Behind the Music
During musical productions at USM, vibrant costumes, talented singing and acting, and spectacular set and lighting designs work in concert to transport the audience to another world. But it’s often the music—performed live off stage by USM students—that brings a show to life. We went behind the scenes of the Upper School’s production of “The Addams Family” to learn how music is transported from one room to another during a live theatrical production.
More than a bright, airy room in which to practice instruments, the Sardas-Trevorrow Band Room at USM is also a state-of-the-art remote orchestra pit for musicals held in the Virginia Henes Young Theatre. That means music—performed live by professionals and USM students—is electronically piped into the theatre while student actors perform on stage. Prior to completion of the room’s construction in 2018, all music was performed in a small alcove above the stage, limiting the types and numbers of musicians who could participate in musicals.
USM’s production of “The Addams Family” was held in early March, but student musicians began rehearsing months in advance. The week prior to the final performances, also known as tech week, is when the musicians, actors, and sound technicians converge (figuratively speaking). The musicians are led by Dain Shuler, director of bands and music technology, who follows what’s happening on stage via a live video feed projected onto a screen in the band room. Shuler can communicate with Mark Edwards, Upper School drama teacher and “The Addams Family” director, via a head set.
During tech week and live performances, each instrument is assigned a microphone, and each microphone has a corresponding channel. “The Addams Family” production had a total of 68 individual channels, between the orchestra pit and the actors’ mics, each leading to a single AV system connected to a sound board and a mixer in the theatre. From there, student technicians were able to control the volume and levels of individual instruments and actors. “We’re trying to digitally recreate what’s happening in the band room out in the theatre,” said Joshua Miller, theatre technical director.
The sound for a musical production is managed by a team of students, with oversight and guidance from Miller. For any given show, he typically has two students managing the sound board—one with an iPad checking sound levels in the theatre, and one backstage helping with costume changes and making sure mic connections are functioning. “Typically, we have one costume person and one lighting designer,” said Miller, “but for sound, it takes a whole team to make sure all the connections are working properly, and to problem solve on the fly because something will go wrong. It always does.”
Miller can adjust sound levels from an iPad he carries with him, but during final performances, the students run the show. “During a dress rehearsal I might make an adjustment and then explain to the students why I did it,” he said. “But I don’t touch anything for the final performances. This is their show—they’re mixing all of the sound on their own.”
While the sound technicians have a solid understanding of what they’re ultimately trying to achieve, the process to get there is constantly changing. When a musician adjusts their instrument, or an actor has a costume change, their microphone is impacted, as is the resulting sound. “Even if the mic is moved a centimeter, it still makes a difference,” said Miller. “Sound requires constant mixing that you have to stay on top of. It’s not a set-it-and-forget-it process.”
Having live music during a theatrical production lends energy, spontaneity, and individuality to each performance. Even though the musicians at USM are not in the same physical space as the actors, they are still able to adjust to what’s happening on stage and in the audience, and vice versa, creating a magical spark for each show. “It’s that essence of collaboration between the pit, the actors, and the audience that just makes for good theatre,” said Shuler.
“The Addams Family” received multiple Jerry Awards, including outstanding musical, outstanding direction, outstanding musical direction, and outstanding sound design, among others. The Jerry Awards recognize excellence in high school musical theatre in Wisconsin.