Scott Lehrer’s work as a sound designer and engineer/producer can be heard in a variety of media, from Broadway plays and musicals to CDs, TV documentaries, radio dramas, film soundtracks and museum installations. His numerous Broadway credits include the upcoming Hello Dolly, Honeymoon in Vegas, The King and I, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Chaplin, The Front Page, Shuffle Along, Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge. The first ever Tony award for Best Sound Design of a Musical was awarded to Scott for South Pacific. He is also a successful record producer, having been nominated for a Grammy for the cast album of An American in Paris and winning Best Traditional Folk Album in 2010. With his producing partner, composer Dick Connette, Scott runs the recording studio 2nd Story Sound on the lower East Side of New York City.
What are you working on at the moment?
Will Pickens and I are about to re-tech Richard Nelson’s Gabriel Family plays at The Public for the December marathon (3 full length plays all in one day-a family cooks 3 meals and talk around the kitchen table). I just was in SF tweaking The King and Inational tour at the Golden Gate Theatre and squeezing in a production meeting at Berkeley Rep for Monsoon Wedding, Mira Nair’s new musical based on her movie. We’ll be doing this in April-May. I opened Jack O’Brien’s production of The Front Pagein late October. I’ll be going to LA in December to check on The King and I and in January to the Kennedy Center for the beginning of the Gabriel Family “world tour” and then to Copenhagen to do a production of Chicago. It seems like a lot, but I actually have a much easier schedule than many other designers.
What is the most exciting thing happening this season that you are not working on?
The Encounter. Gareth Fry is showing all of us, both designers and the audience, what can be done with sound in a play (as he has for the last 15 years with Complicite).
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Brooklyn and just moved back there after 60 years! I had lived in Manhattan since 1978.
Describe one of your most successful collaborations in the theater. How or why was it successful?
I went to Rwanda this summer to work with director Michael Lessac and his wonderful organization Global Arts Corps. I had my first professional theatre gig with him in 1978. I took the job with no specific interest in sound design for theatre, I was just trying things out. At the time I was mixing live music at a punk club, working as a TD for public events (I worked side by side with Ira Weitzman who was responsible for getting me connected with Playwrights Horizons-you never know how connections work out!), composing music for modern dancers and generally just trying to survive in NYC. Michael ran a theatre across the street from The Public in the basement of that amazing building with all the columns. It was called the Colonnades Theatre Lab and was a company that created new work through a fully attended co-operative rehearsal process. Months of work with everyone there. We all made $100 per week and loved it. With composer Michael Jay I created a through scored surround music/sound design on 8 channel reel to reel tape. We’d rehearse all day and then Michael and I would stay all night remixing the material for the next day’s work (I’d catch a few Z’s in a very comfy coffin that was used in the play.) We created a piece called Moliere in Spite of Himself based on Bulgakov’s Cabal of Hypocrites. We performed it maybe 300 times in a theater that sat 99 people and it was a somewhat legendary production. I didn’t know any better and thought this was how theatre was done. I got the bug and the experience determined the course of my life since then.
You have had a long and successful career which shows no signs of slowing down. What piece of advice would you give to those starting out in the field?
See above. Get involved in creative work that you care about with people you respect. Hopefully the rest will follow. If someone told me that I’d be doing theatre almost 40 years later in a refugee camp in Rwanda with the same people I stated my career with…
What was the one thing you wish you’d done when you were first starting out?
One?!?! There are so many decisions one makes in their life that can branch out in various directions. I wish I had stuck more with doing experimental music, but there is only so much you can do. And I don’t believe in the what if/regret thought process when one hasn’t knowingly caused others pain or really screwed up their life. And at least in my work I hope I’ve avoided that.
Who or what makes up your support structure?
Professionally one always needs to try to surround themselves with people who do good, reliable, creative work (and aren’t too much a pain in the butt.) The work of my associates, assistants, mixers and their support crew is the only way my ideas ever get realized at all. I also love having my studio as a base for my work. A ‘creative incubator’ so to speak.
What is your favorite piece of music at the moment?
One ?!?! Not at the moment, but for my whole life:
Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, which changed my life. Much like many forms of religious visual art it showed how extreme precision can connect with a deep sense of spirituality. This music is transporting like almost nothing else I’ve ever heard (especially live!! It teaches our ears to hear afresh-I first started to think seriously about acoustics from hearing how this music vibrated in the air) and Reich does this through extremely controlled technical/compositional means.
