This summer has seen a two-month celebration of London’s cultural diversity, as World Stages London put on a series of shows created by leading UK and international artists – including a brand new musical, Wah! Wah! Girls, sponsored by Sadlers Wells and the Theatre Royal Stratford East.
As a musical with its roots firmly planted in the East End, the new musical combines the talents of acclaimed playwright Tanika Gupta and award-winning director Emma Rice. “Wah! Wah!” is an Indian term of appreciation shouted out by audiences – the equivalent of “wow”. The show combines the life and colour of Bollywood with the realism of 2012 London, with a score by composer Niraj Chag, and stunning dance sequences choreographed by Javed Sanadi and Gauri Sharma Tripathi.
For sound designer Simon Baker, the production has involved the challenge of weaving together a very modern and wholly electronic score with a Bollywood-inspired soundtrack, complete with the associated high-end production values and delicate underlying themes. Part of the Kneehigh Theatre Company team, Baker was brought in by director Emma Rice. He explains the challenges: “This project represents something a bit out of the ordinary in that it is not a big glitzy musical, but a new musical designed to reflect London’s cultural diversity. As such, our creative brief was a bit different to usual – involving a very short production lead-time. With an entirely electronic score and no live band, you lose some of the flexibility we are used to having – and the key was to avoid it sounding like karaoke or just a playback show.
“We knew that we would be working to very tight timescales and playing three venues, and I therefore wanted a system that would give us the continuity needed,” he continues. “The technical rehearsals were at Stratford East, and we then transferred to The Curve in Leicester for the previews, before the move to The Peacock Theatre [in central London] for the main run. I therefore wanted a system that we could easily adapt and manipulate, which would nevertheless deliver a big, high-quality sound. Unlike some other line array systems, the d&b audiotechnik Q-Series needs very little work to get a good result, combined with its compact size and warmth.”
Baker opted for over 20 d&b Q1 cabinets, together with B2 and E18 subs for the main system, supported by E3s and Meyer Sound UPA-1Ps. There are Meyer Sound MSL2s upstage for FX and the system is controlled by Yamaha’s DME64.
“The console is a relatively simple DiGiCo D5-T12 – we didn’t need a large channel count with no live band on stage. The Orbital team, led by Keith Hutchinson, did a great job – they have been very supportive of the whole project, bending and flexing to help us work from what was an initial guess list of what we would need in the final system. It was pretty tough through the rehearsal period, as we needed to get the tech in place at a very early stage – but it came together really well.”
His key new ingredient on this show was the Ableton Live playback system, says Baker, “the essential element to stitch the different musical elements together seamlessly as a continual rhythmic arm in the background”. With no musical director, the Sound No 1 is responsible for the entire playback function, so a flexible and controllable system was required that would always remain musically in time.
“This was the first time I had used Ableton, which is much more multitrack and DAW based,” says Baker. “Every instrument is played out as a separate track, we can loop bars, we can seamlessly stitch the score together – it’s brilliant. There are whole sections of music where we switch between actual Bollywood soundtracks and the show’s own underscore. These sequences can last for up to 10 minutes, and they all need to stay in time: Ableton enabled us to get round this.”
Audience reactions have been “terrific”, says Baker, despite a more mixed critical reaction. “But for a brand new musical, with a mission to appeal to the east London community in particular – we seem to have more than achieved our objective!”
Wah! Wah! Girls will move from the Peacock to the Theatre Royal Stratford East in September and then to The Hall for Cornwall, a major venue in Truro.
Photo Credit: Steve Tanner