Fine-Tuning Broadway’s Dings, Hisses and Swishes

Posted May 28, 2018 8:07 p.m. EDT

What kind of noise does a wand make? How about an angel?

In 2014, Tony Awards administrators eliminated sound design as a contest category, arguing that too few voters understood the craft well enough to judge it. But an outcry ensued, and this year, the category is back, with a twist — only about half of the 841 voters, those deemed expert enough, will be allowed to vote.

We asked the nominees who worked on plays, creating soundscapes for worlds first dreamed up by George Orwell and J.K. Rowling, among others, to discuss their work. Short audio samples are at nytimes.com/theater.

— Adam Cork, ‘Travesties’

THE CHALLENGE: To capture the spirit of Tom Stoppard’s zany and chaotic play, told in a series of repeating and often conflicting flashbacks that feature real-life figures James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and Dadaist Tristan Tzara. One key element: A library desk bell signifies the restart of a memory.

WHAT TO LISTEN FOR: In addition to that bell, the trams and traffic of 1917 Zurich; out of sync clocks (time is unreliable); Beethoven’s “Appassionata” (said to be loved by Lenin); drums; sirens as Dadaist music; Elizabethan pastiche for lute; a railway, a telegraph machine and a typewriter.

— Ian Dickinson for Autograph, ‘Angels in America’

THE CHALLENGE: Tony Kushner’s sprawling two-part play is set largely in the all-too real world of 1985 New York City, but it periodically takes an exotic detour — to Utah, to Antarctica, even to heaven. To herald the presence of one of the show’s title creatures, Dickinson recorded, and then manipulated, the voice of actress Amanda Lawrence. He had her breathe fast and slow to fashion an “angel sex breath” for scenes in which she has erotic encounters, and layered flapping sounds at two different speeds to create aural texture.

WHAT TO LISTEN FOR: Roy Cohn’s phone meltdown, angel breath, the noise accompanying usage of seer stones, the announcement at a Mormon visitors’ center, and street sounds of New York.

— Gareth Fry, ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’

THE CHALLENGE: “If you’re doing a show set in the real world, you can visit sound-effect libraries or go out into the world and record things, but with this, we had to create everything from scratch,” Fry said. “What does a spell sound like? How does that sound vary according to the person who is casting it and the person it is having an effect on? We’ve got a lot of spells, and each has a slightly different personality according to what they do.”

WHAT TO LISTEN FOR: The swoosh of a cloak; the effect of eating a Pepper Imp (a magical treat); a Lumos spell; a curse; and the Forbidden Forest.

— Tom Gibbons, ‘1984’

THE CHALLENGE: To intensify an atmosphere of discomfort and distrust, reflecting the George Orwell novel. “I deliberately used volume as a storytelling tool,” Gibbons said. “I don’t think anyone has ever fallen asleep in ‘1984.'”

WHAT TO LISTEN FOR: Sounds inspired by Japanese conceptual artist Ryoji Ikeda; steam, hydraulics and other industrial noises; contrasting English pastoral sounds; ‘80s synth music; recorded announcements; a brief euphoric excerpt from Sibelius’ “Snöfrid,” Op. 29.

— Dan Moses Schreier, ‘The Iceman Cometh’

THE CHALLENGE: To transport the audience to 1912 lower Manhattan for this revival of Eugene O’Neill’s classic play. “The play is set in the diviest of dives, and a lot of these bars had player pianos, so I did a lot of research finding obscure piano rolls that had songs that were not the big hits we know today, and not played by the best pianists, trying to set the mood for these characters to live in,” Schreier said.

WHAT TO LISTEN FOR: A dark song, “The Curse of the Aching Heart,” first played on a 1913 Edison cylinder and then picked up live onstage by an actor playing the piano, as the disheartened barflies of the play assemble at the start of Act IV.