Now Listen To This: How ‘Into the Woods’ Makes the Noise So Cheerful

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NEW YORK — As the band launches and the singers slit their throats in the Broadway hit revival of “Into the Woods,” audiences realize they’ve been thrust into a blessed event. Praise the saints (and sound designers): you can hear every word of the show.

It should be a regular occurrence, not the singular happenstance represented by this latest incarnation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical about storybook characters desperate for a happy ending. The notes and voices converge in perfect balance on the stage of the St. James Theatre, where the production has just been extended until October 16. A listener does not struggle to understand what is being transmitted, nor does he feel defeated by over-amplified instrumentality or misinterpreted lyrics. . All too often, these lesser results detract from the pleasures of musical theater, in an age that wants to make volume an unfortunate virtue.

With a perfect cast, Broadway has an “Into the Woods” for the ages

Sondheim, arguably the greatest Broadway lyricist of all time, wrote intelligently and evocatively, but also dramatically: His words drive the plot, the situation, the character. They scream to be understood. And no one has expounded the restrictions of art better than Sondheim himself. In the preface to “Finishing the Hat,” the book of his lyrics published in 2010, he cited his influences and listed the writer’s creed he lived by: “Content dictates form; less is more; God is in the details, all in the service of clarity, without which nothing else matters.

I’m struck by how much work “clarity” does in this set of instructions. Clarity for songwriters should refer not only to scansion and word choice, but also to how their songs are communicated. And it is on this last point that the sound designers, actors, director and conductor of “Into the Woods” seem to be so well synchronized. What I’ve learned from talking to several of them recently is the intensity of the commitment to bringing sonic clarity to the vision of Sondheim and Lapine and “Into the Woods” orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. . And how much it required each of them to be tuned in to the show and each other at all times. And how, too, they wanted the public to listen.

“The way people approach sound is not just turning up the faders and bringing out the vocals and bringing out the music,” observed production sound designer Scott Lehrer, in partnership with Alex Neumann. “It’s kind of how you want to deliver it to an audience. And that involves a lot of different things.

These things require collaboration from music creators and audio designers on subtle ways to get listeners to lean into sound. “My approach with Sondheim in general and this piece in particular is that the text is first and foremost,” explained Rob Berman, the veteran musical director who leads the show’s 15-member orchestra. “It should feel like speaking on the notes. I always encourage singers to smooth it out. Intention takes care of the detail.

This encouragement was taken to heart. “You work so hard to make sure every word is heard – not just heard, but felt,” said Joshua Henry, the magnetic baritone who plays Rapunzel’s Prince.

The art of sound design is one of the least understood theater crafts, even among theater professionals: in 2014, the Tony Awards eliminated sound design categories, in part because many nominators and voters admitted not knowing how to judge them. (After years of protest, they were reinstated for Broadway’s 2017-2018 season.) In fairness, sound designers themselves sometimes struggle to describe the technical demands of their art – how they “solve” the problem of optimizing sound diffusion in a theatre.

“There are so many great designers out there, and they’re solving it in totally different ways,” Neumann said, in a Zoom interview with Lehrer. “One of the things I find really interesting is going to see other designers’ shows and hearing how they did it. Even though that’s not how I would have solved the problem – I would have done that amplification, I would have done that reinforcement – I’m always interested in hearing the work of others and how they explored ways to make the sound come out.

In a show like “Into the Woods,” which moved to Broadway after a short run of concert musicals still critically acclaimed off-Broadway at the City Center, amplification is in order. Not only are the actors captured, but each of the instruments is too. It’s the job of the person at the soundboard – the “mixer” – to calibrate what comes out of those microphones and into the strategically placed speakers around the St. James Theatre.

Gavin Creel, who plays both Cinderella’s prince and Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf, attested to the pivotal role of the blender. “I remember telling Carin, ‘I sing better when you’re on the board,'” he said, referring to Carin M. Ford, a beloved engineer who mixed sound for the 2017 cover of “Hello, Dolly!”, for which Creel won a Tony as Best Supporting Actor. (Creel and the sound team praised “Into the Woods” sound mixer Elizabeth Coleman.)

Encores’ staging formula, which began in 1994 and two years later gave birth to the long The revival of “Chicago” has always been centered on the appreciation of the score. Decor and props are minimal. “Into the Woods” director Lear deBessonet helms the series, which Lehrer and Berman have long been associated with, and they all subscribe to the idea that at the beginning and at the end there is the word – and the song.

“I have an audio monitor that only has the voices. I can hear the actors when they go to breathe,” Berman said of his multiple auditory focus process. singers just by listening to them. Then I listen to the orchestra, just acoustically.

What makes his work on “Into the Woods” all the more satisfying is the model that Sondheim and Tunick presented.

“He designed the show as a chamber orchestration,” Berman said of Tunick, citing an example of the complexity of Cinderella’s first act number, “On the Palace Steps.” “There is an eight, 10 bar passage — just flute, clarinet and viola. The thing that Jonathan is always brilliant at is holding himself back, so when finally all 15 players play, it feels like 60. It’s all about proportion.

DeBessonet added, “The way Rob directs and directs the music is just glorious. It’s always the text and the intention first. You may think it’s about diction, but it’s actually about clarity of thought – if there’s no clarity of thought, no amount of utterance will make it. light.

It’s also clear how much the cast cares about this concept. Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, composer of the Broadway musical “Waitress” and who plays The Baker’s Wife, knows from performing her own work how crucial it is for the lyrics to land. “Into the Woods” intensified this understanding.

“As a lyricist, I know words really matter. I really care what I say. And I’ve always been that way,” Bareilles said. came and who knew the show very well. I knew him – ish. I really thought I knew better than I did. And I gained a deep appreciation for the complexity, the mechanics, the scaffolding of the show. And from a craftsman’s point of view, it’s just a marvel.

“That’s the beauty of plays,” she added. “The whole thing is an orchestra.”

In the woods, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Directed by Lear de Bessonet. Through August 21 at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., New York. www.inthewoodsbway.com.

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