Staging Green Day's American Idiot

Jan 1, 2010 12:00 PM, By Sarah Benzuly



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Sound designer Brian Ronan (left) and David Dignazio at the premiere

Sound designer Brian Ronan (left) and David Dignazio at the premiere

Ronan notes that musicians coming into a theater production sometimes bring in expectations from tours that do not equate to a theater situation, and so there needs to be an adjustment period. “The quickest way for Green Day to feel secure was to have their trusted managers and engineers come by and check up on the show,” Ronan says. “Before the first preview, their recording engineer came by and tweaked some of the instruments to sound like the record. We learned that what was spot-on for the album was not a perfect fit for our live show. Their FOH engineer came by later that week and we worked together to EQ some of the instruments to give them the breadth they needed to be more applicable to the live show.”

Expanding for the Cast

In any album-turned-rock-opera, the sound designer must “expand” the range and tonality of select tracks so that they can be sung by a company (in this case, 19 cast members), and match the actors and their vocal ranges. Tom Kitt handled orchestrations, arrangements and music supervision, while Carmel Dean is credited as music director. Ronan notes that mix engineer David Dignazio then took the vocal arrangements and “mixed them superbly. I supported him sonically by choosing reverbs [Lexicon TC3000s on vocals] that fit the various songs.”

Dignazio, who previously mixed Shrek: The Musical and other shows on Broadway, says of working with Ronan: “He's amazing. He's got a fantastic ear, which is always something great. He's got a really even-keeled disposition, which is necessary in this high-stress business: People want something, and they want it now. He has a big-picture mentality, as well, and he gave me the freedom and trust, which as a mixer I appreciate.”

Ronan's overall vision for the sound design was to capture the power of the music and the songs. “Every musical has a voice of its own, and American Idiot's had to bring a level of strength and anger that would match the characters,” he says. “I'm not referring to sheer volume; 90 minutes of a loud show is draining on the ears. It was important for me to arrive at strong levels that were felt in the chest, as much as the ears. It was imperative for me to make sure the vocal level cut through the band mix. Without the words, the story of American Idiot would be lost and the audience won't connect with the show.”

Dignazio agrees: “The most important element in Broadway mixing is lyrics because the lyrics tell the story. And if people can't hear the words, then they have nothing to go on; that's the vessel, the vehicle. So the implementation and the challenge is how to take a rock musical, where you want to put rock-level energy into it with musicians onstage, and be able to get the vocals to a place that is loud enough where people can discernibly hear what they're saying, and be powerful enough to have that rock 'n' roll element. At the same time, there are moments in the show that are tender and quiet. So we need to create moments of gentleness, as well.”

To achieve this, Dignazio and Ronan worked on laying out a Yamaha PM1D board and coming up with the programming and tweaking as needed during rehearsals. “When we started to map the physical production to see how his design elements were implemented into what I was doing mix-wise — what worked, what didn't — he would give me notes, things he heard at different places in the house,” Dignazio says. “As a Broadway engineer, stuff is coming at you so fast the first time that you're reacting on-the-fly, so it's a great thing to have Brian there to hear everything that's going on as you're reacting.” Dignazio used CueLab as his outboard-based program: He had an outboard Go button to fire CueLab so it sent a MIDI signal to the Yamaha board to constantly change scenes.

Musicians Everywhere!

Part and parcel of working on the sound design for any theater show is the amount of collaboration between the various departments and how decisions in one department can affect the sound design. For instance, audiences will notice that there is no standard orchestra pit; instead, four of the musicians (strings and drums) are seated on different tiers of the set, the violinist as high up as a four stories. When asked how this arrangement molded his design, Ronan replies, “To make my job much, much harder! It was really done to fit into the expanse of Christine Jones' set. The landscape she created was meant to represent a wide range of demography and geography. By spreading out the band, she was adding another stroke of the brush.”

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