Best Sound Design is the youngest category at the Tony Awards. It was first handed out four years ago at the 2008 ceremony and--much like the equivalent category of Sound Mixing at the Oscars--went to the loudest and most intense sound designs (The 39 Steps for play, South Pacific for musical). The category has only demonstrated one consistency and that is awarding shows with complex layering with the award in the Musical category. The question becomes how did Peter Hylenski's work on Wonderland, a musical currently running on Broadway, get passed to see him nominated for his much more subdued work in The Scottsboro Boys? It's not like the category was opposed to a double nomination this year (Brian Ronan was nominated for both Anything Goes and The Book of Mormon). Is this just a case of recognizing Hylenski for an admittedly better show even if it's his lesser work in a season?
Here's how I see it. Wonderland was snubbed for all the awards because it doesn't do a lot of things right.The book is very loose and the performances aren't consistent in their attack on the material. The projections are clever but way too cartoony to match the intricately detailed costumes and lighting design. The disparate elements meant that the nominators looking for a cohesive show to recognize weren't going to leave impressed with anything. Were they really going to give a show a singular nomination in Sound Design of all categories?
As far as I'm concerned, they should have. Wonderland, for all of its flaws, had beautifully realized sound design. You could hear every word of the every song without fail. The balance between the orchestra and the actors was spot on in every song, even going so far as to mimic the mixing you would hear in a Latin Rock album during the Latin Rock number and mixing you would hear on a Boy Band/Bubblegum Pop album on the Boy Band/Bubblegum Pop songs.
Hylenski manages to innovate throughout the show. When a chorus of disembodied voices sends Alice down the freight elevator to Wonderland, they genuinely sound like they are from another world. There is just the tiniest bit of distortion and a healthy amount of echo filter that sells the voices as memories Alice didn't know she had lost (one of the major themes of the show). It's the kind of sound you wish filled your dreams because you'd never want to wake up and leave the voices behind.
Then there are the large group numbers. "Welcome to Wonderland" features almost the entire cast in iconic Alice wear (blue dresses, white aprons, bouncy wigs) singing in multi-part harmony; you hear every note without issue. The soloists--regardless of actual vocal strength--are equally as loud and demented in the sound design. Then there's this spring-like sound effect (I'm talking straight up "boing boing") coming from a synthesizer in the pit orchestra that punctuates the big visual gags onstage and eggs on the audience laughter. Similar techniques are used during the Tea Party number and the big Act II opener (complete with marching sound effect that makes the army of maybe twelve people sound like twelve hundred people). If goading the audience into reacting at just the right moments with sound isn't great sound design, I don't know what is.
For all the flaws, not once did I stop to think that there was a problem with sound in Wonderland. I didn't notice anything that could be improved and even weeks later cannot think of a single moment I would have changed in that mix. It's brilliant and easily should have been nominated in this category. I haven't seen Catch Me If You Can or Anything Goes yet, but Hylenski's work here is miles above his work in The Scottsboro Boys and Brian Ronan's in The Book of Mormon. Maybe we'll reach the point someday where sound design isn't just another category to pad out nomination tallies. Unfortunately, 2011 is not the year that happens.