Broadway sounds leave no time for a catnap

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 1994, 12:00am

LOOKING for the speakers on the set of Cats is like working out the children's puzzle when 10 objects are hidden in a picture.

Even when you know where the speakers are, you won't see them.

There is a big one behind the rusting iron bedhead on the right. Another in the pipe at the back, one near the pink paint roller over the stove and a fourth next to the old car.

There are varying size speakers hidden amongst the trash at the front of the stage.

The effect is fully dimensional sound which comes from all around the theatre.

A car screams from the right of the stage, across, up the back and crashes somewhere behind your left ear.

A police car siren follows the same route. The reaction is to turn to see what is happening. But there is nothing to see. It was all just sound, controlled by sound design associate Peter Grubb and his head sound operator Stuart Kirby who takes over once''Grubby'' has set up, seen that everything is working smoothly and left to work on another project in another country.

Sound is their speciality and in a production like Cats , even with the help of a computer, Stuart is on his fingers for the full three hours.

''When an orchestra is in the pit, you can pretty well leave it alone,'' said Australian Peter Grubb.

''It's less work, but you can't control some of the sounds. If the trumpets are loud, they are loud.

''But with Cats , with the orchestra in the booth, we have more control and can produce a tight studio sound.

''Sometimes it's almost acoustic. It is so quiet, especially when the timid and frail cats speak.

''At other times, the sound is bigger than Ben Hur, as in the Jellicle Ball number where the sound is ginormous.'' Mr Grubb said it was much easier to produce those wonderful sounds in a smaller theatre because they did not get caught up with room acoustics.

Most performers wear tiny microphones which, because of the amount of sweat, are positioned on the forehead.

They are only turned on while that person is saying his lines and then they are turned off.

''Otherwise, you would be hearing their every breath and movement throughout the show,'' said Mr Grubb.

''Every line in the show means moving the fader. Stuart handles about eight cues a second and during the show, never takes his hands off the 'desk'.

''The opening is particulary taxing when each cat has just one line to say.'' Stuart, who worked on the show back in 1986, must be listening to the oboes, the music, the voices and setting up for sound effects.

And he has to cope with the not infrequent breakdown.

''Sometimes a performer will slap some more powder on a sweating forehead and splat it on his mike, muffling the sound. Other times, the mike just won't work,'' said Mr Grubb.

''Someone back stage is there to quickly thread another microphone up through the wig but when the performer is already on stage and it happens, Stuart compensates by bringing up the foot mikes (in the rubbish at the front) and doing the best he can for the number.''