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The Dark Side of ‘Oklahoma’

Bryan Reesman • July 2019Theater Sound • July 15, 2019

The show combines traditional western themes with dark underpinnings. Photos by Little Fang

Ever since he first staged Oklahoma! up at Bard College 12 years ago, director Daniel Fish has been turning the famed Rogers and Hammerstein musical on its head. Rather than pander to expectations by simply delivering the iconic show’s big, bright musical numbers — there’s not a lot of traditional singing and dancing here — his version is more somber, intense, and coaxes out the dark themes lurking within the crevices of its deceptively upbeat story and score.

‡‡         Not Your Grandfather’s Oklahoma!

This seemingly grand ode to the early 20th century American West harbors a doomed romantic triangle, but underneath lies a more intense story of survivalism and competition that indicates more of what that landscape was probably like.

“I think with Oklahoma! in particular, there’s a lot of nostalgia attached to it, that Americana nostalgia that people romanticize,” says sound designer Drew Levy. “People were afraid to get rid of that, afraid to strip that away, because it was sacred for some reason.”

Presented in the round, the audience surrounds the cast and occasionally becomes part of the set dressings. Photo by Little Fang

‡‡         Beginnings

Whereas old school westerns, particularly of the big screen variety, tried to very clearly delineate between good and bad characters up through the late 20th century, our jittery post 9/11 world has allowed people to look at such genres and vistas in different ways. That explains why the grittier, foulmouthed Deadwood and like-minded Wild West fare on cable television such as Hell On Wheels thrived in the ‘00s and beyond. Interestingly enough, Fish’s vision of Oklahoma!, which has become his Broadway debut at the Circle in the Square Theatre, began life in 2007 as a student production in a dinner theater setting. Various permutations have emerged since, including a 2015 production as part of Bard’s SummerScape festival that drew a lot of attention.

Levy joined the show back in 2015, and he recalls that was when “they decided to actually do a proper production of it as part of the summer series,” he says. “It was really well received up at Bard. There was a lot of excitement about it. People were coming up from the city to see it. It was a pretty limited run there, only a couple of weeks, and they very quickly realized that it needed a life to move on to after that. It took a while to sort it all out, but we ended up at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn last fall. It sold out very quickly, and our producer Eva Price turned it around into the Broadway production.”

Curly (Damon Daunno) and Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones).

‡‡         A Subtle, Natural Sonic Landscape    

Many of the classic musical numbers are more subdued than one might expect, and two key book scenes take place with the lights out and a mic held up to the two actors involved — one a confrontation between Laurey’s romantic rivals Jud and Curly, and the other where Curly (Damon Daunno) seduces Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) in the dark. Further, it is not obvious at the start of the show if the cast is miked. When a character goes to perform a song in front of a mic to the other characters, the amplification becomes obvious, but not always with the cast. Little bits of reverb or people exiting at the same volume they entered at gradually give it away, but only if one is paying attention to the sonic landscape of the show.

“Part of the whole thrust of the sound design, from the beginning, has always been to really keep it as natural as possible,” explains Levy. “We were just doing what we needed to do to get the words heard right. But we really don’t want the sound system to be this wall between the performers and the audience. We want everyone to exist in the same space, and to do that we don’t want to see microphones or speakers. We don’t want to be aware that there is sound at all except for when we purposely want to be aware of it for an effect or for the more performative sections.”

The speakers are surreptitiously placed within the lighting grid above without drawing obvious attention. That is part of the advantage of doing this show in the round. Further, the tables lining the floor of the venue and the racks of mounted rifles placed around the walls of the theater serve as good visual distractions for audience members.

“A lot of time and energy and technology really went into just making it as transparent as possible,” continues Levy. “We’re just doing enough so that everyone can hear without really pushing it in their faces. I worked closely with Therese Wadden, the costume designer, and Bridget O’Connor, our A2, to conceal the actors’ mics. You can’t see them at all unless you are really looking for them.”