And for something completely different, Jobim’s Aguas de Marco sung by Elis Regina. Here’s a great song written by one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century (up there with the Gershwins, Lennon/McCartney, Porter, Dylan, Rodgers and Hammerstein… yeah I know I forgot Marley and Simon and Weill and…) sung by one of the great individual voices of popular song. Elis brings a completely personal approach to whatever she sings that is instantly recognizable and brings a smile and tears in my eyes every time I hear her. Music for her was a joyous, earthy and somehow also deeply sad experience, the essence of Brazilian saudade. There’s nothing like hearing and recognizing a great personal voice in music, be it Aretha or Sinatra or Milton Nascimento or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Roscoe Holcomb or Dinah Washington (one gets in trouble with lists because they limit the field of vision- what about Billy Holiday, Amalia Rodrigues, Louis Armstrong, Sandy Denny?) And of course this holds for the voice of great instrumentalists as well.
Name a pet production peeve.
How about 3:
10 out of 12s… Grrrrrrr.
And the orchestra coming in 3 days before first preview on a big musical.
And mechanical noise that takes away our dynamic range.
What is your favorite meal during or before tech?
A nice bowl of Pho Tai.
Do you play an instrument?
I played piano, country blues harp and concert tuba when I was younger but no longer consider myself an instrumental musician.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be involved in theatrical sound?
See the Colonnades story above, 24 years old.
Does your family understand what you do?
‘We loved the lights!”
My parents had come to terms with my being a musician rather than a lawyer or doctor and had a hard time adjusting to me being what they considered an electrician. But they came around after enough glam opening night parties.
Did you have a sound design or composition mentor? If so, how did they help or guide you?
I worked doing corporate/industrial shows back in the late ’70s for an audio production genius named Harold Johnson. I learned a huge amount from him about how live sound works and how to create sound tracks.
Otherwise it was mostly intellectual mentoring from a distance. John Cage’s ideas, Walter Murch’s pioneering film sound, Steve Reich’s music. There wasn’t much of an education in sound at the time.
Where do you find inspiration?
Just waking up and walking around. It’s kind of all there right in front of you. I love spending days in museums, it gets the brain sparking.
Was there a show or experience that drew you to sound design or composition?
I’d blame Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon which I got repeatedly high to in high school for that. And early Pink Floyd in the same way. Those kinds of music opened my mind to thinking about sound. Also, my parents took me to see the Joffrey Ballet at City Center doing The Green Table when I was about 10. It scared the hell out of me and I saw right then what live performance could do. I was fortunate enough to grow up near Manhattan so I could jump on the train and see such a variety of cool stuff. Seeing Andre Gregory’s Manhattan Project group do Alice in Wonderland showed me what a theatrical ensemble could do. Phil Glass, Steve Reich, and Musica Electronica Viva at the Kitchen opened my ears to minimalism and electronics. Ornette Coleman’s loft to advanced jazz. Seeing Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards in A Moon for the Misbegottenwas my first experience of great actors in a great play. Seeing the first production of Einstein on the Beach at the Met was life altering, it made me want to try to be an artist. All kinds of things.
What programs are we likely to find open on your computer?
Basically just Protools and a VNC client to allow me wireless wandering capability. There are lots of other programs on my show computers and assistant computers.
Was there a piece or type of gear or program that revolutionized how you work?
1970s- affordable multitrack tape recorders, mixers, analog synths
1980s- MIDI, sequencing, samplers, digital delay and reverb, mixers with more than 16 channels/4 outputs (and with VCAs!)
1990s- computer based work station/DAWs, digital consoles, reliable RF mics.
2000s- computer based theatre sound playback software, cross point delay matrices.
2010s- reliable wireless control of systems, the beginnings of cross platform integration and true immersive surround sound/spatial manipulation (we’ve wanted this since creative sound work began)
There are so many other things, but that would be the beginning of a book. I’m probably forgetting many others!
If you couldn’t have a career in a field related to this one, what would you want to do?
Be a field naturalist or archeologist, learn a craft like woodworking or computer coding, run a country antique shop, teach kids, read good books in beautiful place, about 20 other things.
Ask and answer your own question
Why? Because I said so. (ah, that felt so good, I make it a life rule to not say that, but there, I got it out-catharsis!)
What do you hope TSDCA can accomplish?
Solidify our community, create a way to share ideas and craft, represent ourselves to the world in a clear and proud way.