This is a story about the most unlikely beef in rap history. When the Tony Award nominations are announced on May 3rd, honoring the best of the Broadway season, Hamilton is expected to dominate in every category. You know Hamilton, right? The groundbreaking hip-hop musical about our founding fathers? President Obama and Queen Beyoncé are both fans. And tickets are basically sold out until 2017. If the tea leaves prove correct, the Tony Awards could wind up feeling like one big infomercial for Hamilton. Which is pretty awesome! Except for the one person from Hamilton‘s creative team getting screwed out of a nomination, if not a win. Say hello to the show’s sound designer, 49-year-old Nevin Steinberg.
To be fair (and nothing about this feels fair) the Tony Awards committee actually eliminated the best sound design category in 2014—a stunningly arbitrary decision that left the theater community scratching its collective noggin. No formal explanation was ever given but the New York Times managed to piece together the committee’s thinking: “Few of the 800 Tony voters, whose ballots determine the sound design winners, know what sound design is or how to judge it…and some administration committee members believe that sound design is more of a technical craft than a theatrical art form.” In other words: They’re not sure what sound design is, but it’s definitely not art. Huh.
An online petition to reinstate the category drew more than 30,000 signatures, including John Hancocks from Cyndi Lauper, Stephen Sondheim and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, the creator and star of Hamilton. Miranda e-mailed Rolling Stone this week to explain why the decision frustrated him: “Sound design is an art form as integral to the success of a theater piece as any other element. Set designers sculpt with physical materials, lighting designers sculpt with light and sound designers sculpt with sound. They are responsible for your aural experience at a Broadway show — LITERALLY THE SOUND OF BROADWAY. To omit them from recognition — I simply don’t understand it.”
Hamilton‘s sound designer, Nevin Steinberg, will surely appreciate the love. While talking about awards makes Steinberg uncomfortable and feels presumptuous, he admits the situation still rankles him. “Yeah, I’m pissed,” Steinberg says. “I’m pissed on behalf of my colleagues who are also pissed and confused. I think it’s a snub. At best it’s a slight.”
To get to the bottom of this mystery, we sat down with Steinberg in the mostly-empty Richard Rodgers Theatre one quiet April morning, as desperate Hamilton fans lined up outside in the hopes of scoring a ticket from a last-minute cancellation. Steinberg is bespectacled with a kind face, looking not unlike a grown-up Harry Potter at the very end of the franchise. He offers a two-minute primer on his life’s work.
If a lighting designer’s job is to tell the audience where to look, a sound designer tells them what to listen to. Job One is making sure the audience can hear every lyric — a big job in a 1,300 seat theater like this one. Especially with a show like Hamilton, where more than 20,000 words are spoken at an unprecedented-rate of 144 words per minute.
Amplification is paramount but to dismiss a sound designer’s work as merely technical — as the Tony Awards committee implied — feels reductive. When asked to pin-point a moment in the show served by Steinberg’s artistry, Miranda says, “I can tell you fifty.”
Let’s unpack one here. There’s a pivotal moment in Hamilton where time suddenly moves backwards (Spoiler alert, if there’s such a thing when talking about American history). Early in the first act, the upstart Alexander Hamilton attends a party in New York City where he meets the Schuyler Sisters, Angelica (“the oldest and the wittiest”), Eliza (the beautiful, sensitive middle child) and Peggy. Eliza is immediately smitten with Hamilton and by the time the song “Helpless” ends, the two are exchanging wedding vows. A happy moment, right? Well, quite suddenly, the audience gets to see that same party play out again from Angelica’s perspective and the moment is jaw-dropping. We learn that Angelica too fell hard for Hamilton that night but stepped aside so her sister could be happy, a decision that will haunt her for the rest of her life. (And the next two hours of the show.)
How do you get time to move backwards on stage? Well, the lights flash and a large turntable on stage spins and the actors repeat their choreography in reverse. But what holds the whole stirring sequence together is, you guessed it, sound. “The band actually stops playing at that moment,” Steinberg reveals, “and we go to a pre-recorded, very heavily processed piece of audio,” which includes snippets of Angelica singing some of the lyrics she’s about to perform live. It’s a musical collage, he says, and the auditorium gets very loud before it gets very, very quiet.
Miranda refers to that section as “Nevin’s masterpiece — an all-departments-on-deck moment where we rewind two scenes,” he says. “Nevin helped build a soundscape from voices and snippets of other songs — it’s our little ‘A Day In The Life’ in the middle of Hamilton.”
As an audience member, there’s no confusion as to what you’re supposed to listen to. You’re left with nothing but a solo electric piano, a harp, Angelica’s voice and the thumping of your own heart. Steinberg asks a rhetorical question: “How is that not an art?”
There’s still a chance the Tony Awards committee will make things right; when the sound design category was eliminated in 2014, the committee left the door open, saying they’re free to award a special Tony for exceptional work in years where it’s warranted. But that seems unlikely. (When reached by e-mail, a representative for the Tony Award committee told me, “We have no comment at this time.”) For the record, the Tony Awards still includes a best lighting design category. Perhaps it’s just easier to judge something you can see?
Steinberg had been nominated six times in the category before its elimination; five as part of a company called Acme Sound, then once on his own, for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella in 2013. But he never won. Sometimes the journey really is the reward. And Hamilton continues to be an unforgettable ride, he says. He met President Obama when the cast performed at the White House; while the cast performed live on the Grammy Awards, direct from the Richard Rodgers Theatre, he was outside in a sound van tweaking the mix. And if he doesn’t have a Tony, well, he’s got a pretty badass consolation prize: access to two tickets to every single performance of Hamilton. “And they’re great seats, too,” he says with a smile.