Immersive Music

An investigation of works where music and immersive elements collide. Showcasing works of different sizes, the episode focuses on immersive and participatory elements that enhance shows with music at the center of their narrative.

AIRED: May 25, 2021 | 0:26:43


Sutherland: People come to experiences in theater to feel

or at least to vicariously experience

through the performers,

and they're allowed here to be completely free.


Magno: The audience is a huge part of the energy level.

So sometimes we have people

who are absolutely losing their minds dancing, right?

So that when everything kind of flips,

you have to calm them down.


Freiberger: The music makes the show -- it gives you context,

it gives you emotion.

It's going to make you feel sensual

when they want you to feel sensual.

It's just hard to explain.

You have to -- you have to feel it.


Sutherland: Having that live element of music is something

that is undoubtedly an unconscious investment

that you can't run away from.


Magno: Live music taps into an energy of an audience,

and it really speaks to the core of every human life.

Music is a very, very powerful tool.






[ Bizet's "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" from "Carmen" plays ]

Do I give spoilers away?

[ Laughs ]


Freiberger: We are taking you to a night

at the famous Tropicana Club,

and you have the lead character, Don José,

who's the manager of the club.

And you're coming to see the first night

where Carmen is debuting as the star of the show.


Magno: As the night progresses,

things get a little bit more dramatic --

there's some serious tension between Carmen and Don José.


He has been having a relationship

with one of the other dancers.


She's also in love with another man named Escamillo,

who is a famous boxer in Cuba.

A big fight ensues --

a battle between the two men over Carmen --

and then, it ends in tragedy.

It feels weird telling the story.

I'm like, "Am I allowed to tell this?"

It's a secret! [ Laughs ]

Come watch it!


Magno: "Carmen to Havana and Back"

is three experiences wrapped in one.

You have a musical concert, you have a cabaret variety show,

and then you have the world that everything is set within.

It happens in real time,

it takes place over two and a half hours,

and it's a night at this infamous cabaret club.


Sutherland: We were shooting a documentary, and the subject

was a master rhythmist -- a man named Max Pollack,

who does a form called Rumba Tap.

We followed him to Cuba.

We were lucky enough to be immersed in real Cuba

and feel how powerful the impact of this rumba is.

While we were down there, we actually went

to go see the ballet "Carmen."

The development of the show

was using these elements to be able to create this story.


Magno: When the performers are onstage,

they're onstage, but when they're off,

they're truly living out their lives --

they're in their dressing room, things are happening.

So the audience is able to get up from their seat.

They see someone who they want to know

a little bit more about and follow them

and see where their journey -- see what secrets they have.

As Carmen, I am involved in a lot of drama

with the the main characters of the show,

and you could see that happening literally right next to you --

in the bathroom, in the dressing room, on the stage, at the bar.

We encourage people to see the show more than once

because it's impossible to see everything in one night.

When it comes to, you know, the external scenes

that are happening -- some people get involved.

Like, these arguments, these fights that are happening,

some people are like, "Why are you fighting with her?"

Like, "Don't fight with her."

And they, like, kind of try and make it up

and the cast have no choice but to play off of that,

and, like, sometimes Don José is not as angry

because he had a conversation with someone

and he was calmed down.


Freiberger: Being a dancer, I'm used to that level of separation

where you're on the stage, you're safe, [Laughs]

the audience is there watching you,

but here it's -- you never know what's going to happen.

People bring themselves, their lives,

their problems, their personalities,

right -- right to you, and you have to deal with that,

but you also get to experience that and play off of that.

There is no make believe. There's no pretend.

There's no, "Oh, yes, I'm in a show.

I'm watching a show."

It's "Wait, is this real?

Is this -- is this -- is this part of the show?"

We get that question a lot.


Foldman: There's always been some immersive theater,

and in other kinds of things that are its relative.

It's not like this is a completely new phenomenon.


The turning point was a show called

"The Donkey Show" in the late '90s,

and this was a sort of a club setting,

and they had done a version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream,"

but it was set in this nightclub and it was done through --

the actors sort of were going through the audience

and singing these pop songs to karaoke tracks,

and there were go-go dancers, and there was a floor show,

and it had the plot, again, of "Midsummer,"

but not really the language --

it was just sort of the feeling of being there.

So that show was a huge success, and the producer of that show,

Randy Weiner, and the director of that show, Diane Paulus,

have both gone on to major careers

in their respective fields.

