It takes a specific kind of person to excel at the underrated art of sound design for a hit Broadway show. Specifically, it's a job suited for gearheads and mixing whizzes know how to take music and make it sound even better. Jessica Paz, one half of the sound design team for the musical Hadestown (Nevin Steinberg is the other) is one such person. She's nominated in the Sound Design for a Musical category at the 2019 Tony Awards — the first woman since the category was introduced in 2008.
Hadestown, a modern retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, wasn't originally conceived as a Broadway musical — it started as a 2010 concept album by singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell (featuring vocals from Justin Vernon, AKA Bon Iver). Over the past few years, Mitchell and the show's director Rachel Chavkin transformed the indie/folk album into a two-and-a-half-hours Broadway show with a seven-piece band. Now, it celebrates 14 Tony nominations — one of which belonged to Paz and partner.
Paz, who previously worked in sound design on Dear Evan Hansen and Bandstand, ended up on Broadway by accident. She started volunteering at a community theater in her 20s, and after trying her hand at acting in a not-so-great play, she fell in love with the art of sound mixing and sound design. She worked at NYC spots like Knitting Factory, Terminal Five, and McKittrick Hotel's Sleep No More theater experience, after taking forensic science courses in college because she didn't realize "sound designer" could be an actual career. (She also worked at a scuba diving gear store and at a bookstore, among the usual assortment of random jobs one has before they land on their calling).
It took a series of (all male, all supportive) mentors and a short detour into mixing for concerts before she landed her gig on Hadestown, jumping from community theater to Off-Broadway to Broadway itself — and to get a Tony nomination her first time out is nothing less than a thrill. "I just spent the whole day laughing," Paz remembers.
Paz's work on the production is notable because of the show's unique set up: Hadestown is presented in-the-round with a live band on the stage rather than in an orchestra pit, making the cast performances feel more rock-n-roll than musical. All of this requires a soundscape that is out of the ordinary. As such, it needed someone other than the average sound designer.
"Our director wanted it to feel like a concert even though it is very much a musical," Paz explains, who had experience in working at large venues. "The choice in the microphones we used for the actors, which are boom mics, the sound system we choose to put in the room, having a band on stage and very much part of the storytelling — [it] all informed the vibe."
The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reported that in 2018, only 2% of the most popular songs were produced by women. It's not any different on Broadway, where Paz notes there are a handful of other women working in sound design. And even then, Paz says she is only the second woman to do sound design for a Broadway musical — ever. Earlier this year, women in the music industry told Refinery29 that they were tired of often being the only woman in a room; Paz echoes that sentiment on behalf of women working on Broadway.
"I would never say that it's like a 'we don't want women in this field' type of feeling. It's a matter of women not being given the opportunity," Paz explains. "No one is seeing a woman as possible for the job. It's discouraging, though maybe not the intention. It started male-dominated and just remained that way."
Still, Paz also says she sees a change in the current generation coming up in Broadway. Her advice: "Do what you love. Do it wholeheartedly and keep doing it because there aren't ever going to be more women in these fields unless more women enter them."
The 73rd Annual Tony Awards air on CBS on Friday, June 9.