Mike It or Not
Does Michael Cumpsty really need a microphone to be heard in a 350-seat theater?
I'm surprised to hear this, too. The brand-new Berlind, which Anna and the Tropics inaugurated in September, has all of 360 seats. What's more, this is a vest-pocket production of My Fair Lady with two-piano accompaniment. Shouldn't a cast be able to project over that? Cumpsty sure thinks he can but he's being a good soldier and donning a mike. Still, he can't help being embarrassed by what he fears is "the most flagrant use of microphones thus far in theatrical history."
I began seeing musicals before mikes came on the scene, when the human voice had to stand on its own two lungs. It did so to my satisfaction. Granted, I was a teenager back then, so I probably heard better than I do now. But I never recall being frustrated at not being able to hear when I went to the theater.
The first time I ever heard that a performer would be miked? Ironically enough, it was someone whom we think of as having a powerful voice: Barbra Streisand, during the pre-Broadway tryout of Funny Girl in Boston. And there were hazards to the technology. At the Saturday night preview on January 11, 1964, Streisand's microphone picked up signals aimed at police cars. "People," the audience heard, followed by, "Get a car over to Tremont and Boylston." A helpful patron yelled from the crowd, "Barbra, honey, turn off your mike." But -- and here's an indication of things to come -- she didn't.
Whenever Scott Siegel does one of his marvelous Broadway by the Year concerts at Town Hall, he makes certain that some of the selections are performed unamplified. The house always responds to his announcement of the unplugged selections with warm and appreciative applause and then, while those song are delivered, the crowd becomes so quiet -- more quiet than usual -- that you could tape a Sprint commercial in the aisle. We're often told that theatergoers need mikes to hear a show; is it possible that they wouldn't if they'd only quiet down?
On the other hand, Siegel does draw a pretty rarefied crowd, a cache of aficionados for whom tradition and purity are all-important values. If my friends who are house managers are to be believed, the average theatergoer feels differently. They say that, at each intermission, they get complaints of "We can't hear." ("We can't see" is a very distant second.)
Cumpsty recalls a West Coast production of The Winter's Tale that he did. It was directed in the style of a film noir, "so it started with people talking on one of those old-fashioned, stand-up '40s microphones -- and once we got off that and just relied on the human voice, well, people kept complaining that they couldn't hear us. They'd gotten used to the miked sound and that was that."
Well, maybe many of us can't hear without microphones to help us -- and I'm not just talking about middle-aged to very-aged theatergoers. Back in 1989, the management of the Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera bravely announced that their production would have no amplification whatsoever so that Kurt Weill's music and Bertolt Brecht's lyrics could be heard "in the way that had been originally intended." Well, that lasted all of one preview. The following morning, the sound designers were brought in and the cast met their mikes. I asked Kim Criswell -- the show's leading lady, who possesses quite a set of pipes -- how she felt about that but even this leather-lunged lass admitted that she welcomed the microphones, and she gave a reason that sounded persuasive. "I just don't think that we hear as well as the generations before us did," she said. "We've had much more noise pollution than they ever had to endure." Certainly, those who lived in earlier times didn't have headphones on Walkmans and Discmans, which many experts say hurt hearing.
But if we must have microphones, must they be ones that are visible to the theatergoer -- the kind that curve around one's cheek, the ones popularized by Rent? At the group sales audition for Chicago at the Virginia Theatre back in June, 1996, the cast wore these contrivances. This so angered star James Naughton that he felt compelled to assure the audience that the actual production wouldn't use them. Thank the Lord, Chicago hasn't, for it would take the show terribly out of period.
But why does any show need them in the first place? When Jere Shea and Marin Mazzie did their famous nude scene in Passion, they were miked, but the devices were buried in their hair. Are those cheek-mikes really necessary? My guess is that some productions actually want to look like rock concerts. What with many of the younger generation weaned on cheek mikes, they don't give them a second thought and don't need the sense of reality that earlier theatergoers expected.
Yet Cumpsty needn't worry that his My Fair Lady is "the most flagrant use of microphones thus far in theatrical history." I've been to venues smaller than the Berlind where mikes were omnipresent. It happened just last week at a theater at the Producers Club, a venue with seven rows in a room as big as my living room -- and, believe me, I live in a very small one-bedroom. The show was a revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and it was so loudly miked that I'm sure it took at least two years off my two ears. But Stephan Barikian's production was so terrific, Felix Hess so mesmerizing as Hedwig, Danielle Tripodis so wonderfully droll as Yitzhak, and the band so fabulously hot that I willingly gave up the hearing I'd undoubtedly lost. If I wasn't one of those theatergoers who needed amplification before, I am one now.