- by Bryan Reesman
in Sound Design
Designer Keith Caggiano shares how he gave full impact and intimacy to this retooled musical
Originally staged in 2000, Bare: The Musical is about teens wrestling with issues of identity, sexuality and religion at a co-ed Catholic boarding school, specifically a gay male couple trying to decide how public they want to be about their relationship. It has been staged over 100 times in four different countries and has finally returned to Off-Broadway after an eight year absence. The show has been revised—it has new songs but less music and scene changes, updated pop culture references and veers toward a traditional musical format with book scenes, shedding its rock opera skin. A creative team headed by director Stafford Arima, sound designer Keith Caggiano, Emmy-nominated choreographer Travis Wall and Tony award-winning set designer Donyale Werle came onboard for this revamped rendition.
Taking time out from opening weekend craziness in early December, Caggiano answered questions for Stage Directions about the musical and its sonic demands.
Stage Directions: Rock and pop operas need to strive for the balance between the boldness and brashness that young people like with tolerable sound levels, particularly for older listeners. How did you handle that with Bare?
Keith Caggiano: While I agree that different people, particularly in different age groups, have different listening preferences, I believe that to some extent a show determines its own volume level. Being a rock musical there is a very large dynamic range in which Bare lives. There is a level of intimacy that needs to be maintained for certain moments and those may be quickly followed by a song that needs impact to properly deliver its message. Though there are a number of songs that are quite loud, it’s the dynamic range that allows you to take in each moment without being continually assaulted with high volume levels.
You have been an associate sound designer for Broadway spectacles like Rock Of Ages, Spider-Man and Bring It On. How did your experience on those big shows prepare you for Bare, and how does Bare compare to them?
Modern musicals continue to push the limits of theatre in all areas, not the least of which is sound. We’ve had to adapt to shows that are no longer possible to perform without sound reinforcement, and in the process the tolerances have gotten much smaller. A show like Rock of Ages is a great example of this, as you may have a blazing guitar solo while two people are having a conversation on stage. You have to come up with ways of dealing with this while maintaining the flow of the show and keeping everything audible. Bare has a lot of similarities, and going into development I knew that our number one priority had to be control. If we had an open drum kit and guitar amps on stage, we would get bogged down fighting off the acoustic energy and not be able to produce the polished show we wanted. Instead we opted for a near silent band using the newest electronic drum kit and Fractal guitar processors.
Which console are you running and why? Which mics and transmitters did you pick?
I chose the Midas Pro 2 for our console and Sennheiser 5012s with Countryman H6 headset microphones. I needed a small format console that wouldn’t make me compromise on features and sound quality and that leaves very few options. The Midas has all of the processing necessary to tame rock vocals, sounds great and is flexible enough to handle a musical theatre environment with a multi-source sound system. Though headset microphones have become more and more accepted on Broadway stages, the theatre where Bare is playing is a very intimate space, and I didn’t want people spending the show distracted by the actors’ mics. The Countryman H6 is by far the smallest headset microphone on the market and is also very durable, making it a perfect choice for this production.
Were there any members in the student scenes whose voices were stronger than others, and how did you compensate for them? How did these student ensemble scenes compare with those in Bring It On?
Regardless of the show, all actors have their own volume that they deliver lines at, and it’s our job to level this out so that it can be presented evenly. Some of this is set with mic position and gain, but ultimately the mixer needs to be constantly riding these levels to keep the show as clean as possible. On a night-to-night basis your inputs are changing, actors may be feeling under the weather or a sub musician may be in—whatever the difference may be, it needs to be compensated for. The mixer has a very large and active responsibility in managing all these inputs and maintaining the show.
What was the most challenging Bare sequence to tackle and why?
The opening of both acts (“Million Miles” and “Confession”) are a bit more abstract then the rest of the show and are intended to display the inner struggle that the characters are consumed by. I wanted this to translate sonically so I tried to immerse the audience in these moments as much as possible. This involves some fast mixing and a number of cues that move the sound of the show from surrounding ethereal vocals to hard driving rock.
What is something new that you learned working on this production?
To be completely honest, I used this show as a chance to try out a lot of new gear and a lot of ideas that I’ve had building up for a while. This left me a bit outside my comfort zone, but ultimately taught me that the principles of what we do are always the same. As long as you have control over all the elements that make up your show, you’re free to treat them and place them in the system at will, remembering that you can always return to the basics if things don’t work out.
I see that you have been working for sound designer Peter Hylenski for the last few years. What have you learned from him during this time? What is he like to work with?
I was very lucky to meet Peter early in my career. We have since become great friends and have worked very closely on quite a few productions. Working with him is always enlightening. He is a person who tirelessly works to outdo himself, whether by taking on some of the largest productions in the world or just reaching out to other disciplines to learn more and bring that knowledge to the theatrical world. I’ve learned a lot from him, some as a result of his normal process and some from going outside our comfort zone and experimenting. I think it all comes down to two invaluable lessons. The first relates to your previous question—as long as you have control of your elements and the basics in place, you can try anything and always have a way of getting out of trouble. The second is to always trust your ears. These days we spend a lot of time looking at digital displays of EQs and compressors and sometimes get nervous when the changes we’re making look severe. Every piece of equipment reacts differently, and sometimes it does take very drastic action to get the sounds we want from an actor running across a stage with a tiny microphone strapped to his head. As long as the result sounds right, what you do to get it there is irrelevant.