Paul Bendix of San Francisco was eager to attend his second big show in person since the start of the pandemic. It was the opening night of BroadwaySF’s “My Fair Lady” at the Orpheum Theater on November 3, and he and his wife had orchestra seats. He hadn’t seen the Lerner and Loewe musical since he was a child.
But after the curtain came up, he heard a horrible echo.
“It was like the sound system was something I bought from Costco,” he told The Chronicle. “Shocking! I couldn’t understand anything.
He filed his complaint with BroadwaySF.
“As each production hosted in our theaters is its own entity, they bring their own equipment,” a company representative replied via email. “We are just the place. “
Bendix wasn’t the only one to be disappointed. I also noticed the opening night echo and criticized it in my review. But this “My Fair Lady” wasn’t the first time a sound problem had spoiled the San Francisco leg of a touring Broadway show.
A 2016 tour of “The Lion King” sounded so bad on opening night that the company shut down the performance 30 minutes later to try and fix the system. In response to my opinion on this show, I received a note from BroadwaySF’s predecessor, SHN, requesting a correction; the faulty sound system did not belong to them, as I had written in error, but to the tour.
Fair enough. But both of these experiences raise broader questions about the muddy triangular relationship between tour, venue, and audience, and the specific difficulties of making sound work on touring shows.
Even though BroadwaySF is technically correct that it is not responsible for its theater sound system, Bendix’s response is still frustrating. The fault lies not with individual customer service representatives – some of the less powerful people in the industry – but with management, which defines the corporate culture. BroadwaySF’s post makes no guarantees that the issue will be resolved, and if Bendix were to visit the tour’s website, his only options would be to purchase tickets, learn more about the cast and the creative team, or follow the show on social media. There is no posted way for him, as a member of the audience, to express his dissatisfaction with the sound to the team who can do something about it.
“Any public complaints made to the theater are reflected in the Party Director’s report, which is sent to the show after each performance as well as to the management here,” BroadwaySF communications director Scott Walton told The Chronicle. . “If a complaint is made to the ticket office, they usually try to sort out what is a ‘one-off’ problem versus an ongoing problem. “
Walton added that all emails sent to [email protected] are addressed to senior management and that no other sound issues have been reported after the opening night of “My Fair Lady”.
Still, it would be one thing if the sound blunder only lasted for a moment instead of recurring throughout the series or if “My Fair Lady” had been produced by a nonprofit. But Broadway tours are a for-profit endeavor, and some BroadwaySF premium tickets cost $ 256 or even more thanks to dynamic pricing.
One might wonder how much incentive travel has to correct flaws in their product. “My Fair Lady” has only been airing since 2018, but “The Lion King” – the highest grossing Broadway show of all time – had been performing for almost 20 years by the time I saw it. If your show leaves San Francisco in a few weeks or days for a new market, do a few complaints of a stop-over on a tour damage your decades-strong brand enough that you can fix technical issues?
I posed this question to Townsend Teague, who now identifies himself as an entertainment entrepreneur at his company Teague Theatrical Group, but who has previously been a business leader on a number of Broadway tours, including “Cats,” ” The producers ”and“ Les Misérables.
“Broadway being a big industry compared to being nationwide, it is at the same time a very small industry in terms of concentration of control, ”he said. “If I am in a theater belonging to the Netherlands, or in a theater presented on Broadway Across America or in a theater presented by ATG, and a problem with the sound has occurred, there is no version where the conversation between presenter and producer is exclusive to this room. . ”
For the business relationship to continue, the presenter, who likely has a network of future theaters on the same tour, needs to be assured that the issue will be resolved not only now, but before the show reaches its next milestone.
At the same time, however, Teague acknowledged that financial pressure often makes producers reluctant to incorporate more preview nights into their programs, which would allow them to avoid sound issues before the arrival of the show. hurry. “My Fair Lady” only had one preview at the Orpheum before opening the next day for a four week race.
“I can’t afford to wait for the reviews to appear in your local newspaper or to be covered on the morning news, ”Teague said. “We need to get this information out to the public as quickly as possible. Otherwise, “I’m jeopardizing my ability to reach ticket buyers in time to sell tickets.”
This schedule squeezes the sound team, however. Their equipment travels on bumpy trucks in all weather (sometimes equipment has to thaw after being shipped through a snowstorm). Even after loading, the tour sites have very different specifications. The temperature and humidity of an area can affect the system. Some houses are long; some are wide. The ancients might have been built for chamber music instead of amplified sound. Many have hard, reflective surfaces, such as wood, which can contribute to echoes. Some play in the hundreds, others in the thousands.
Matthew McShane, chief sound engineer for the “Come From Away” tour, points out that even a technical rehearsal is not a foolproof test of a sound system because the bodies of the audience are not in the house for them. help absorb sound.
“There is no such thing as a totally echo-free environment, ”he added. “An echo is just energy that bounces around the room and reaches the listener’s ear at different times.
“You always strive to improve the natural tendencies of a room. You use surgical approaches to try to put energy and information where you want it, ”he continued, and yet some parts“ fight us ”.
Teague agreed that some sites are known in the industry to cause sound problems, although he declined to say which ones.
While few dispute that an echo is a particularly painful audio dud, McShane argued that audiences have become harder to please as audio technology in our daily lives has advanced.
“With the advent and inundation of cell phones and Alexa speakers, people now have so much control over their surroundings from an audio point of view that more often than not they are not put in a situation where they have to work, ”he said. . “The ear is a muscle,” however, and if we don’t exercise it, it weakens.
This point helped me understand a phenomenon that I noticed in myself as a member of the audience. Whether or not a show is amplified, whether I’m sitting near or far from the stage, whether the actors are using accents or not, I often have trouble understanding what they are saying during the first few minutes of the show. As a theater critic, I have to remember not to be frustrated just yet; without fail, my ear is rehabilitating quickly and I can hear everything very well.
Former Chronicle theater critic Robert Hurwitt said that during his life in the theater he remembers amplification first appearing as a special effect for particular acts on shows such as ” The Pajama Game “or” Damn Yankees “. Voice amplification became more and more popular as musicals such as “Hair” began to use rock instruments requiring their own amplification and the human voice could not compete.
Carey Perloff, former artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater, said that even in these cases, the vocals often receive more amplification than they need.
“In my experience, the people who advocate for amplification are rarely the artists; it’s the marketers who get the complaints because the audience is so used to amplified sound that they have a hard time bending over and listening to real people talking, ”she said. “But it’s a vicious cycle, because the more things are amplified, the more the audience depends on it as a benchmark, and the louder the sound is until all subtlety is lost.”
Yet an echo is a more errant consequence of an amplification system, and all of this might prove to be of little comfort to members of the public such as Bendix.
Teague succinctly sums up the two sides: “As an industry, the Broadway tour is in a rebuilding phase right now, and it’s not entirely linear or smooth. You have people working jobs they haven’t done for 18 months, “he said. At the same time,” This client has made a decision to support the venue and the arts, and we want them to come back. “