And Randy still produces a lot of

environmental and immersive theater,

and Diane, who's now the Artistic Director

at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge,

also often involves these kinds of elements

in even her proscenium kind of shows.

But also, if you look at her work in shows,

Broadway shows like "Pippin",

you can see this sort of nontraditional approach

to the material that tries to bring the show

a little further out into the audience.

So, as an audience member,

you're drawn into the feeling of being part of that audience,

and that's a different relationship,

and it can work very well.



Magno: I knew that I was really interested in creating

a show with live music,

using it as a tool to open people up

so that they can break down inhibitions, dance, feel free,

and also having the musicians play characters within the show.

They have other relationships

that are going on with these dancers,

and I wanted to create a true world for this story

to take place in.


Freiberger: I would say that the music is probably

one of the most important parts of this show --

it gives you everything that you need

for the story to take place.

The music will make you want to dance.

It's going to make you feel on edge.

The play of the music throughout the show --

it takes you exactly down the path that the directors

and the producers had planned.


Sutherland: The spiritual aspect of this that's really amazing

is that in regards to being immersive,

while we were in Cuba, we were walking down a street

and there was a Santeria ceremony,

and we, like, peeked in, and the people in there,

they were like, "Come, come, come,

hang out with us. Like, be a part of this."

And we're like, "Whoa." Talk about immersive, you know.

How lucky it was for us to be able experience that

and then bring that to this is a big part of this.

The traditional Afro-Cuban music that's played here,

it's like a window into a world, you know.


Freiberger: If you know anything about Latin dance, Latin music,

Afro-Cuban music, and culture and dance,

then you'll know that this is -- we're not faking it.

It's real. There's a lot of knowledge, history, and culture

that has been thought out

and is being represented the best way possible.


Sutherland: The foundation of music is rhythm.

People aren't exposed to that --

they're not exposed to pure rhythm.

In fact, they're quite monitored --

really, controlled by what's pushed out to them at all times,

at all moments.

Having a setting and a context where people can come in

and be a part of something that is so human,

and what we all undeniably just resonating with

and can't deny -- I mean, it just --

you know, that's important.


Magno: I think that immersive theater

is kind of blossoming right now --

immersive experiences in general are blossoming.

People want a new way to be brought to an experience.

They want to...

I don't even know if they know what they want.

I think that it's kind of like

the great frontier of where we're going,

and it's pretty exciting because you're able to bring people

into the art piece and let them become a part of it

and let them bring themselves to it.


Sutherland: To be able to guide people through an experience

that's so unique and so specialized

and detailed and specific, it's really quite beautiful

because I feel like it's doing something

that's what it's supposed to be about,

not this formula -- this paint by numbers.

You know, we go, we sit down. The lights go down. Act one.

People need to be challenged.

People need to be challenged, and everyone wants that.

That's what immersive theater is, as almost like a service,

you know, to connect people, to help people communicate.

It's like a sacred place where people can connect

their spirituality, their -- themselves to, you know.




[ Rock 'n' roll music plays ]


Weaver: "Rock of Ages" sort of came out of an idea

that I had in 2004 or 2005.

We literally started it in a bar on Hollywood Boulevard

and then, miraculously, got to Broadway in April of '09.

I became kind of obsessed with the idea

probably three or four years ago about not just returning home --

that was a big part of it -- to go full circle after,

because, after Broadway, we did it

in every country in the world you could think of.

We made the movie.

So there was a nostalgia factor of, you know,

bringing it home for the last production,

and really create an immersive experience.


Our show takes place in a club called The Bourbon Room,

and that was sort of our homage to the Troubadour

and the Whiskey and the Roxy

and all the classic L.A. rock 'n' roll clubs.

So the idea was, what if we really could create

The Bourbon Room, where it was sort of half theater,

but half rock 'n' roll bar, and the business model being

that you would come to "Rock of Ages"

once, twice, three times,

because we have a crazy repeat business,

but that you would come back to The Bourbon Room

seven or eight times during the year

you know, to see other things.

But I think there was the challenge, too,

because I was so terrified about creating

a cheesy '80s nightclub,

where, like people in bad wigs were asking you

if you wanted to rock out at two-for-one drink specials,

and we really did create something special

where the experience really did happen

the minute you walked in the door,

whether you went to "Rock of Ages"

or whether you just hung out in The Bourbon Room.

So we put a Broadway show into a bar on Hollywood Boulevard.


We're very proud of the immersive angle of it.

