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Audio for “The Inheritance” on Broadway

Bryan Reesman • March 2020Theater Sound • March 11, 2020

The Inheritance cast photo by Matthew Murphy

The Sound of Surreptitiousness

In epic, ambitious play, The Inheritance spans two shows and six hours, chronicling the lives of young gay men in Manhattan who are grappling with relationship issues, coping with the demoralizing rise of Trump, and learning about their predecessors and the horrifying legacy of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Inspired by the E.M. Forster novel Howard’s End — the fictionally portrayed spirit of that author helps guide the first half of the play — The Inheritance is a powerful, moving work featuring a dozen main characters, of whom we get to know well. It also offers an impressive feat of sound design by Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid. Not only does the production include an astounding 1,537 sound cues, a majority of which you will not notice, but only those with discerning ears will realize that the entire cast is miked.

Arditti tells FRONT of HOUSE that this is the first time he and Reid collaborated on a show, although they have been “working closely together in various capacities for over a decade.” They felt compelled to do the play and work with director Stephen Daldry. While Arditti was not available for most of the rehearsals and part of the tech, he knew that Reid’s approach to content and system design was in line with his, and that the latter had previously worked with Daldry and his associate Justin Martin. “Chris and I shared the load over three separate production periods for The Inheritance in London and New York,” says Arditti.

Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller in The Inheritance. Photo by Matthew Murphy

‡‡         Real Sounds, Real World

Reid praises what he maintains is Arditti’s “absolute genius” in being able to use and implement real world sounds within the context of the setting of a story. “The biggest challenge is making the sonic world of the play feel real enough that the audience almost subconsciously accepts that what is being presented to them is what the characters in the scene would be hearing in that context,” says Reid. “Achieving this almost unnoticeable, subconscious layer of the narrative helps to draw the audience further into the story, as they feel as if they themselves are sharing the space with the characters on stage.”

He is right. When one leaves The Inheritance, they will likely not remember nor have noticed the large amount of sound design in the show, and that is a good thing. In this case, sound cues are like special effects in filmmaking; the best ones go unnoticed. They seem natural.

“It’s also worth saying that Stephen Daldry is very keen on experimentation throughout rehearsals,” says Arditti. “He’ll encourage us to try sounds to help deliver a scene, and we’ll eventually decide whether these sounds work or not. There are dozens of interior and exterior locations in The Inheritance, and a mixture of naturalistic action and direct address to the audience. On a super-minimal set like Bob Crowley’s, there is plenty of scope for both realistic and expressionistic sound design.”

Sound designers Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid at the Olivier Awards

‡‡         Sound Emphasis

Subtlety is a big part of this duo’s sound design for the show. “There are a number of low frequency abstracted sounds which add weight to an action on stage, without drawing attention to themselves,” says Arditti. “In one scene, actors throw a heap of clothes on to the floor, and we add low frequency sounds to emphasize the metaphorical weight that these clothes represent. In another scene, we add size to an imagined interior location. While two actors stand next to each other facing the audience, a low frequency sound and the hint of an elevator bell imply the opening doors of an elevator into a massive apartment. In a third scene, a character hurls a laptop to the floor, and the room shakes for a moment as he realizes what this impulsive violent action really means.”

Reid points out that there are many little things that happen on the iPhones used by the cast members. They are often so subtle only the actors notice them. “These cues help to give realistic feedback to the actors as they use the phones as part of the action,” says Reid. “The phones are controlled by special software, via the sound system, so that they can ring, receive messages, show images, and play videos all on cue.”

He offers the example of when Adam’s producer calls him and interrupts a conversation between Adam and Eric. “The phone acts as it would in real life, displaying a contact photo and the caller’s name, which I decided in this case should be the name of one of our producers,” reveals Reid. “I think you’d have to be in the front few rows to see it.”

‡‡         Unseen Mics

While it might not sound like it, the entire cast of 13 people (including one female role in the second half of the play) is wearing microphones. Some of them even sport two. “Yes, even the boys in Speedos!” quips Reid. “It’s a testament to the great work of our backstage team that these microphones appear almost invisible to the audience. And to that of our A1 who mixes the show in such a way that every word is delivered clearly to every seat without ever feeling over-amplified.”

