The Harmonious Sound of Once

by Bryan Reesman

Every actor plays their own instrument in Once—which meant a lot more wireless mics in play on the stage.
Every actor plays their own instrument in Once—which meant a lot more wireless mics in play on the stage.
Clive Goodwin keeps the aural balance for this unconventional movie-turned-musical

Yes, Once is another movie being made into a Broadway musical, but unlike most film-to-stage transfers, the Oscar-winning film was a cult hit rather than a blockbuster. Featuring songs (including the Academy Award-winning “Falling Slowly”) by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Once shares the story of a Czech immigrant who encourages an Irish busker to pursue his artistic dreams and to collaborate with her. The Broadway production of Once shines with outstanding leads (Cristin Milioti as Girl and Steve Kazee as Guy) and an ensemble cast of 12 that acts, sings and plays their instruments in a pub setting. It really feels more like a play with songs rather than a musical.

The man responsible for finding the delicate aural balance for Once is sound designer Clive Goodwin, who is also the resident designer at the American Repertory Theater in Boston, where the show began life. It transferred to the New York Theatre Workshop in downtown Manhattan before landing on Broadway. Goodwin worked closely with musical supervisor Martin Lowe for a realistic sounding show. They succeeded in creating a warm, rich and intimate sonic atmosphere.

Stage Directions: A lot of Broadway musicals can be very loud, but Once stays at a good level. The preshow performances are actually louder than the play itself.

Clive Goodwin: Why it’s loud preshow is that we tried it at lower levels, but because there are 1,000 people in the audience, and they’re nearly all talking when they’re coming in and going to their seats, we wanted to bring a little bit of attention to what is going on onstage. So we had to lift it up to be quite loud so it can be heard over the general conversational level of the audience. An excited Saturday night audience can generate quite a lot of decibels themselves, so we just wanted to pick it up a little over the top of the general conversation without drowning them out so they could still have their conversation. We are finding some nights that people are shushing, especially during the quiet number right before the show starts. People start shushing each other to listen to it. It’s kind of interesting. It’s cool because it’s officially preshow, so you don’t have to be quiet.

Steve Kazee (center on bar) as Guy in Once on Broadway
Steve Kazee as Guy in Once on Broadway

It shows that audiences are into it.

 

That’s the last pre-show number, which then segues through into the first number. The official curtain up is when Guy starts singing, and it segues through nicely to the bar scene. It worked really well. We didn’t want to blast it out, we wanted it to be fairly natural. We also didn’t want to have boom microphones—like they have on Priscilla, where they have a little Madonna mic just to get more level out of people—because it’s really a play with music rather than a musical. I wanted all the mics to be hidden for it to be as natural as possible.

Martin Lowe, the musical director, was absolutely fabulous on this, and we worked together to get a mix of what we wanted. So if we wanted more of a certain instrument, we would look at whether we needed to address this electronically or acoustically, like get the actor to play that part a little bit louder. It was a great collaboration, and it gave us far more natural results by addressing it that way. That was the idea, to keep it as natural sounding as possible and not too amplified, trying to keep it as natural as we can in such a big space. Obviously it’s going to sound a little bit amplified, but to keep it as comfortable as possible so that you only really notice that it’s amplified if you lose a mic or the board operator misses a line pick-up with a fader. That was the aim.

I don’t think with the very nature of the show—the way Enda Walsh wrote it and the fabulous way John Tiffany has directed it—that a loud rock style would suit it at all. It’s a very intimate show. I don’t think we could look at going that way. The show led us that way rather than any kind of conscious decision that we made. One of the wonderful things about the show is that it almost had a life of its own, that it took us in a certain direction rather than anybody imposing anything onto it. I think it’s evolved beautifully like that all around, and that was part of trying to keep a certain intimacy in a 1,000 or 1,100-seat theater after we workshopped it in 100 seats at the American Repertory Theatre and then downtown at the New York Theatre Workshop in 200 seats. Hopefully we succeeded a little bit.

What were the main mics and transmitters that you used on the performers?

On the performers are DPA 4060s, and the transmitters are Sennheisers for voices and Shures on most of the instruments.

Why did you choose DPA mics?

To my ears they are the most natural sounding body mics and have a clarity and presence that I like.

How many live mics do you actually have on stage?

Every performer is double miked because the cast is on stage the whole time. They rarely leave the stage, and it’s a fairly fast-moving show in that the scenes shift and the actors are all up there changing the scenes themselves. If we lose a microphone, there isn’t the option for them to go and change it backstage, so every performer has two DPA microphones so if we get a failure the board operator can switch over to the backup mic. On top of that, all the instruments all have a mic or a pick up. I think we have 72 channels of RF on the show.

Are the same kind of mics used for the pickups?

Some of them. Some of the guitars have built-in pickups from the manufacturer. We have Martin and Davis guitars that sound fabulous and are all wireless, so they have a pack on the strap plugged into the pickup. The mandolins and the banjo have built-in pickups. We had to put mics in the accordion, the concertina and the cajons. There are two mics on the accordion because it has a bass end and a melody end. Pretty much every mic we used is a DPA whether it’s on an instrument or a person. Even the drum kit is wireless so that they can do that dismantling piece of choreography as they take all the drums off, so there are no cables to be unplugged. The cajons are all wireless so they can be moved around. Even the studio vocal mic is wireless. There isn’t anything that is directly plugged into anything. The whole show is so mobile and beautifully choreographed that it all had to be wireless.

Which board is the show mixed on?

We are using a Digico SD7T. I had previously used Digico D5s and was impressed by their sound quality among digital consoles. The SD7 also gave us flexibility in terms of the number of signal busses available, Waves plug-ins via the external rack, digital routing/snakes/inputs/outputs and it had a small footprint.

This really seems like a production that came together on all fronts.

It’s rare in that way. This was so collaborative. There are often times where people can be more difficult to work with, but it was comfortable all around on this. John Tiffany is a fabulous director. I think he gets the best out of people without any kind of coercion, and there’s never any kind of friction. He gently steers things in a direction and lets them develop naturally. The design team was such a pleasure to work with, every single one of them—Natasha Katz, Bob Crowley, Steve Hoggett and Martin Lowe—and the cast are all amazingly talented and fabulous. To be able to sing, act and play instruments and do that eight times a week, I admire them greatly. They’re so happy doing it and put so much effort into it, which is partially why I think it works. The whole collaboration is something to be proud of, and I think it might even be a once-in-a-lifetime event.