Anything and everything one hears when entering the world of Back to the Future: The Musical at Broadway's Winter Garden—including the powerful vocals of Casey Likes, the many jokes delivered by Tony winner Roger Bart as well as the sounds of thunder, the opening of a beer can, and, of course, a time-traveling sequence that leads the audience to a roar of applause—is thanks to Gareth Owen.
That's all part of the job when one is a sound designer—a Tony-winning sound designer, in fact.
Owen received the 2022 Tony for Best Sound Design of a Musical for his work on the hit MJ the Musical, which continues at the Neil Simon Theatre. The Sheffield, England, native was also Tony-nominated for his sound design for & Juliet at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, End of the Rainbow (2012), and A Little Night Music (2010). On the other side of the Atlantic, Owen won Olivier Awards for his work on Come From Away, Memphis, and Merrily We Roll Along and picked up additional nominations for Back to the Future, Bat Out of Hell, and Top Hat.
In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Owen shares the complexity involved in designing Back to the Future, why winning his Tony was a huge relief, and how a series of "small breaks" led to his Tony- and Olivier-winning career.
Where did you train/study?
As a sound engineer, I am self-taught—no formal audio qualifications for me, although I was recently granted an honorary doctorate from Salford University in the United Kingdom—something that means a lot more to my parents than it does to me I think!
What are the duties of a sound designer before the show opens?
Everything that everyone in the theatre hears is my responsibility: From the audience to the cast, the orchestra to the crew, all of it falls on my shoulders. I need to ensure that every member of the audience can hear the words, the orchestrations, the melodies, and the jokes. I need to make sure the cast can hear timing and tuning but also feel emoted to perform well. The orchestra needs to hear each other, as well as the cast, and even the audience reactions; and the crew need to be able to talk to each other, hear the show, and communicate with the other departments.
On top of that, I need to be creative—to make sure that the show actually sounds good, that the vocal effects flatter the leading lady, and that the sound effects add to the story rather than distract. All while absorbing a thousand different opinions as to what everything should sound like and distilling it into a cohesive final product.
What are your responsibilities after the show opens?
To ensure the show still sounds the same way six months after opening. I achieve this with a combination of technical, moral, and emotional support for the show crew; and regularly popping in to watch the show and give notes, helping to maintain the quality of the production.
What were some of the challenges of designing the sound for Back to the Future?
Back to the Future is one of the most complex shows on Broadway, and a huge amount of the synchronization and show control for the production comes down to the sound team—we manage the time code streams that allow lighting, sound, video, and music to synchronize complicated sequences together. We use show control to link events together for specific moments. For example, when a lightning bolt hits, [the sound team] presses the button, which fires the sound effect. And at the same time, we also trigger lighting and video to render the effect visually. In the London production, the sound operator even fires the pyrotechnics!
Other challenges include the sheer number of sound effects, ranging from the sound of a can of beer being opened to a full car time-travel sequence, from a quarter being dropped into a collecting tin to a full surround sound thunder and lightning storm.
Finally, there is the challenge of the music styles. We have a huge range of music types in Back to the Future. On the one hand, we have Alan Silvestri's sweeping orchestral score, then we have Glen Ballard’s pop numbers. Following this, we have the classic movie songs such as "Johnny B. Good" and "Power of Love," blended with rock songs such as "[Put Your] Mind to It" (an affectionate tribute to The Rolling Stones). All this, combined with complex orchestrations and detailed lyrics, means I have my work cut out for me!
What did it mean to you to win the Tony for your design for MJ the Musical?
A great sense of relief. I don’t think I realized, until I won the Tony, how much I wanted to win the Tony, if that makes sense? It was like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. If I never win another award, I’ll be quite happy.
Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t.
I’ve never considered giving up, but I should caveat that by saying that I never conscientiously decided that musical theatre sound design would be my life—it just sort of happened. At this point I can’t imagine doing anything else, although I also know I will have to give up at some point. I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I’d like to quit at the top rather than slide into irrelevancy. But being the workaholic I am, I know I’ll need something to fill that void when the time comes.
What do you consider your big break?
I don’t think I can point at any one single thing that I would call my “big break,” rather a series of “small breaks” which eventually culminated in being a Broadway sound designer. Getting work experience on the U.K. rock 'n' roll festival circuit would be one; meeting Blues Brothers head of sound, Gert Sanner (who introduced me to professional theatre), would be another.
Meeting Menier Chocolate Factory Artistic Director David Babani just as he started producing musicals was a definite break. Not only did I end up doing most of the shows he did, but he also made me credible, putting me in a room with Sir Trevor Nunn, Hal Prince, Susan Stroman, etc., and getting me my first Olivier Award and first Tony nomination.
What is the most memorable day job you ever had?
In my teens, I was a beach lifeguard on some of the most challenging and dangerous beaches in my hometown of Cornwall. The responsibilities and work ethic I learned on that job shaped who I am today in a way that no other single job has since.
Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
I have a high degree of respect for sound designer Martin Levan. He designed the original productions of Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Sunset Boulevard… amongst others. He pioneered so many techniques we take for granted in modern sound design…
Tell me about a job/opportunity you really wanted but didn’t get. How did you get over that disappointment?
There are loads of shows I wanted but didn’t get. I’d have loved to have done Frozen, King Kong, and Wicked, to name but a few. I remember being particularly disappointed that I didn’t get the original High School Musical. While I doubt it made much difference in the long term, I was particularly upset about it at the time. I am generally quite pragmatic about disappointment, however—you can’t do every show, no matter how much the ambitious part of you wants to.
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
At some point you will want a family, so think long and hard about how that will integrate into the lifestyle of an international sound designer. Short answer, it doesn’t. So make sure the person you choose to start that family with (I am married with three kids) is an angel in human clothing.
What is your proudest achievement as a sound designer?
I don’t think I can point at any single show, rather I think it is the body of work combined with the truly excellent team of people I have congregated around me. Many of my small team of associates, assistants, production engineers, and show crew have been working with me, pretty much exclusively, for decades, and that camaraderie is perhaps my proudest achievement.