I don’t really know what to say about this show. I knew I didn’t want to miss the chance to work with Stephen Brackett (The Mad Ones) or Michael Jackson again, and at Playwrights Horizons, which is a fantastic place to work.
What I didn’t realize when I approached them both about working on the show was….just HOW incredible of a show it would turn out to be. Even from the workshops and run-thrus I saw, I knew this was a really special, important piece. And it was my job not to screw it up. I’m only half-kidding! The show was so strong on its own, the only job of the design team was to elevate Michael’s work and, basically, to stay out of the way. This wasn’t a show that needed a huge sweeping soundscape or lots of sound effects - it just needed to get the words (and there are a LOT of words) out there, hear the beautiful music, and allow the audience to connect with the story.
I was surrounded by wonderful collaborators, all new to me, and we all knew that our goal was never to elevate our own design realms, but always to elevate the piece as a whole.
Michael has received so much long-overdue attention and praise for this show. I first met him in 2008, when I was the lighting designer (not a typo) on his thesis show with Rachel Peters, ONLY CHILDREN, directed by Emma Griffin. I found out, during previews, that it was that show, in 2008, that Emma invited Stephen to, so that she might get Stephen and Michael in a room together. The two have been working together on the show ever since, though, of course, Michael first began writing the show earlier than that.
I did spend a lot of time (as I am wont to do) on shaping reverbs for the show. As of last count, there are over a dozen different reverbs used in the show. The band’s reverb doesn’t change often: most of the band is running through a Lexicon 480L on a modified Small Hall preset. Much of the drum kit (snare, hi hat, toms, overheads) runs through an engine of the T.C Electronics S6000, a 4-engine, 8-in 8-out reverb engine, which for most of the show is on a short plate setting I tailored for the show. For one very large gospel number, however, the band’s reverb increases in size and the perc verb becomes a much longer plate, to capture and heighten the cross stick. On the vocal side of reverbs, I had three engines of the S6000 dedicated to vocal reverbs. Often the vocals would either be in a large hall (probably 2.5s) or a small hall (1.8s) but, I shaped two reverbs specifically for Usher in his number “Inner White Girl”. For most of the number, he’s in his 2.3s “IWG Usher” verb, and for one special line (sung partially acapella) that always broke my heart, I added 63ms of pre-delay (via recalling a new preset) which just gave a little bit of extra air to that moment, letting it hang there JUST a little longer… There’s also a couple of delays for special effect moments, vocal plates for certain vocal sections, and two big Gospel verbs for the Gospel number mentioned earlier - Usher in one, his Thoughts in another.
The cast were all double-mic’d with Sennheiser MKE-1 capsules running through Sennheiser SK5012 transmitters and Sennheiser 1046 receivers. I initially chose to double-mic the cast because I wasn’t sure that they would ever be leaving the stage. Usher certainly never leaves the stage, and I had a feeling that it would be a strenuous show for all 7 of the cast. And while they do leave from time to time, it’s usually for a costume quick-change…the cast is moving constantly, which caused a number of them to sweat…another added security of having cast members double-mic’d.
I didn’t do anything too fancy in the band. It’s a lot of my usual suspects, micrphone-and-DI-wise. Kick was an AE-2500, Snare was an SM57, DPA 4011 on the hi hat, DPA 4099’s on the toms, I think we ended up with 4011’s for drum overheads too. U87 and an Avalon U5 DI for the upright bass, Sansamp for the electric. Sennheiser e609 on the guitar amp for the electric, Firefly for the acoustic, and another DPA 4011 for the banjo. The woodwind player was mic’d with two Schoeps (MK4 preamp with CMC6 cardioid capsule) one high, one low.