Dan Moses Schreier received his fifth Tony nomination for his work on Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh. He is no stranger to sound design having worked for over three decades creating a wide variety of soundscapes. For The Iceman Cometh Schreier transports us back to the early 1900’s with the use of piano rolls and Edison Cylinders as he helps immerse us into the whiskey-fueled world of Theodore Hickman. Schreier reunites with longtime collaborator George C. Wolfe (director), read our chat below and what Wolfe said about this 2018 Broadway revival.
How did The Iceman Cometh begin for you?
I got a phone call from George C. Wolfe, the director and we’ve worked together in the past a lot. Sometimes, I’ve composed music for him. He directed a version of The Tempest and I did Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks and we’ve done a number of projects together, but it began with that phone call.
What did he say he wanted to do this time?
He said he wanted the soundscape to be very “muscular” and that was the word he kept on using. That was in reference to the idea that the play takes place in 1912 which is the beginning of the industrial revolution and the way it affects the people who live in this very divey bar. George wanted the soundscape of this new industrial New York to be oppressive in the theater, something that was loud and masculine. That’s how that conversation began.
With masculinity in mind, where does the design process begin for you?
I started by going to the New York Historical society and looking at pictures of what New York City looked like. I looked at what the streets and roads looked like in 1912 when the play takes place. What I found in those photographs was this mixture of horse and carts and automobiles and very old-fashioned, old world construction. What was striking was that they all represented chaos. The streets didn’t have lines down the middle to demarcate which was to go, so you see images and early films where you see cars zig-zagging across the road trying not to hit horses and that’s what I wanted to bring into the theater.
You’re also looking at lighting and who you worked with?
We often work together. The lighting designers were also nominated for Tony Awards, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Again, I’ve done a number of shows with them. When we go in at the beginning, we start with the transition of how we get in and out of the acts and how we can work together. That’s where that process begins.
Often when you’re working in the design aspect, but when it comes to staging the physical show, you end up with challenges. What were some that happened here?
Never happens. [laughs]. It was more of a question of how to refine the ideas. All of the ideas coming into the project seemed to be the right one. It was the question of finding the right answers to the questions.
One of the things we discovered was that we wanted more music in some of the transitions and I had this idea that we should go back and try to find the music. The music you could find was the beginning of the very first phonographs which were the Edison cylinders which were these black cylinders. I actually found hundreds and hundreds of these cylinders found between the 1905 and 1915. I found ones that were interesting and related to the show.
Talking about the set, you have the saloon, talk about that feeling of being transported back.
Our wonderful set designer Santo Loquasto created this very dark, divey, down and out environment. This idea of using the Edison cylinder is so that when you hear this old style recording and you see these images and the curtain goes up, you get transported immediately to the time and place.
How have changes in technology helped you when it comes to putting together a show like this together?
The irony is playing back Edison cylinders on computers because everything is now digital. The Edison cylinder is the beginning of the digital world. It was ironic.
One of the great things about the technology and being able to control the sound effects is that you can make changes very rapidly in the theater. If George gets an idea and wants to try something, we can make the adjustment on the computer, play it back the way he wants to hear it and it doesn’t take that much time at all. That’s what great about the technology in the theater.
Do you design with how the theater is? How does that work because say a show at the Gershwin would play differently to the Richard Rogers because of acoustics and such?
I don’t if many people know, but when you do a Broadway production the theater is completely empty, there is nothing in the theater so you have to consider the space. This time, we’re in the Jacobs theater and it’s a moderate size theater that maybe seats around 1100. It’s a more intimate space than say the Gershwin that sits 1500. I do think about that because I have to design every aspect of the sound system that is brought into the theater. I think about the content of the play itself and how I build the right instrument to play back the music and sound effects of the play.
What was a fun aspect of creating the sound ?
What was a lot of fun for me was investigating all the piano roles at the turn of the century. It was before bars had jukeboxes and even now, bars don’t have jukeboxes because they all use Pandora or Spotify. In that era, people would have player pianos in their bars and they would select roles so there would be music in the background. It was great fun and really interesting to find very old piano rolls with songs that were so obscure that we don’t even recognize them. They weren’t top ten hits or early Berlin hits. I wanted to avoid that because I was actually looking for obscure stuff. The people in this bar couldn’t buy the expensive piano rolls and that was really fun to find that material.
What is your relationship like with George now?
It’s a mutual respect for each other’s artistry. He’s a special artist and really quite brilliant. I hope he comes to me trusting that I’ll bring my A-game because we work well together.
The Tony Awards will air on CBS at 5pm PT Sunday June 10, 2018