I mean, that was the whole idea to create

an immersive environment on Hollywood Boulevard

because "Rock of Ages" at least felt immersive,

even on Broadway.

I mean, it just felt immersive, yet you had this sort of wall

and these rules about what you could do.

I mean, our theaters on Broadway got a little wild.

It was fun.

Didn't really feel like a typical Broadway show,

but at the end of the day, it was.

So people love being out here,

where, again, high-quality Broadway show,

but the actors are in your booth and on top of you,

popping up from behind the bar.

It was "Rock of Ages" 360.

Before you even got in the theater, in the bar,

You know, we had characters that you really didn't kind of know

does that guy work here or is he really sort of doing cocaine

on the steps in the lobby?

So we had a little bit of an immersive element

where we had payphones,

and if you said the right thing to the bartender,

he would give you a tip to go over to the payphone,

then you'd get another clue.

So we had this little bit of a choose-your-own-adventure there.

I don't know for many shows would have worked,

but for our show, it was perfect,

because, as you know, our show takes place in a bar.


Foldman: Site-specific, it can sometimes mean

in an existing site

that is used more or less unchanged, like a bar,

or it can mean in a space that has been specifically

designed for the purpose of this production,

like "Sleep No More."

"Sleep No More" used to be a dance club in the '90s,

and now it is the McKittrick Hotel.

But that's all been built in.

That's not a stage space

that can be used for other productions.

That is the "Sleep No More" space,

and it has been built for that purpose

and only for that purpose.

But then there's the other thing where you take a space

that already has its own atmosphere,

it already has its own character,

and you stage it there.

And both of those can be effective if they're well-done.

There are a lot of shows that are staged site-specifically

in nontraditional theater spaces --

in bars and in restaurants -- where they can use the space,

save on the set costs,

and also have a lot of atmospherics

that are built into the production to begin with,

and you can have something that sort of organically makes sense

when the actors are moving through the audience

if we are already in a bar and you understand

as an audience member sort of what the setup is.

And then on an even slighter level,

there's just the kind of thing

where people come into the audience from the stage.

So, you know, a cat will crawl

over the people seated in front rows

or the parade of animals in "The Lion King"

will come down the aisles

and everyone can see everything from close up.

So these are strategies to bring the audience closer

to what's essentially a proscenium presentation.


Weaver: One of these days,

we will publish our stage-manager reports

because they were like, you know,

they weren't like "Wicked's" or "Jersey Boys,"

I can promise you that.

On most shows, it would be like,

"Well, this piece of scenery doesn't work.

We got to fix these drapes," or, "This person's wig,"

or, you know, and our reports would be like, you know,

"Eight cougars were arrested for fighting in the balcony."

You know, "Somebody got so drunk,

they tried to get onstage," and, you know,

"A guy was getting a h * * *b

in the tenth row during the show."

And so we've always joked because we serve liquor --

we were the first Broadway show to serve liquor

in your seats during the show,

which most of the time wasn't a problem.

You had to get pretty hammered at our show to cause a problem,

but it would be the people that were, like, pre-party.

Then they'd show up at the theater drunk.

More importantly, locals would come

who normally wouldn't go to Hollywood Boulevard

the way they might not go to Times Square,

and locals were coming in and feeling like,

"Wow, I really feel like

I'm at an old-school, authentic rock club."

"Rock of Ages," it's just a chance to go back to,

you know, a certain time in your life.


We have this secret sauce of just nostalgia,

where people like to go back in time.

For us, it's just a trip down memory lane,

whether it's back to high school

or back to summer camp or your first kiss

or when you got married or your first date.

But so many of our songs, you know,

touch certain points in people's lives,

so for us, it was pretty obvious that people would want to take

a step sort of back in time.


I've been to "Sleep No More" I think seven or eight times,

and I guess what I loved about "Sleep No More," too,

is that you were taken back to a certain time and place.

It was never the same experience.

I had eight different experiences there,

and it was the same with The Bourbon Room,

you know, where every single time you would come,

something different would happen.

I don't know how many Broadway shows --

you know, there are certainly many,

many that are more successful than us.

We'll never catch them, we'll never make as much money,

but I don't know if a lot of them could pull off

having their own sort of immersive experience

like we created.




Welcome the Moulin Rouge.


"Moulin Rouge!" -- it started with Alex Timbers and I

talking about how to try to capture

the energy of the film,

and the energy of the film is very, very high-paced,

almost frenetic at times, rapid camera pans,

cuts, just incredible amount of movement back and forth.

