As ‘Hamilton’s’ cast belts it out to the balcony, is the Saroyan Theatre able to deliver good sound? The answer is complicated.
Let’s talk about the sound for “Hamilton” at Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre.
Depending upon whom you listen to, the sound for the current national tour is devastatingly bad. Or it’s pretty good with only a few wobbles. Or it’s perfection, with each word in “Yorktown” as crisp as a freshly starched Revolutionary War uniform.
Which “Hamilton” attendee is right?
It could be all three.
Related stories: Theater review: Saroyan Theatre is the room where it happens for a stellar national tour of the musical ‘Hamilton’
Also: In touring production of ‘Hamilton,’ Julius Thomas III plays the title character with passion, determination and a keen view of how a musical can impact a nation
Also: The Fresno ‘Hamilton’ lottery kicks off today (March 18). Here’s what you need to know.
And: Fun facts from backstage at ‘Hamilton’: 20 Things to Know about the national tour at the Saroyan Theatre
There are so many factors involved: Where you’re sitting. Whether you’re already familiar with the lyrics. How good your hearing is. And, perhaps most important, how good the sound is from the original source: the actors and musicians.
Here’s what I know for sure: A number of people are having the conversation about the show’s sound, particularly on social media. The comments on one of my Facebook posts about “Hamilton” became a mini-battleground:
“Can’t go to Saroyan until they upgrade their sound. It’s an insult to performers,” a reader wrote.
To which another replied: “lol, they bring in their own sound system … so every show is different. Ask me. I’m a stagehand.”
Response back from the first: “We are talking about the acoustics in the theater not the portable equipment brought in for each show. If the first is crap, the second will also be crappy sounding.”
And a reply: “I assure you the thousands of people that have been in the audience night after night for the show would disagree with you because the applause is thunderous. Please feel free to miss out.”
Last retort from the first commenter: “And I assure you that it is a well-known, ongoing, unattended issue that many complain about, including orchestra members who understand how these things work much better than you do.”
I wasn’t surprised at the kerfuffle.
“Everybody has an opinion about sound, for better and for worse,” says Liz Crifasi, a theater professor at Fresno State who teaches sound design. “Everyone thinks they’re an expert on how something should sound.”
In 2011, I wrote a detailed front-page article for the Fresno Bee about acoustics at the Saroyan. For “Hamilton,” I wanted to revisit the issue. I checked in this week with three people whose opinions about sound I respect: Dan Pessano, managing director of Good Company Players; Crifasi, who has worked on sound for touring and resident companies; and Brandi Martin, theater program director at Fresno Pacific University.
After getting a refresher, I’m going to expand on some of the questions and concerns I’m seeing about “Hamilton’s” sound. Here goes:
Why is the Saroyan Theatre’s sound system so bad?
First of all, let’s clarify something. The Saroyan doesn’t have a sound system. (Well, it does, but it’s so old it could qualify for museum status.) The hall is an empty shell. Which is fine for unamplified uses, such as the Fresno Philharmonic. But when you put microphones on people, that’s when things get complicated.
Touring productions – from the two-night stands by non-union companies that are a staple at the Saroyan to the big “Hamiltons” and “Wickeds” we’re favored with every few years – bring in their own sound systems.
And, even if the theater were able to put in a state-of-the-art system, it’s likely that big tours such as “Hamilton” wouldn’t use it anyway. The show is so sophisticated that it needs to travel with its own equipment designed for the demands of the production.
The challenge is time. Big touring companies usually send advance teams to scope out the sound situation to prep beforehand. It all comes down to an incredibly tight move-in schedule. Sound engineers have mere hours to install equipment and make adjustments.
Not all spaces are acoustically similar. The shape of the building matters. Are the walls treated for sound, or is there a lot of reflection of sound coming back?
“There’s a lot of high-level engineering – mathematics, basically – that goes into making a system work in each room,” Crifasi says. “So they come in with a lot of software, and they’re figuring out the room. But one thing that I’ve learned both as a touring person and a person working in a house venue, is that there’s going to be nuances. Somebody who works in a house venue always understands those nuances because they spent the last 10 years making things sound great there. And then when you come in as a touring artist, you have, like, one or two days at the most – or even a couple hours – to get that sound system sounding right in the space.”
Does it matter where you sit?
Absolutely. The problem is figuring out where the best place is, because it can change from one production to the next – and perhaps even from one night to the next.
