News Column

Twist of Fate Led to Sound Design Career

June 9, 2013


By Robert Feldberg

John Gromada has a collection of tree-frog noises in his audio library. This is why:

He was working on the sound design for the current Broadway revival of "The Trip to Bountiful" -- for which he's up for a Tony Award tonight -- when director Michael Wilson requested cricket chirps for a scene in a Houston bus terminal.

"I said you can't use crickets in Texas in March," recalled Gromada, who grew up in Wyckoff and Glen Rock, and now lives in Nyack. "You have tree frogs. I recorded the sounds myself. I like sounds to be natural and true to place -- like the kinds of birds you have at certain places different times of the year."

You might be wondering: What difference does it make? Who would even notice?

Gromada would, and that's the point. His is a theatrical craft in which the audience, much of the time, isn't conscious of what he's created. He fills in spaces that people are barely aware exist.

"Sound can be pretty subtle," he said in a recent phone conversation. "It can easily be overlooked."

After attending Ramapo High School in Franklin Lakes, Gromada went to Duke University, where he majored in public policy, with an eye on law school.

But he also liked music, and several composition courses he took swung his life in an unexpected direction.

In 1986, when Gromada was a senior, the Broadway-bound revival of Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece "A Long Day's Journey Into Night," with Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey, was trying out at Duke. A need arose for some music, as a transition between scenes.

"They needed it quickly," Gromada said. "I was asked, and I wrote the music overnight."

His work was kept in the production, and, at 22, Gromada received his first Broadway credit. He also decided to pursue a career in theater, learning the rudiments of sound design along the way.

"Sound design means different things to different people," he said. "I'm basically responsible for all the sound in a production."

Doing sound for a play, which is Gromada's terrain, is totally different from supervising sound for a musical, which is largely about modulating levels of amplification.

Gromada does some of that, in enhancing actors' voices, although he suggested that's the least interesting part of his work.

"Many actors come from television or films, and require help in projecting their voices in a theater," he said. "Also, audiences are getting older [and harder of hearing]."

As a composer, Gromada brings an added talent to his job, often writing incidental music for a show.

For "Bountiful," a revival of Horton Foote's 1953 play about an elderly woman (played by Tony-nominated Cicely Tyson) who sets out to travel from Houston to her childhood home in Bountiful, Texas, he composed introductory music ("You want to create a feeling of energy and excitement") as well as transitional music, to keep the production's momentum going between scenes.

For the transitions, he picked up on Foote's references in the script to traditional hymns, and used allusions to them in his score.

Throughout the play, he created ambient sounds, the aural background that people seldom notice -- the tree frogs -- but which sneaks into their unconscious and helps establish a sense of place and mood.

For scenes set in Houston, said Gromada, "I wanted crowded-city sounds: traffic, dogs, bottles being thrown." For rural Bountiful, "there was just the sound of the wind."

Once in a great while, a sound designer gets to be in the middle of the action, to enter the audience's mind through the front door, if you'll excuse the mangled metaphor.

For Gromada, that happened in a memorable 1990 off-Broadway revival of "Machinal," an expressionist play, written in the 1920s, about a dehumanized, mechanistic society.

His design of harsh, jarring sounds -- grinding machinery, jackhammers, trains -- was a vital element in the production.

"That show launched my career," he said.

Even in a field where being unnoticed comes with the job -- a Tony Award category for sound designers wasn't established until 2008, and only after a campaign by the designers -- it's good to have people know who you are.

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