True Storeis, #1

After over 35 years of professional experience, I have a long list of clients and stories that go with them.

This is an ongoing retelling of these stories as they occur to me. Some are good, some are bad, some funny, some bizarre, but honestly, they’re all ALL TRUE. Lots of folks in these stories are no longer with us, while many still are. I have no intention of harming anyone, their legacy, or causing problems for their estates. In borderline cases, or where I don’t want to really embarrass anyone, the names maybe be changed to protect the guilty. For the most part, this is all pretty much what happened, as I remember it….

#1 Hal Prince and previews/pre-production of “Parade”. (Originally “I Love a Parade”) in Philadelphia.

In 1996, I was doing a lot of projects for the American Music Festival in Philadelphia, from Cabaret to live sound reinforcement, to recordings, and so on. One of the things that AMTF did well was champion new plays and productions. Hal Prince was a good friend of the company CEO, Margorie Samoff, and it came to pass that Hal was going to come to town to direct a “workshop” (script in hand, no sets/scenery) production of a new musical with the working title: “I Love A Parade.” (Eventually simply called “Parade” – book by Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.)

This was big stuff, since Philadelphia had long ago stopped being any kind of pre-Broadway tryout. Folks “in the know” were really freaking out (in a good way) that Mr. Hal Prince (the king of Broadway!) was coming to direct this. I was hired for “Sound design”, as folks in the theater biz call it: running the sound system, following the score, handling live sound for the singers and making a rough demo recording afterwards. Fair enough; this would be at the tiny, intimate 200-seat Plays and Players theater on Delancy Street in Philadelphia, and as for live sound; I was amazed they’d want to mic it at all. (The cast was going to be seasoned B’way singers, on their days off/vacations, doing this tryout for fun, experience, and a favor to Hal.) Always up for a challenge, I jumped in with both feet. (I knew Hal Prince only by his works and reputation; I was just fine with everything)

Before long, certain “staffers” and handlers of Hal Prince began to ratchet up the intimidation machine; Hal will want this, Hal will want that. Someone even went as far to tell me that, in all likelihood, Hal would probably at some point stop the production, and ream me out for something or other involving the sound. They said: “Just take it in stride, don’t worry about it, he does it to everyone.” I figured Hal was either impossible to work with, or he had a lot of incompetent folks handling his production needs. (Personally, my BS-detector starts going off whenever yes-men start this kind of nonsense. As it turned out, it was most likely the latter.)

We started production on the work, with my sound system and 16 microphones at the ready, including 12 rented wireless lavalier microphones someone ordered; for all of the principles and a few bit players. I was shocked and a bit worried: you folks are telling me we need TWELVE wireless mics for a cast of 18-20, accompanied by two pianos and a drum kit in a theater that holds 200 people, for a private audience?!?!? I could feel my gut tightening already…..

Soon enough, the week of rehearsals leading up to the performance was underway. I met the cast, the composer/music director, and most of all, Hal – Mr. Prince. He turned out to be a lovely man, nothing at all what I’d been warned about. We fell into a good working relationship quickly, and I was Johnny-on-the-spot in getting soloists up in the mix, following the script, and giving Hal his very own monitor at his producer’s table, stage left.

Troubles began soon enough, though, as the production got louder, and louder, and….louder! Some cast members would sing full voice, others were “marking”, and some simply hadn’t learned their parts yet. To be honest, they all had singing jobs to go back to; so it was a little like pro sports: all completely understandable. As anyone who’s worked in live sound might have suspected, it was fast becoming a case of “more me” in the mix for everyone, as the mix volume climbed and climbed. One of his handlers told me Hal was having some hearing issues at the time, and although we did everything we could to make him comfortable, trouble was brewing, and Hal was getting cranky.

By the second day, this wonderful new musical was going from a simple “reinforced” type of sound to live pop/rock, and it was making folks (including Hal and myself) really uncomfortable. Cues became more and more urgent, and little touches and subtleties were rapidly being lost in the overall din. A fine little musical/acoustic experience was turning into a blaring, ugly mess. An exasperated Hal finally turned to me during a break and said: “Good lord, why does this have to be so LOUD?!?!? Can’t we do something about this?” I said: “I thought you wanted everyone mic’d individually?” He said: “Hell no!!!! “I” didn’t ask for that. THEY told me it was necessary. I remember when people just SANG naturally, to a full house, with little or no mics at all. I HATE this stuff.” I said, “Hal, I couldn’t agree more. Let’s talk!”

We never quite figured out who “they” was, but I offered Hal a solution based on my operatic and classical recording experience. Since no one was really moving around (or dancing, etc.), we created a chorus “zone” with one stereo mic pair for all the accompanying singing, and solo spots for the big numbers. (If memory serves correct), we dropped most (or all?) of the wireless lav mics, and went with solo mics on stands, in front of their music stands, since everyone was working from a score. Suddenly, the sound opened up again, people could be heard, the noise floor dropped, and the production moved forward. Hal was again happy. So was I!

Two other anecdotes come to mind from this experience; The first was the sheer number of major Broadway producers, directors – movers and shakers – in the audience for the two big tryouts, in this tiny little theater on Delancy Street in Philadelphia. I don’t recall the entire list (and wouldn’t reveal them here anyway), but the general consensus what that if someone dropped a bomb on the theater that day, Broadway would have gone dark for a long, long time.

The other story is my favorite moment of the entire production: One day about midway through the week (and probably while we were still “fixing” the above sound issues), a break was called, and most folks left the building for lunch. Hal chose to “eat-in” and work on some cues with the musical director, and I stayed behind as well, with a lot of sound “housekeeping” issues to deal with. Of course, the lackeys and wanna-be’s got lunch for Hal, and ignored the rest of us. I was resigned to an empty stomach for the afternoon until Hal looked up from his own sandwich, (a turkey club, I think) and said: Hey, what are you eating? I said: “nothing; looks like I’m fasting.” Hal said: “well, here; take half of mine; I don’t want all of this anyway.”

So, there I was; sharing lunch on a make-shift table top over some theater seats with Mr. Hal Prince. I have never forgotten this simple act of kindness from one of Broadway’s giants. (And Hal probably doesn’t even remember it!) He could have munched away, gone about his business, and ignored my situation. Instead, he was down to earth and gregarious enough to simply split his sandwich and chips with me. So much for advance reputation, and so much for lackeys and sycophants.

I believe everyone starts with an “A”, works down from there. I also believe everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time in the morning, too.

Anyway, thanks for lunch, Hal! (Nice musical, too. It opened successfully on Broadway in 1998 as “Parade”, followed by numerous touring versions. I still have the raw demo cassettes around somewhere.)