And it's not exactly something

that the stage lends itself to easily.


We wanted to figure out how do we capture

some of that energy in a Broadway theater,

and part of that came from saying

as much as we can put the action all around the audience

as opposed to just up on a stage,

the more we'll be able to do it.

It started with that, you know,

and which included putting passerelles and ramps

out into the house and then sort of deciding

what if the theater was decorated

as much like a club as possible?

You know, what if the minute you set foot in the door,

you felt like you were in our version of the Moulin Rouge?


I hope people are surprised when they first walk in.

It's so complete.

You know, it's so sort of everywhere,

but also, you know, there's this kind of hypnotic club music

that feels kind of contemporary when you walk in, and it's sexy.

I mean, the cast is really sexy, and Catherine Zuber's clothes

are really evocative and beautiful.

What you see when you come in is this environment,

but you also see the cast, you see the actors are there.

And they're kind of strutting, but they're very cool.

They're not too interested in you.

They're just kind of showing off,

but they also have

just the right, I think, the right amount of aloofness.

I find it's definitely intriguing when you come in

because, you go, "Wow, who are these people?"

And, you know, it feels exotic,

and it feels feels a little otherworldly.

And I guess it does feel kind of like you're going into a club.

All of that feels like

you're going into a kind of exclusive club when you go in.


One thing, you know, I kind of knew early on

was that I wanted to put a windmill

and an elephant in the auditorium.

It seemed sort of unnecessary and outrageous,

and this is the perfect show

to do sort of unnecessary, outrageous things.

But they have to fit into the, you know,

you sort of need architectural spots to put those, like,

you know, boxes on the side of the house.

So the first thing that we did at my studio

was build a quarter-inch scale model.

That means for every quarter of an inch in the model

equals a foot in real life,

so we built a scale model of the whole auditorium,

including the side boxes and all that detail,

because you sort of need that as your starting point

to figure out how to sort of decorate it.


Sort of reminds me of a little bit is television and film work

because, you know, when you're doing that,

you have to design a 360-degree environment

because you don't usually know which way

the camera is going to aim.

Working on "Moulin Rouge!"

reminded me of that a little bit.

It's sort of like you can point the camera anywhere in there,

and you wouldn't be shooting off the edge of the --

wouldn't be shooting off the set.

I am an artist. You should quake at that.


McLane: The show is very human.

It's very, very uplifting.

It is about, you know, so much of the show

is about love and community, and so, you know,

I think that that will resonate for audiences.


That is definitely something that was on all of our minds

in conceiving of it as an environmental show

and probably for all environmental shows,

is that the thing about stepping into that theater

is you're going into, you know, 1890s Paris.

It's not a realistic Paris.

It's our own version of 1890s Paris, but it's a fantasy.

The physical world of that theater is also meant

to feel like its own fantasy, its own dream.

I do think that the sort of appeal to that

is going to be really strong and really special

when people can go back and experience again.

It is not the same as, you know, as much brilliant work

as there is on television right now,

it's just not the same as being in it.


Foldman: One of the weird things about discussing immersive theater

with other people who have seen it

is that everyone's experience is so different.

We really have barely seen, in some cases, the same things,

so it can be difficult to review one of these productions

because you're essentially reviewing

your own specific experience

that other people will never have.


Sometimes, performers or shows have off nights.

Sometimes, they have great nights,

and the audience has a big part in shaping that, you know,

whether the audience laughs, whether the audience coughs,

whether the audience seems restless or engaged

completely changes the energy of the show.


Sutherland: People have a life.

They go through their life, and there's rules.

And here we have people

who are exploring outside of those rules.

Magno: I knew something that I really wanted to take away

was having a live music element,

using that as a way to tell a story

and tapping into that next layer of entertainment.

I haven't seen that yet.


I don't know what the parameters are.

I think that they're still being invented.

I don't know that, you know,

there's so many different things you can do.

You know, everybody will come up with new ones,

which is the beauty of it.

There's no limit

to the number of ideas around these things.


Sutherland: It could be anything, really.

It's just kind of a word to describe

when people stop thinking about the formula

of what is already being done.

So maybe immersive theater

is supposed to continuously just change.

Like, if you do an immersive show

that's the same way that you've already done an immersive show,

maybe you're not really doing an immersive show

because immersive has to be something

that's never been done before.

Or maybe that's what I want to do.







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