How Did Oklahoma! Sound in 1943?
Scott Lehrer’s sound design for the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts’ restoration

June 8, 2011

Veteran sound designer Scott Lehrer, the first winner of a Tony Award for Sound Design for a Musical (for South Pacific in 2008) has earned a reputation for striving for a natural sound when using amplification to overcome the noise of today's mechanized theatres and to meet the expectations of audiences used to amplified sound in earphones, from high-def home video systems and movie theatres touting digital surround sound. His latest challenge came from veteran Broadway musical director, restorer of lost scores and conductor of symphony orchestras John Mauceri. In an age when revivals often up-date, revise and even re-envision shows, Maurceri had a revolutionary idea: put on Oklahoma! the way it was on its opening night on Broadway.

Since Mauceri also happens to be the chancellor of the University of North Carolina's School of the Arts, he had all the resources he could want, as well as a handsome 1,380 seat theater in the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem. Students of all the arts involved in stagecraft - acting, singing, dancing, and costume, scenic, lighting and even sound design - could be used in an "all school" production. 

Research into the original set and costume designs could support recreation of the original look, and Gemze de Lappe, who had danced in the original production, was available to help recreate the choreography of Agnes de Mille. 

When he approached the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization with a proposal for a restoration rather than a revival, he found that the director of music, Bruce Pomahac, was already deep into a project to recreate the original orchestrations of the entire show which were the work of the legendary Robert Russell Bennett.

Lehrer was asked to, in Mauceri's words, "give the impression that there is no amplification while making sure that everyone in the audience can hear as they did then." Through research by a team led by Chris Schilder, they could recreate the scenic and costume designs, but there was no sound design to recreate. "We looked at a lot of the photos from the time, and there's no indication of microphones anywhere … and if you look at pictures from when the footlight mics came in, you can see them clearly. They weren't hidden," says Lehrer. 

He approached the task "like I would any Broadway musical. It is a matter of listening to the room without reinforcement to figure out what's needed."

The Stevens Center turned out to be a very live room, and the orchestra pit, unlike so many today, extends well into the audience space, so amplification was needed to help lift the singers' voices over the sound of the orchestra. Lehrer went with Sure UR1-M radio mics for all the principals, eventually renting two to add to the originally planned 10 to bring it to a full dozen, and then five Sennheiser MKH 8040 floor mics to provide area coverage. 

The orchestra was not amplified at all during the songs, but they did use some during the noisier dance numbers to overcome the sound of "all those cowboy boots and the tap routine in 'Kansas City,'" says Lehrer. Jason Romney of the school's sound design faculty adds, "Scott was very interested in getting good microphones down there" because the show would be shot for later telecast on North Carolina's public television system, and they would be using the feed from the house system. 

The result, at least from this writer's seat under the Stevens Center's balcony, was as natural a sound as could be achieved, although the volume level made it clear that electronic amplification was involved. 

The orchestra under Mauceri's baton numbered 28, just as many as had been in the pit on opening night in 1943. On the stage were the 48 cast members (also the same count as in the original) on sets constructed by the school's scene shop to the original designs of Lemuel Ayers. 

The cast wore recreations of Miles White's costumes as close as could be constructed out of cloth available in today's market. Says Corine Serfas, student costume associate on the project, "Some of the individual plaids and polka dots are things that aren't in vogue anymore, and we ended up creating some of them ourselves."

Lighting designer Norman Coates points out that, while "the scenery and the costumes can pretty much go from the historic record, there is no record of the lighting design other than what was in the back of the script which was put together, probably, by the production stage manager, saying ‘there was a cue here, and it looked kind of lavender to me.'" 

Coates' design, then, is a bit of an adaptation, matching what was known of the resources available for the original production and the design work of Ayers and White.

Lehrer worked with a student sound team of four. Two are graduate students working on Masters of Fine Arts degrees, his associate sound designer Eric Schwartz, and production sound engineer Patric Calhoun who was assisted by draftsperson Nick Correa. Handling the board during the entire run was senior Andrea Espinoza who Lehrer praised for her work on what he says was by far the largest show she'd ever worked. "Her enthusiasm, and indeed the enthusiasm of all the kids involved, made this a joy," he says.