The Sound of Imagination

by Bryan Reesman

Andrew Keister’s Sound Design for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Broadway’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a visual feast and fast-paced musical featuring a cast of nearly 40 performers, an orchestra pit with 18 musicians, and a plethora of set pieces. Beyond the scenic magic that the production pulls off, the sound design of Andrew Keister (whose Broadway credits include On Your Feet, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Jersey Boys) is an integral part of the show. In creating the sonic architecture run through a surround system of approximately 260 speakers, he juggled 133 inputs on a DiGiCo SD7 (with some spillover into an SD8 backstage) and nearly 120 more on a Meyer Sound D-Mitri system. “Yes, it was a little busy,” Keister acknowledges of working on the production, which allowed him to stretch his wings artistically.

Keister began work on Charlie back in November, which is farther in advance than usual for a show which opened in April. While the cast spent a month in a rehearsal studio, he and the crew had three weeks of dry tech before the cast arrived at the theater, “which was kind of unique,” he says. “We were essentially done loading the show in almost as they were starting to rehearse.” They had three weeks of dry tech followed by three weeks with the cast on stage prior to previews.

“We actually had a lot of time,” notes Keister. “I think our producers had an understanding of what would be needed so time was budgeted to let us find solutions to issues and address them on the scale that they needed to be addressed. It is sadly somewhat unique in this day and age when everyone wants things that are very quick and very cheap regardless of what the solutions actually require.”

Factory Noise

For Keister, the most interesting part of his work on the show emerged in creating the sonic environments for each room in the factory where the entire second act takes place. He wanted to create a different aural landscape for each of set designer Mark Thompson’s distinct locales, which include the chocolate room, the mixing room, the nut room, the TV room, and the imagining room.

“In one way, it was absolutely great because the limitations are essentially nonexistent as to what these worlds could be,” says Keister. “We’re not bound by reality in any form inside the factory, but the other side of that coin is creativity gone wild can be very difficult to realize. We set some high benchmarks for ourselves to then have to live up to.”

Every room in the factory has an elaborate ambience helping to define it. “It’s all very, very subtle, and it’s not meant to stand out or draw attention to it,” he says. “The imagining room is the only place where it’s all silent ambience because that set piece is about nothingness. It’s about a big void.”

A good example of the sonic sculpting is in the TV room, which Keister says was the hardest to design for. “Mark’s set was just so beautiful, and when I saw the TV studio it has this look of what we thought the future looked like in the ‘60s,” he says. “That gave me a very clear idea for an ambience for it. Then there’s all this machinery on stage that they’re interacting with. It’s warming up and preparing to dematerialize the chocolate, and then we have these particles that are dematerialized. They talk in the script about billions and billions of tiny particles floating through the air and then re-materializing in the TV, so all of that clearly needed heavy sonic support. The question was just how to get there.”

Keister spent a couple of hours with a good friend who owns numerous vintage analog synths. They played around with them to generate machine sounds with a vintage ‘60s feel, working them into the moments that happen on stage. “Once the stuff gets dematerialized, there are literally hundreds of virtual instruments swirling around the surround system,” he says. “It was a lot of stuff to do, but the result is pleasant.”

He approximates that there were several hundred tracks of audio mixed down for that scene, many of them little bits and pieces forming a greater whole. As he says, “The beauty of the subtle effects is in the complexity of them. If you’ve got one thing sticking out, instead of having one tingling sound there are 17 little variations on that sound in different parts of the spectrum to give it depth, complexity, and hopefully realism.”

Sweet Music

Miking the orchestra was a little easier because it was the first time in a while that Keister was able to fit an entire orchestra “into the space they are supposed to be,” he says. “You automatically get better playing from them when there’s a highline and they can all see the conductor naturally. We put some isolation between the brass and the strings to take the edge off that down there. We built some isolation around the drums and percussion, but we didn’t isolate them totally. It’s better if you can do it that way because everybody is listening to each other naturally rather than turning a little more of themselves up in their headphones.”

The cast members were mostly miked with Sennheiser MKE-IIs with Sennheiser 5212 transmitters. The sound package was provided by Masque Sound. The toughest number to tackle was the closing song, “The View From Here,” which transpires when Willy Wonka takes young Charlie Bucket into his glass Wonkavator and they fly high above their village.

“It’s such a beautiful song, and we put the two people singing it inside a Plexiglas box on stage,” says Keister. “It was just horrendous, and it took an immense amount of work and time and detail to get right. Christian [Borle, who plays Wonka] has to be so careful about how far he turns his head towards the side panels of the walls when he’s singing due to multiple unwanted sound reflections. It’s just immensely difficult to make it come out, but I think the end result is quite good.”

The front of the elevator where the duo steps into has no glass and allows for a little relief from the sound reflections. As long as they are looking straight ahead the situation is workable. But Borle felt awkward singing a song to Charlie but not directly looking at him, but he made it work, notes Keister. “Christian's ability to understand what our problem was and respond to the requests we were giving to him with what he could do, while still being truthful and honest on stage, was really a gift.”

Keister praises his “amazing team of collaborators” including director Jack O’Brien and a “great group of people” in the sound department. “I think as much work as this show was I imagine the next show I do I will be quite bored because I’ll have constraints that simply didn’t exist inside that factory,” he admits. “As much pressure as that put on me to find creative solutions to stuff, imagination run wild is a wonderful thing and a wonderful way of trying to find the heart of the piece.”