For musical theater lovers, it's long been difficult -- if not outright impossible -- to experience shows on Broadway and elsewhere without electronic amplification. Though some degree of amplification has been heard on Broadway for decades, each new season seems to push the envelope in terms of what's acceptable and what isn't; how often these days does it seem that Broadway sound designers even make serious attempts to allow what's happening onstage and in the orchestra pit to sound natural? No one can deny that amplification solves the problem of allowing everyone in every seat in a theater to hear everything that happens -- and at today's ticket prices, that's very important -- but what are we losing? And why are entirely unamplified shows almost completely unknown in New York, even in many small Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway venues?

Those concerned with the current state of affairs probably already have their tickets to the one-night-only performance of Broadway Unplugged on September 27 at The Town Hall. Conceived and organized by TheaterMania's Scott Siegel, also the creator of the popular Broadway by the Year series, the concert will offer audience members the opportunity to hear a generous selection of musical theater songs -- classic and contemporary -- performed by some two dozen of Broadway's brightest stars with no artificial amplification whatsoever.

"Today, people have learned to sit back and let the music come to them," Siegel explains. "They don't actually have to listen. In some sense, when the music is so aggressively loud, it's more about the way it feels when it hits you than how it sounds -- and I mean that quite literally. The lyrics, as a consequence, are often so muddy that you can't make them out. But when we turn off the amplification in a concert hall that has great acoustics, like Town Hall, what I've seen is a whole audience subtly leaning forward, being attentive, and genuinely listening. The ultimate difference between amplification and hearing a real human voice is that, even in a 1,500 seat theater, the relationship between the singer and the audience can suddenly become incredibly intimate. It's a revelation."

Siegel, who reviews both theater and cabaret, is adamant about the impact of amplification on the musical experience -- whatever the venue. "The rock musicals are way too loud," he says. "Almost all of the pop scores are over-amplified. I'm amazed that so many small venues Off-Broadway and eighty seat cabaret rooms are always miked to the gills. I can well understand why the Gershwin Theatre needs to be miked, but not every place! It's relatively rare to find musicals that are sensitively miked, let alone musicals that aren't miked at all. I suspect it will get worse because we'll be getting more and more rock and pop scores. I'd like to think that a concert like Broadway Unplugged will, at least, remind producers that they should be sensitive to the sound design of their productions. Louder may be better in the shower, but it isn't better on Broadway!"

Sutton Foster singing"Someone to Watch Over Me"(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Sutton Foster singing
"Someone to Watch Over Me"
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
The idea for Broadway Unplugged emerged from the Broadway by the Year evenings, which almost from the beginning have included a number of songs performed sans microphones. "Time after time, those songs stopped the show cold," Siegel notes. "The applause was almost always thunderous, and it was clear that there was something important happening." But how did he come up with the daring idea of an entire evening devoted to such numbers? "If there was a singular moment that helped me make up my mind, it was when Sutton Foster sang 'Someone to Watch Over Me' at the end of The Broadway Musicals of 1926 last February. During the tech rehearsal in the afternoon before the show, she asked me if she could try it without a microphone. Mind you, this is a gentle ballad, not a big number to be belted to the back row. I said, 'Let's give a listen.' I went up to the last row of the balcony and it sounded gorgeous."

What happened when the star, who won a Tony Award for her performance in the title role of Thoroughly Modern Millie, performed the song in front of the audience? "Sutton brought down the house," Siegel recalls. "I knew for sure that the Broadway Unplugged concert I had in mind would work," says Siegel, "but would enough people come? Well, I decided to throw caution to the wind and hope that it wasn't just a vocal minority who loved to hear the pure human voice. I'm betting that there are enough people out there who are as thrilled as I am to hear great singers performing great songs without microphones." Those singers are currently scheduled to include such Broadway and cabaret heavy-hitters as Nancy Anderson, Christine Andreas, Stephanie J. Block, Michael Cerveris, Chuck Cooper, B.J. Crosby, Bill Daugherty, Darius de Haas, George Dvorsky, Debbie Gravitte, Ann Harada, Cady Huffman, Ludmilla Ilieva, A.J. Irvin, Alix Korey, Marc Kudisch, Euan Morton, Julia Murney, Alice Ripley, and Mary Testa.

"Many of the performers have already proven their ability to sing off-mike at Town Hall because they've done it in one or more of the Broadway by the Year concerts," says Siegel. "But I didn't want this to be just an alumni show, so I made a point of casting others as well. There are going to be some terrific surprises in the song selections. In a lot cases, the singers simply want to sing their favorite show tunes -- and they've got the voices to sing them to the back row of the balcony, even if they choose the sensitive heartbreakers."

Siegel wants to make sure that the evening is as much about the present as the past. "My initial thought was to limit the songs to pre-amplification times, but I decided after careful thought to allow any Broadway show tune," he says. "One of the things so many of us object to in today's musicals is their over-amplification. Why not prove that these songs can be sung and heard without having to blast them at us? If we only performed old Broadway songs, this would merely be an exercise in nostalgia. Including more contemporary songs makes it clear that we always prefer to hear the pure human voice whenever we can. While not all of the song choices are in place, I'm pleased to report that there is a rich mix of old and new show tunes, ballads and uptempos, to keep the evening varied and vital."

Not that the experience will be exactly the same as that of a full-scale musical: The accompaniment for Broadway Unplugged will be provided by Ross Patterson's Little Big Band, a permanent fixture of the Broadway by the Year series, but Siegel doesn't think the lack of a full orchestra will dilute the experience. As for whether or not Broadway Unplugged will be recorded and released on CD, as the various Broadway by the Year shows have been, that's still not certain. "The concert will be recorded for archive purposes and to allow for the possibility of a commercial release," says Siegel.

At any rate, a recording would never be able to capture the potential magic of the evening. Broadway Unplugged might prove to be one of the watershed events of the season. But will Siegel give himself over to the evening's conceit in his capacity as host of the concert? Well, no. "I will be using a microphone," Siegel admits, "but I'll be the only one. Otherwise, the sound design is by God."