use a Sennheiser MKE-1 as a backup which is positioned slightly behind the head of the DPA to give the appearance of a single mic.”

‡‡         Capturing the Band

There are nine members in the band, including a drummer, bassist, two guitarists who doubled on various electric and acoustic guitars, two keyboard players, a violinist, a viola player and a cellist. The drummer was placed in an isolation booth in the basement because there was not enough room for the booth to reside in the pit.

For drum mics, they chose mostly Shure — a Beta 91A for the kick, SM57 for the snare top, SM 81 for the snare bottom, Beta 98AMPs for the toms, and Neumann KM 140s for the drum overheads. For the strings, DPA 4061s are used as close mics and a combination of DPA 4011s and Neumann TLM 102s for “far” mics. All of the other instrumentation is taken direct — A-Designs Reddi for both the electric and acoustic bass, Radial J48, JDI and PZ-DI direct boxes for all of the acoustic guitars, and Neumann KM 140s as “far” mics on the acoustics. The keyboards sounds are captured by a combination of direct via Radial DI’s and also via balanced, line-level from RME audio interfaces provided by their keyboard programmer.

“There is an Ableton system in use that the drummer controls,” says Patridge, “and we took full advantage of Dante Virtual Soundcard for very simple connection to our console system. An important piece that we had Masque acquire from the U.K. is the Autograph XDANTE-1, which allowed us to have seamless changeover from Main to Backup for both the Ableton system in the drum booth and our QLab 4 sound effects engines at FOH.”

‡‡         Console Selection

For mixing, the console of choice was a Yamaha PM10 running around 100 inputs from the stage together with eight stereo effects returns. “Yamaha has really stepped forward with the audio quality and features on this console,” says Shivers, “and it was well-suited for our needs.”

“The desk operates natively at 96k Hz using a proprietary fiber link for connections between the DSP rack and I/O racks, all of which were backstage,” elaborates Patridge. “It has lots of Dante interfacing including support for a bi-directional 96k 144-channel Dante card. Connection between the desk and the DSP rack is via a pair of Cat-6 cables, which is ridiculously simple. The console itself has a really good operational feel, and the ergonomics of the screens and the depth and width are very functional, without taking up a lot of seats, which is critical to making it a producer-friendly choice.”

The duo stresses that a huge selling point of working with the PM10 is that they didn’t require any outboard gear. Typically, they would use Waves and an outboard TC System 6000 to round out their FOH console, but everything that they typically use “can be found in the extensive palette of onboard effects,” says Patridge. On the PM10, they are using TC VSS4HD Reverb algorithms, Rupert Neve EQ and Dynamics, the internal UA emulations, “like the LA-2A which Yamaha calls ‘Opt-2A,’ some old-school Yamaha effects, and the built-in Eventide H3000,” continues Patridge. “We also made use of the Dynamic EQ and MBC4, which functions and looks a lot like a Waves C4. We probably filled up half of the available capacity for plug-ins and we had more than enough.”

‡‡         The P.A. System

The majority of the P.A. is KV2 gear, predominately ESD5 and EX6 loudspeakers, with a few Meyer UPJuniors and Meyer UPM-1Ps included in the mix. “KV2 speakers are point source and are designed from top to bottom for highly accurate reproduction with a detailed soundstage,” says Patridge. “There are so many advantages to point source over line arrays, and KV2 has managed to make speakers like the ESR215 which are capable of being a full-range single cabinet solution for the main P.A. We like the many other offerings as well and the synergy offered by using similarly voiced components is an advantage.”

‡‡         A Team Effort

On top of the intense workload of Pretty Woman, Shivers had another musical open the same week in August, the rock-based comedy musical Gettin’ The Band Back Together, which lampooned the antics of a middle-aged rock band that reformed to reclaim their former glory and to stop their nemesis, now a greedy landlord, from evicting their loved ones. Both shows are crowd pleasers, and the latter went all out during its over-the-top battle-of-the-bands sequence.

“Yes, that was a bit of a juggle getting the two shows up and running pretty much directly on top of one another,” admits Shivers. “I was very fortunate to have excellent associates — David Patridge on Pretty Woman and Kevin Kennedy on Gettin’ The Band Back Together — and mixers and backstage staff to help make this work. We were also very fortunate to have had an out-of-town run of Pretty Woman in Chicago in the spring where we were able to establish much of the direction of the design. In terms of one show influencing the other, they were very different in their styles, and as such really needed unique attention and ideas.”

Both Shivers and Patridge enjoyed the experience of working on Pretty Woman. “The Nederlander crew is fantastic at dealing with the tight quarters, and although there were some long days, we were very happy with the process,” says Patridge. “Fortunately, we have been involved in a couple of projects with Jerry Mitchell, not the least of which was Kinky Boots. The creative team on this show was the same group that worked on that show so it felt familiar.”

“It was an excellent group of people to work with,” declares Shivers. “Many people I know from past productions and many were new. But everyone worked together in a collaborative effort to bring the best possible production to light.”


Pretty Woman — The Musical

  • Venue: Nederlander Theatre, NYC
  • Director: Jerry Mitchell
  • Sound Designer: John Shivers
  • Associate Sound Designer: David Patridge
  • FOH Mixer: Pitsch Karrer
  • Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg
  • Scenic Design: David Rockwell
  • Costume Design: Gregg Barnes


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