“I’m also delighted that having seen all six hours of the show, you still thought it was unmiked,” beams Arditti. “It takes a lot of work to pull off that trick.” During the dress rehearsals and previews, they experimented with various levels of reinforcement that included turning the mics off.

Miking plays is more common in London — where this show originated in two productions and whose West End run won four Olivier Awards — than on Broadway. But Arditti felt that the audience would not have understood a lot of the dialog without reinforcement. Given that there are up to a dozen people onstage for some scenes with occasional overlapping dialog, that opinion is understandable.

“I’d also like to publicly thank our lighting designer, Jon Clark, who went to a huge amount of trouble to specify noise-free lights where possible, and to minimize the fan noise on the color scrollers,” adds Arditti. “A quiet auditorium — almost impossible to find on Broadway once all the lighting kit is installed — makes unnoticeable vocal reinforcement a much easier task.”

Cast of The Inheritance at The Rum House, photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

‡‡         In the Mix

Reid explains that the show’s 1,537 cues are condensed through programming in QLab to 292 separately cued sound events. And there are hundreds of other cues that did not make that cut, with many of the show’s original sequences not getting past the rehearsal room. Reid says that The Inheritance evolved continuously from its first day of rehearsal at the Young Vic in London through the run at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End right up to the opening on Broadway two years later.

The Inheritance audio team is running a Yamaha CL5 using 66 of 72 mono inputs, two of its eight stereo inputs, and 28 of its 32 output buses. The sound system consists mostly of d&b loudspeakers.

“Different models were chosen for their specialist ability to reproduce the type of sound sent to them, whether that is music, sound effects, dialog, or all three,” says Reid. “We consider frequency response, dispersion, or coverage, physical size, weight, and cost. We also take the visual aesthetic into account, especially with this production, as Bob Crowley’s set is comprised of very clean, unbroken lines. We do our utmost not to impose on the set with technical equipment.”

The most dramatic sound cue takes place at the end of Act Two of the first part of the show, when the spirits of gay men who had passed during the ‘80s AIDS crisis slowly gather onstage. It is a profoundly moving moment enhanced by beautiful piano and synth strings from composer Paul Englishby. Initially, however, it was not certain that music would be used in the show, and Reid recalls that in the rehearsal room they experimented with pre-existing music from a variety of genres when they felt the story and the action would be enhanced by it.

“These experiments ultimately led to a ‘spotting list,’ a list of descriptions of moments in the play and accompanying examples of music or effects to demonstrate the feel that we were aiming to achieve,” explains Reid. “As this list grew in the early stages of rehearsals, it became clear that the only way to achieve a cohesive musical theme or feel throughout the six-hour production would be to use the music of a single composer. Thankfully this is where Paul Englishby came in, and the result is the beautiful soundtrack we now know and love.” (The score with 18 tracks is available on Spotify. Again, one might not realize how much music is in the play.)

Arditti feels that the most prominent cue in the show is the boisterous Fire Island dance music, which “crashes in without warning,” he says. “It’s certainly the loudest sound in the show by a big margin. Our A1 sound mixer, who mixes from a box near the proscenium loudspeakers, puts on hearing protection for that moment.”

For Reid, The Inheritance differed from other plays he has worked on because of the extensive, essential commitment to the rehearsal and development process from the start. He said that working alongside Daldry, Martin, playwright Matthew Lopez, and the cast in rehearsal for six weeks prepared him for the changes that emerged during tech sessions.

“Stephen likes to work at the fastest and, for him, most productive pace possible,” says Reid. “So having even the smallest insight to the likely trajectory of the piece as a whole as it evolved allowed for a fair amount of pre-emptive work in the background. This meant that as designers we could deliver on any curveballs Stephen might throw at us, at pace, keeping the momentum and creativity flowing throughout the tech process.”

Arditti that adds that this is very typical of Daldry’s directing style. “While he’s busy solving problems on stage and trying to make the storytelling clearer, he dislikes being slowed down by the technical departments, who obviously need to add, cut and adjust cues as things change,” elaborates Arditti. “Chris and I have learned to allow him time to experiment, even in what may be theoretically a ‘technical’ rehearsal. Then it’s up to us to respond quickly before he moves on to the next scene. I’d say the biggest difference between this and other plays is the length of time it takes to rehearse, tech, dress, and preview these two long plays. Most plays take a few weeks from beginning of rehearsals to opening. The Inheritance takes months!”

 

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