Martin, who used to work at the Mercedes Edwards Theatre in Clovis, recalls what Dan Husak, the theater’s longtime tech director, used to say: “No matter what, if you’re the sound designer, you’re wrong. Eighty percent of the people might be happy, and 20% might be angry.”
I sat in Row H of the orchestra at the April 1 performance and had problems with muffled lyrics from the actress playing Eliza. I also completely lost the words in the cabinet meetings.
Yet Martin, sitting in Row X at the April 2 matinee, could hear just fine. “From where I was sitting I could hear everything,” she says.
Often, sitting up close isn’t a way to get the best sound.
“If you’re sitting up in the balcony, you might have a fifty-fifty chance of hearing better than somebody in the eighth row,” Pessano says. “Because the sound could in fact be going over your head. And you are getting crossed by a lot of speakers that aren’t aimed exactly at you.”
Ah, yes, speaking of speakers: Productions hang multiple speakers aimed at different sectors of the audience. These become even more important the farther you are from the stage; sitting in the Saroyan balcony, it takes several milliseconds for the sound to reach you. In Broadway theaters, engineers have had plenty of time to refine the positioning of those speakers, ensuring the greatest consistency of sound. Touring productions don’t have that luxury.
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Is there a guaranteed good place to sit for the best sound?
Nope. Too many factors. But Crifasi offers an educated guess: Sit near the sound booth.
“Be as close as you can be to the engineer. Generally I would say center orchestra, not way up front, not way in the back but like center orchestra is generally the best sounding place in any theater.”
Why does it have to be so complicated?
Because it is! And because humans are complicated – and different.
As an audience member, there are three major personal factors that can impact your experience with sound:
One is how well you know the show. If you understand the lyrics and storyline, you’re way ahead of someone going in cold. For a show like “Hamilton,” which has intricate, rapid-fire lyrics filled with exposition and delivered in a hip-hop cadence, I don’t see how anyone could get close to full comprehension at the first viewing. I actually overheard a guy in the men’s room at the Saroyan telling his buddy how glad he was to have watched the Disney + streaming version beforehand – because of the closed captioning.
If you know the lyrics, then your brain often fills in the words, making you “hear” better.
The second factor is – and this might be a delicate topic to broach, but here goes – sometimes a person’s hearing isn’t what it used to be. This isn’t just an age thing. Some younger people, raised on a steady diet of loud headphones, have significant hearing loss.
The third is that people have diverging opinions on the mix of the sound.
“Everybody has different tastes,” Crifasi says. “I don’t think they know it.”
“Hamilton” isn’t a hip-hop concert, but Crifasi speculates that that the sound design has some similarities, which means it focuses on warm, low ends in terms of the mix. To get that hip-hop feel, there’s probably a little more bass going on. High-end sounds are what give you intelligibility of lyrics, and with more bass, some of that intelligibility can be drowned out.
Anything else in terms of bad sound?
Actually, it’s the most important factor for Pessano. He has a favorite saying about sound. Well, he probably has 18 or 20, but this is one of his favorites: “Garbage in, garbage out.”
Meaning that if an actor isn’t using good diction in the first place, no amount of fancy-pants sound magic is going to make it better for the audience.
Another favorite Pessano saying: The audience hears with their eyes and sees with their ears. In other words, distance matters.
“If you’re up close to somebody, it makes a difference,” he says. “We do depend on eye contact and seeing the mouths work.”
Could the acoustics be improved in the Saroyan for amplified sound?
The house sound system could be a lot better, obviously. If the Saroyan put in an updated basic quality sound system to cover the shape of the theater, then when short tours come in, they might be able to plug into that system. That likely wouldn’t help with a show like “Hamilton,” but it would do something to improve the Saroyan’s overall sound quality among audiences and producers.
“For years and years and years, they have not been able to keep up financially,” Pessano says of the theater’s management. “It’s not the city; it’s a private vendor that’s running stuff. It’s gone too long now without it actually having a fundamentally useful sound system.”
When I wrote my Bee story about acoustics in 2011, I asked one of my sources how much he estimated a state-of-the-art system would cost. He guessed between $1.5 and $2 million. In today’s dollars, it’d be a lot more.
People in the local entertainment industry are frustrated by the superficial approach that management takes toward the building needs in order to be competitive, Pessano says.
“Everybody has an opinion, but I think what I hear more than anything is that the anticipation of the sound being awful is fulfilled. And that’s too bad. You die by reputation.”