I had read about the phenomenon of miking Broadway shows in the past, but had my first experience of it Friday night when I went to see Les Misérables at the famous Imperial Theatre on West 45th Street in New York City. The Imperial Theatre was built in 1923 and has served as the location of many Broadway premieres – “Annie Get Your Gun” (1946), “Silk Stockings” (1955), “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964), and “Pippin” (1972) – to name just a few.
It is not a big theatre – only about 1500 seats. It is not a football stadium or a huge ampitheatre. It is a traditional Broadway theatre designed for the live human voice. However, from the moment the overture began, I could tell that the pit orchestra as well as (seemingly) all the performers were miked.
I really disliked it!
Sometimes it wasn’t so bad but, when you channel miked sound through speakers it usually sounds, well, “amplified,” not natural. Then there was the problem of directionality.
You couldn’t always tell who was singing, because the ‘old-fashioned’ way in which you actually hear the sound coming out of a character’s mouth was no longer operative. In one scene there were two characters: one on the stage floor, the other on top of a set which reached almost all the way up to the proscenium arch. Since the speakers were just above the proscenium arch, guess which character seemed to be singing? Since the stage was in shadow – necessary for that part of the musical – I couldn’t see that the character on the stage floor was the one moving his mouth.
Generally speaking, whenever there were multiple people on stage and only one of them was singing, it took a few moments to figure out who it was that was singing – because the sound was, primarily, coming from above the proscenium arch.
Why is this done today? There seem to be a variety of reasons. These are laid out in a 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal. Some of them are unobjectionable, such as Broadway touring companies performing in increasingly bigger (4,000 plus) seat venues. Other reasons I find very objectionable: “[m]any theatergoers have come to expect the miking effect. . . . Audiences also expect entertainment to be louder generally, after years of surround-sound in movie theaters.”. . . [Editor’s note: and having their ear drums blown out at rock concerts.]
I remember someone telling me about watching a couple at an outdoor cafe across the street. They were obviously a ‘couple’ and sitting at the same table. Yet they were both speaking into their cell phones. He said he had an eerie feeling that they were talking to each other.
Is the miking of Broadway musicals in small traditional venues one more sign of this phenomenon? In the modern world, when people are given a choice between doing something in a natural way or using technology, often they will choose technology – because the technology seems more natural to them?