A Sound Victory on Broadway

Union Rep Notebook

Volume CVII, No. 1January, 2007

Bettina Covo

Photo by Aussiegall via

I know that many people – myself included – can’t understand how a small problem with a simple solution can turn into a giant, complicated monster. I suppose Mr. Murphy can sum it up: “Whatever can go wrong, will.” Such is the life of a Broadway rep. Many of the problems we encounter in the Theatre Department are both illusive and seemingly unsolvable. It’s like battling ghosts and fighting windmills all day long.

In my first few weeks of becoming the Broadway theatre rep in late July of this year, I was presented with a health and safety issue at “Lion King” in the Minskoff Theatre. The issue was twofold. First, there was a ceiling vent located in the horn room blowing cold air directly onto one of the musicians and, alternatively, not working at all – leaving no alternative but to prop open the door for ventilation. Neither situation was optimum, to say the least.

The solution: put in a new vent. Simple, right? Well…after repeated visits from the beginning of August through mid-October – never mind the plethora of phone calls and e-mails and wanting to pull my hair out – Nederlander finally put in the new vent. Ah, victory!

The second problem loomed a little larger, however. This was an issue over the sound level. This is an ever-growing problem in the Broadway pits. More and more, the sonic fate of the orchestra lies in the hands of the sound designers. Their decisions determine how a show sounds, whether musicians are placed in or out of the pit, and how the orchestra is miked – all of this without consulting 802.

On top of that, all of the instruments are fed through a mixer, with effects added to give the show its style. The auditory results may work for the audience, but this method can pose great problems for the orchestra, problems that are often impossible to change after the fact.

After “Lion King” moved to the Minskoff, it became evident that there were sound issues stemming from the theatre’s sound design.

Large speakers sit at either end of the stage right above the far ends of the pit, producing a booming vibration from the bass woofers.

The house speakers apparently run along the edge of the stage at audience level, creating sound spillage down into the front portion of the orchestra pit.

I sat in the pit on Aug. 10, talked with the musicians, brought a sound level meter and experienced the sound issue for myself.

Now, sensitivity to sound levels is somewhat of a personal matter. I’ve worked with rock bands and so my sound tolerance might be a little higher than a musician playing in an orchestra.

But, no matter what one’s tolerance level may be, any sound problem becomes amplified when you play a show night after night for weeks, months and (hopefully) years.

Many efforts were made to try to rectify the situation. Acoustic tiles were placed in strategic areas. The ceiling was covered and filled in as much as possible. But there was still an issue.

I decided to go to the source and contact the people at Disney to see if we could collectively find a solution. We met with the people directly involved with “Lion King,” including the head of health and safety as well as other execs.

After discussing the problem at length, it was decided that Disney would conduct their own sound study. I made sure I was there that night to check that meters were placed in the problematic areas and make sure the orchestra understood what was happening. The results were well within the legal OSHA standards.

Now we know that the OSHA standards are not truly applicable to the music industry, but, unfortunately, they are the legal standards by which any and all sound levels are measured.

However, since all of this took place, additional foam tiles were installed and reports from the pit are that it helped a great deal. So, for the moment, it appears that this not-so-simple issue has been resolved thanks to the efforts of all involved!

Now, I don’t want to brag about simply doing my job, but with all of the frustrations and dead ends that come up, it’s nice to know that some problems can be solved or resolved. Small victories among myriad battles. On to the next windmill!