Gabrielle Hamilton’s solo dream ballet that opens the second act provided a lot of possibilities for immersive sound manipulation. Photo by Little Fang

‡‡         Audio Pathways   

The audio team is running 96 inputs on a DiGiCo SD10T. There are 11 speaking parts as well as seven band members onstage. The cast is miked with Sennheiser MKE I wireless, with Shure SM58s for the stand mics, and the band mainly with DPA 4099s. “They’re compact, close miked, and we can make them disappear,” notes Levy of the 4099s. “They’re also attached to the instruments. The moment when the band stands up and solos, we don’t have to worry about them moving away from the microphones.”

While the drum kit has a small kick, snare, cowbell, block, and a suitcase, it is not heavily miked. “We ended up not using several of the mics we originally spec’d just because of look or space, or simply because the tricks we used at St. Ann’s no longer applied,” says Levy. There is a Sennheiser e604s on the snare, an AKG D12 on the kick, and “an Audix D6 on there as well to give us an option.”

A majority of the other instruments are DI’d, including the acoustic guitar, two banjos, bass, mandolin and the accordion, “which actually has a microphone pickup system built into it,” says Levy. “We are also using a Radial JDX-48 direct box on the electric guitar amp, and a Headload Prodigy for the second electric so he can lean into the amp sound more while controlling the stage volume.” There are Sennheiser e609s placed on the guitar amps. “We used a Neumann KM184 on the acoustic guitar and the banjo at some point, but we ended up getting rid of those.”

There are three rings of d&b audiotechnik speakers for reinforcement totaling 54 in number (Y10P, T10 and E8). Surround sound comes from 24 Meyer UPJuniors. A ring of eight d&b V-SUBs make up the LF reinforcement system. “In addition, there are two Meyer 1100-LFCs hung above the lighting grid for key moments when we really need to move some air,” adds Levy. “At St. Ann’s, we had subs under the seating risers so the audience could really feel those moments, but here at Circle in the Square, that is all solid concrete.”

As far as the two scenes in the dark, one confrontational and the other sexual, those definitely stand out because they are unexpectedly executed without light and the characters sound closer to us than at other moments. “We talked about it with Daniel,” says Levy. “A lot of it was really feeling like we are super close to them, and it’s just concentrating on the words. You get a quality from a handheld mic when it’s right up against somebody’s mouth that you just cannot achieve with a lavalier. That is a much more intimate, warm sound that could just feel like somebody whispering in your ear almost. There’s something more intimate about it even though the lights are out and you can’t see the action.”

Curly (Damon Daunno) and Aunt Eller (Mary Testa). Photo by Little Fang

‡‡         Object-Based Positioning

That intimacy actually extends to the larger cast numbers in an interesting way. “With musicals, there’s a lot of programming involved, just changing VCAs and internal group levels. One thing we’re doing in this show that’s unique is, we’re using the d&b DS100, the En-Space software,” says Levy, referring to the Soundscape software module designed to enhance or build an acoustic environment based on convolution of the audio signals. “We’re actually tracking the position of the actors in space,” Levy continues, “so whenever there’s movement on stage, the mixer is taking a cue to move the actors around virtually. It’s an object-based positioning processor. It dynamically calculates the delay from the object — each object is an actor — and it calculates the delay from that object to every single loudspeaker. So every loudspeaker is individually amplified, nothing’s ganged together. It helps localize and do that super-transparent reinforcement that we’re going for. Everything is always time-aligned to the acoustic source.”

That dynamic comes into play with Gabrielle Hamilton’s extended solo dance number that opens Act II and lasts nearly 15 minutes. Intense heavy metal guitar thunderously sets everything into motion, then the long, eclectic instrumental veers into string parts, odd orchestrations, bouncy banjo music, and more. The first two-thirds of this dream ballet is pre-recorded, then the house band takes over. It certainly throws the audience off kilter, but keeps them engaged.

