Tony-Winning Sound Designer Kai Harada on Why He Dropped Out of College | Playbill

How Did I Get Here Tony-Winning Sound Designer Kai Harada on Why He Dropped Out of College

It worked out though. Harada is currently nominated for another Tony for Merrily We Roll Along.

Kai Harada Graphic by Vi Dang

It's been a busy season for Kai Harada, who designed the sound for three Broadway musicals: the recent revival of Spamalotthe recently closed new musical Days of Wine and Roses, and the hit revival of Merrily We Roll Along, which continues to sell out the Hudson Theatre with a cast led by 2024 Tony nominees Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez, and Daniel Radcliffe.

Harada was also Tony-nominated for his sound design for the acclaimed revival of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical. It's the designer's fourth Tony nomination, following recognition for his work on the revival of Follies (2012), the Tony-winning musical The Band's Visit (2018), and last season's New York, New York. Harada, it should be noted, won Broadway's top honor for David Yazbek and Itamar Moses' Band's Visit.

Also a Drama Desk Award winner, Harada's impressive list of Broadway credits also include sound designer for Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & The Pool; Kimberly Akimbo; Mr. Saturday Night; Head Over Heels; Amélie, A New Musical; Sunday in the Park With George; Allegiance; Fun Home; Gigi; On the Town; First Date; and Million Dollar Quartet, plus associate or assistant sound designer for Wicked, Man of La Mancha, Sweet Smell of Success, The Wild Party, Footloose, High Society, The Sound of Music, The Lion King, and the 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate.

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—Harada shares how in sound design, the most important thing is to "Shut up and listen."

Patrick Catullo, Daniel Radcliffe, Lindsay Mendez, and Jonathan Groff, Maria Friedman, Sonia Friedman, and Kai Harada Vi Dang

Where did you train/study?
Kai Harada: I grew up in Connecticut, close to New York City, to two classical musician parents. Mom is a violinist, and Dad is a cellist, and both have taught music as well. I knew at a very young age I did not want to be a professional musician, but I studied classical piano for 10 years as a child, and thought for many years that I might become a classical recording engineer.

I discovered theatre in junior high when a friend of mine and I were trying to get out of gym class, and I slowly discovered that I could do sound for theatre. Live sound intrigued me the most, but I also dabbled in stage management and set building and all that sort of thing. I think I really found my groove in high school; we had an excellent theatre program, although our facilities and equipment were a bit dated. Nonetheless, I was permitted to just... do sound... for musicals or plays or talent shows using knowledge from books and colleagues, and was very fortunate to have had the trust of my teachers to try things and make them work.

I continued my interest in theatre at Yale, working with a slew of undergraduate theatre organizations, very much to the detriment of my actual education. I left there after two years after doing very poorly in my academics. My dean said, "Kai, what do you want to do?" And no one had really asked me that before. I thought about it and said, "I want to work." He said, "Great. Go work. When you're ready to come back, you can reapply." I used some connections I had made while in high school and college to land a couple of jobs in the New York area—working at a sound rental company and working on an Off-Broadway show. During what should have been the fall of my junior year, I started working for renowned sound designer Tony Meola, and essentially never looked back!

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
In junior high, my drama teacher, Anthony Sherer, was hugely impactful, not only to help me focus my interests but to accept me as a "slightly different from all the rich waspy kids" student. My high school technical director, Rachel Morris, was also incredibly helpful—most of the time, especially with sound-related tasks, she left me to my own devices.

What are the duties of a sound designer before the show opens? What are the responsibilities after it's running?
The duties of a sound designer before the show opens are to assess the show, its sonic needs, and the theatre in which it will play, and specify all pieces of sound equipment to create a sound system that will faithfully and appropriately deliver the best sonic experience to every audience member. This includes choosing which microphones to put on cast and musicians, what speakers to use for the audience to hear them—and where to put them—and all the pieces of equipment in between. Collaboration is paramount, working with the other designers to work with mic positions on cast or speaker positions in the theatre.

Once the show is loaded in, it is the sound designer's responsibility to work with the sound crew, especially the mixer, to create the proper balance of voices and instruments that is appropriate for the show. Working with the rest of the creative team, especially the director, orchestrator, and music director, the sound designer is often tasked with parsing through many opinions on how the show should sound and best accommodate those wishes, and then ensure that the sound of the show is as similar in every seat as possible. Physics and acoustics mean that the show can't always sound the same in every seat, but it should sound similar and still be an excellent experience for the listeners.

After the show is running, the sound designer often moves on to other projects, but checks up on the show to make sure the balance and volume of the show are within the parameters set before opening. The mixer is critical to this process, as it is their hands and ears that make this happen successfully at every performance, and I've been blessed to work with some outstanding, extraordinarily talented, and musical mixers.

Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez in Merrily We Roll Along Matthew Murphy

What were some of the challenges of designing the sound for the revival of Merrily?
Thankfully, Maria Friedman is an exceptionally musical director (as well as an exceptional director of a musical!), and we could communicate in music terms. She was very clear with her concepts about the show, and we strove to create three sonic "moods" used in different ways throughout the course of the show: big, brassy, and Broadway-y for the overture and top of Act Two, more natural but still heightened for most of the show, and those sections where quiet are welcome (where we encourage the audience to lean in just a little bit in a way that supports the particular storytelling at that moment). Maria kept asking for the overture to be louder, and I kept resisting, thinking it felt artificial and over-amplified. But Maria reminded me, "Kai, there are people who have been dying to hear this music for 30 years. Let's blow them away." She was, of course, correct.

Ultimately, one of the biggest challenges of Merrily was the location of the band—visually, it is very striking to have the entire orchestra in a second-story room above the stage. But we had to be very specific with space, position of musicians, acoustic treatment, and which windows would be open to let a little natural sound out. Taking what we had learned with the smaller orchestration from [the tryout at Off-Broadway's] New York Theatre Workshop, we asked for some more space, and worked diligently to arrange the musicians in a way that made sense not only for playing but also for acoustic reasons. 

On the plus side, I had done two other musicals at the Hudson so I knew the auditorium space sounded good!

This season, you also designed the sound for Spamalot and Days of Wine and Roses. How did you manage such a busy season?
It was very challenging, schedule-wise, but I have a wonderful group of people I am very fortunate to work with: my associates Bella Curry, Joseph Haggerty, Owen Meadows, Joshua Blaisdell, and my co-designer on Spamalot, Haley Parcher. There's also the amazing crew of people who deal with the installation and day-to-day running of the show—Reece Nunez, Cat Mardis, Bill Gagliano, and Mike Wojchik on Merrily—for example. 

My mentor, Tony Meola, always used to say that sound design was 5 percent skill, 5 percent talent, and 90 percent politics—and in that "politics" chunk, I would consider "personnel management and logistics" a large part of that! I take a lot of pride in the teams that I put together, and I am so very grateful for each team.

Katrina Lenk, Tony Shalhoub, and Andrew Polk in The Band's Visit

You previously won a Tony for your work on The Band's Visit. Can you share a favorite memory from working on that production?
The Band's Visit felt so special to me because, as a musician, the idea that people of different ideologies and languages can come together through music is one of the main reasons I think human beings have music, and definitely it's one of the reasons I am in this business. I also appreciated that the show relied just as much on silence and subtlety as it did dynamic musicianship.

What made you decide to become a sound designer? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
In stark contrast to the younger generation of theatre designers, I don't think I was totally wise to the idea that there was such thing as a sound designer. Given my background in a classical music family, I wasn't exposed to Broadway until my senior year high school Western Civilization class took a field trip to see Les Misérables. I had already been doing theatre in school, but at that age I hadn't a clue that it could be a viable career option—it just hadn't occurred to me. And in high school, I concentrated on getting into college; once in college, I just had to focus on trying to wake up for my 8:30 AM Japanese class—and usually failed at that. I thought no further than that. 

These days I meet all sorts of young people who know what a sound designer is, and who some of them are, and the equipment that they use. I had none of that. I knew I loved music, and I liked science, electronics, acoustics, and psychoacoustics, and maybe subconsciously I knew where I was going. But I certainly wasn't aware of it as I transitioned from being a student to working in the real world.

Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t.
Every. Single. Morning. Wait, don't print that. Actually, maybe print that.

Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
Obviously there's Tony Meola, my mentor and a sound designer I worked for as an assistant/associate for 15 or so years—I learned so much of what I do now from him. In other disciplines, I have a great respect for lighting designer Ken Billington, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, and costume designer Toni-Leslie James—this is partly because we've done several shows together, and they've always been enjoyable experiences, but I truly appreciate their collaborativeness. None of them may know all the ins and outs of my world, and I may not know all the ins and outs of theirs, but we all understand that we have specific needs and reasons for, say, wanting to put a speaker in the same area as a light. And we talk about it and work it out.

What is your proudest achievement as a sound designer?
I think it's a tie between being nominated for Best Sound Design of a Musical for Follies in the 2011–2012 season, which was only my second Broadway show, and winning for Best Sound Design of a Musical for The Band's Visit in the 2017–2018 season, which was the year the Sound Design Tony Award was reinstated after being eliminated for a few years.

What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
I think one of the best pieces of advice I received at the tender age of 19 was, "Shut up and listen." There's an obvious double-entendre there, of course! But it's true—one of Tony Meola's top mixers pulled me aside one day to share that piece of advice when I was talking too much, and it stuck. When you're young, you do think you know more than you do—maybe you even have a degree or two to show for it—but really, there's so much that can be learned by simply listening and observing. Know the time to ask questions. Know when to shut up. Know that this a grueling industry and the hours are long and the time can be extremely stressful. So if there's something you'd rather do—go do that instead—but if you can put up with all of the stressors and do what you really love to do, you can be one of the luckiest people in the world.

Check Out Red Carpet Photos from the Opening Night of Merrily We Roll Along

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