Making Broadway Sound Great
Most of the folks I interviewed over the summer for our Sept./Oct. cover story on Penn Staters in theater were actors, and most were under 30. This was pretty much unavoidable: Performers naturally thrive in the spotlight, and the overwhelmingly majority of those performers on and off Broadway—particularly those who can withstand the rigors of singing and dancing through eight shows a week for months at a time—tend to be young.
Bob Etter was a memorable exception.
The dean of Broadway sound mixers, Etter ’77 recently wrapped a 76-week run behind the boards for Hedwig & The Angry Inch, which closed last weekend. Our piece in the magazine focuses on Bob’s career—among other gigs, he started at Phantom of the Opera, just months into its record-setting Broadway run—but didn’t have the space to get into more of his personal story. And it’s pretty interesting stuff.
When we sat with him at his station in the back of the Belasco Theatre back in June, Etter talked about his life while simultaneously listening to sound cues and adjusting levels accordingly. We told him it was hard to believe he could do both. His smiling reply? “I’ve been doing this for 30 years.”
Etter said he initially came to Penn State from Western PA to study journalism, then left and came back planning to go pre-law. Neither hinted at where his career would take him, but a final switch to the theatre department, and then a call from a friend in Pittsburgh who worked in local theatre, did the trick. He took a gig as a laborer at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre; not long after, he said, “a union guy I knew in New York convinced me to move to the city.”
He did, memorably. “I moved here in March of ’79,” he said. “I pulled up in my Dodge Dart, this place out in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. It was the tail end of worst winter in ages. The trash was still piled up on the sidewalks.” Rent on his apartment—which did not include a toilet or heat, he says—ran him $50 a month. His first job at the Manhattan Theatre Club paid $50 a week.
At the time, Etter said, “this” —the idea of a professional path in theatrical sound—”didn’t exist.” But he got in at the right time: The success of A Chorus Line helped spark more serious interest in making Broadway musicals sound great, and Etter turned out to be a perfect fit for the fledgling profession. “I had always been involved in music,” he said. “I played piano since I was 5 or 6, and I played in bands in high school and college.” Among his favorite college memories was living in an apartment above the Old Main Frame Shop and playing to entertain impromptu crowds on the lawn across College Ave.
In New York, he worked his way up through various jobs and landed fairly quickly on Broadway, where he’s remained almost exclusively—”which is pretty unusual,” he admitted. Affiliations with shows like Phantom, Rock of Ages, and Hedwig have reinforced Etter’s talent, and his love of shows with a rock-inspired score. Along the way, he gave his daughter (now a dancer) a taste of showbiz—”When she was 5 or 6, she’d come hang out with me at the boards, and she’d have her own cues”—and also developed a love of sailing; he was involved in commercial sailing for years, but now does it only for personal enjoyment.
“I found there to be a lot of similarities between sailing and mixing,” he said. “We manipulate, and it’s about finding a constant balance.”
Etter said Hedwig was the show he’d “wanted to do for 30 years,” and might well be his last. He should have more time to enjoy the open sea soon enough.
Ryan Jones, senior editor