“For that, I actually worked pretty closely with Dan Kluger, the orchestrator, because we’re using that same object-based system a lot in there,” says Levy. “Because it’s prerecorded and because Gabby [Gabrielle Hamilton] has the whole space to move around in, we’re actually moving the sound quite a bit in there so that you really get a sense of motion with her. We’re dealing with not just mixing the stems level and reverb, we’re dealing with space as well — getting parts into the surrounds and making it move from left to right. We spent some time working with John Heginbotham, the choreographer, as well, making it so that — and it might not be an obvious effect — there is some new movement when the sound seems to follow Gabby. Once when she runs upstage to the mural wall, the sound travels with her to the front, so the sound, lights, video, and Gabby are all at the wall at the same moment. There’s a lot of that motion happening in there, which was fun and the most freely creative part of the process.”

Ado Annie (Ali Stroker) and Will Parker (James Davis). Photo by Little Fang

‡‡         Cues — On Cue

The dream ballet is the only playback sound cue in the whole show. There are between 180 and 200 console cues in total, and every cue on the desk triggers a cue in QLab to do the positioning. “The console triggers QLab via MIDI, and QLab tells the DS100 the object positions using OSC,” says Levy. “We learned a lot about the DS100 and Soundscape and how to really work that into our workflow. We spent a lot of time programming macros using AppleScript in QLab that our programmer Sam Schloegel put together to really make us facile in tech. Tech could move along and we could keep up under the hood. There was a lot of programming that needed to be done, so we were refining the workflow as we went.”

Gertie Cummings (Mallory Portnoy) and Curly (Damon Daunno). Photo by Little Fang

‡‡         In the Mix               

There is not a lot of reverb used on the show, but it comes and goes at key moments. The touch of reverb on the last word of Curly’s first line is the initial indication of actual miking in the show. “John Sibley, who’s mixing it, is really working his butt off to get all of those levels just so,” says Levy. “There’s a very fine line between totally inaudible and overly amplified. We’re really toeing that line of subtlety throughout the entire show. It takes a lot of concentration, and it’s actually quite difficult.”

The sound designer adds that his team is using a lot of surround reverb with very complicated routing. He admits that they kept getting confused every time they went to program it. “It took three of us to wrap our brains around it since we flip back and forth between that and a traditional mono or stereo reverb send,” recalls Levy. “We’re using a TC 6000 with the Reverb 8 engine, which is an 8-channel reverb. We’re using the positioning output of the DS100 to drive the eight reverb inputs, so as somebody moves through space, the reverb reacts and moves with them. It can be pretty subtle, but it actually has a really nice effect. It gives you this subconscious feeling of space changing and reacting dynamically to what is happening on stage.”

The Oklahoma! sound team learned a lot about what the sonic boundaries were for the show and what they could get away with in the Circle in the Square Theatre, which the sound designer calls a challenging venue. “It’s an odd shape, and every show that goes in there has a different approach,” he remarks. “We’ve tried to learn from the previous shows about what worked and what didn’t. I think we ended up with something that works really well for this production.”

Levy is no stranger to big musicals, having worked on Broadway spectacles like Spongebob Squarepants, Waitress, Honeymoon in Vegas, and Chaplin. While Oklahoma! has a good-sized cast as well, the challenge here was to not make it sound like those shows, but to offer the same energy without the overt amplification.

Chaplin was the closest to this, but we weren’t quite there,” he says. “That’s the fun of it. Some shows want to be loud and pop music driven. And some shows want to be subtle and transparent. They each have their own challenges, and that’s what makes it interesting and keeps you on your toes.”

As icing on the cake, Levy received a Tony Award nomination for his work on the show. “The Tony nomination is surprising and exciting,” he says. “It is relieving in a way to know that this kind of work can be recognized for what it is, which is decidedly not flashy.”


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