“Excited & Scared”: Broadway’s Reaction to New Horizons
Broadway. In The Metaverse.
Now that we’ve said that, what are you feeling?
If you’re a traditionalist of the theatre it might very well be fear overwhelming you. Perhaps the idea of technology taking over a very classic art form sends chills down your spine in the worst way. You’re feeling hives take over your body, you want to scream, “ABSOLUTELY NOT! Tech will not take over my precious theatre.”
We know. Many people feel this way, in fact every generation has gone through this with some form of technology or advancing art forms. New horizons are always scary. Step back for a second and think about the last musical you saw, on Broadway, off Broadway, regional—doesn’t matter. Were the actors miked? (Psst—the answer is most likely yes) Did it bother you?
If we had to wager a guess, you probably didn’t even notice. Performers have used microphones to amplify the sound of their voices since Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1964). Maybe it’s been longer than you thought, maybe less time than you thought—regardless, the early reception was NOT positive. Theatre goers and critics had plenty to say about their distaste for this new wave. In fact, they continued to talk about it openly well into the 1980s. That’s twenty years of complaining! About microphones!
Harold Schonberg, famed Nobel Prize winning music critic for the New York Times wrote:
“The sound is generally awful. It is awful because, no matter how sophisticated the equipment, the nature of the beast is such that honest sound is, literally, impossible to achieve, and every audio designer and sound mixer will admit it. Amplified sound in the Broadway theater leads to a kind of reproduction in which there is little or no feeling of space. No matter where the singer is, the sound source comes from a different location. Those in the audience seated at the left or right, adjacent to loudspeakers, are going to hear sounds from the speakers and not from the stage. The singer is opening and closing his mouth in one spot, the actual sound is coming from a location far removed.”
Yikes. He’s clear about his feelings and even said, “There is not one musical show on Broadway that currently is entirely free from amplification” in 1981. You can feel the disdain dripping from that statement. Not ONE musical show on Broadway is free from sound amplification.
While today, we take the ease of hearing amplified sound for granted, less than 30 years ago, playwright David Mamet is quoted in the Dramatist Guild Quarterly as saying, 'If you are an actor and you can't make yourself heard in a 1,000- seat theater, you're doing something wrong. You should get off the stage and go home. This issue, far beyond threatening the purity of the theater, threatens its very integrity.’
You’re doing something wrong. Many felt that it was required that a performer be able to project to the full Broadway house to be a success. One of the most well-renowned stage and screen actors of the last century, Jason Robards, said, “It’s part of an actor’s equipment to project a voice. Projection of sound gives the stage a life different from real life. As actors and interpretive artists, we must not only be able to know the attitude of the script, we must also make ourselves heard-without amplification”. “Robards is also concerned that projection is no longer being taught in drama schools and that, with microphones, ''anybody can be an actor.’' The Chicago Tribune explained.
Ruminate on that for a moment.
Now reread the title of this blog, a quote pulled from Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. Excited and scared. Be scared if that’s what you’re feeling, accept it and own that. It’s okay!
Those knee-jerk reactions (like those felt among people first hearing amplified sound in the theatre) are totally normal!
But also allow yourself to be excited! New technology may feel confusing, and that confusion may be all consuming, but if you consider how seamlessly microphones exist in the theatrical world in 2022, you may find it worth it to be open-minded about what’s to come. Broadway 2030 is closer than you think!