Tony-winning sound designer is Guilderland High grad
Leon Rothenberg isn’t sure just yet how his Tony Award for sound design in “The Nance” is going to change his life. It’s not as if he hasn’t had work lately.
A 1992 graduate of Guilderland High School, Rothenberg has done sound design on 10 Broadway shows since 2005, and also has numerous off-Broadway and regional theater credits on his resume. Before moving to New York City in 2005, he was working for Cirque Éloize in Los Angeles, where in 2002 he got his master of fine arts degree from the California Institute of the Arts.
A 1997 graduate of Oberlin College with a double degree in composition and computer science, he lives in Brooklyn. His first Broadway work was for “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” in 2005, and he was nominated for a Tony for Best Sound Design in 2009 for August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
The rest of his Broadway resume includes “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 2012, “South Pacific” in 2008, and all three of “The Coast of Utopia” series, and he has also worked at the Seattle Repertory Theater, the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and Madison Square Garden.
“The Nance,” for which he earned the Tony on June 9, was written by Douglas Carter Beane and starred Nathan Lane. The story focuses on the lives of performers in burlesque during the 1930s. The show earned two other Tonys, for scenic and costume design, and was nominated for two more.
Albany County will present a proclamation to Rothenberg for his Tony Award on Tuesday, July 30, at 7 p.m. at Orsini Park in Altamont.
Q: How does winning a Tony Award change your life?
A: I guess that remains to be seen. It certainly gets your name out there, but I was already booked for quite a while before I won the award. I know it’s a nice feeling and it’s great to be recognized by your peers. I am honored to have it and to be part of that group of people who have received one. We’re all hard-working artists who are good at what we do, and it’s great when people seem to take notice. Of course you’re only as good as your last show, but if you continue to do good work and care about what you do, people appreciate that and they’ll get excited about working with you.
Q: When did you get interested in the theater?
A: Much of my early theatrical education was going to see musicals at Proctors with my mom. I acted and danced in our high-school musical, but when I was a junior I was an exchange student and I came back my senior year more interested in the technical aspect of theater. I mixed [sound] for our high-school musical, “Brigadoon,” and then Mike Cusick at Specialized Audio-Visual in Clifton Park gave me my first sound job, mixing for the Old Songs Festival. I think my interest came from being wrapped up in the experience of live theater. Originally I didn’t know specifically what I wanted to do.
Q: How does one go about becoming a sound designer?
A: Like many careers in the arts it can be a difficult road. You start by taking any kind of job you can backstage. I had some background in sound, and then I was very lucky to hook up with guys like [sound designers] Jonathan Deans and Scott Lehrer. You have to learn different jobs like mixing. That’s a skill you have to have done yourself, so any experience you get backstage is really valuable .
Q: What is your average day like?
A: A sound designer is usually hired before rehearsals start, and I’ll be involved in any creative meetings there are between the director and the set designer. It gets really busy during the technical rehearsals. That’s when it gets very stressful and also very exciting. Hopefully, things go smoothly, but you may have to tweak things here and there to work out some bugs. During tech week our days can start at 10 in the morning and end at midnight. It’s a tough schedule because you feel like you’re completely busy and it’s incredibly hectic during tech week, and other times you feel like you’re not doing that much.
Then all the elements are put together in a dress rehearsal, and you still may have some bugs to work out.
We have previews because it requires an audience to learn what the show will really be like. When the show starts it is maintained by a sound crew, which actually runs the performance every night. The success of my sound design usually depends on the guy who is mixing the show, so I might have to check in with them from time to time. That’s why it’s so important to have done that job yourself.
Q: What was it that made your work with “The Nance” worthy of a Tony?
A: There was a lot of stuff in the show for a sound designer to do. It’s a play with a full five-piece band and some beautiful music written by Glen Kelly. It’s wonderful, burlesque and vaudeville-type music and he really nailed it, and we had the opportunity to do a musical inside of a play. That’s great for a sound designer because you have a lot of tools to play with. There’s a lot to hear in this show, and it was also just a really good play, a great production. We were all very happy because all four design areas were nominated for Tonys, and that’s a testament to the vision of our director, Jack O’Brien.
Q: How closely do you work with the actors during rehearsal?
A: It depends on the show how much contact I have with the actors, but for a piece like “The Nance,” Nathan Lane was involved from the very beginning, and as a sound designer I like to get to know everyone as well as I can. It’s a collaboration, so the better you know each other the better your final product is, and it makes for a much more fun experience. So I get to know the actors pretty well.
Q: In your acceptance speech at the Tonys, you thanked the people who made shows like “Cats,” “Rent,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables.” You also thanked Jenny and your stepmother.
A: Those were shows that really got me into live theater. Jenny is my girlfriend, and my stepmom died earlier this year. She wasn’t able to see the show but she knew that I had been nominated.”
Q: What about the long beard you had for the Tony Awards. Are you going to keep it?
A: Yeah, I don’t know, it just sort of happened. I let it go and then it just became this long beard. It got hot on Twitter for a second, so we’ll have to see.