Musical theatre specialist Paul Gatehouse tells Fergus Morgan about scoring a number one hit with a South Korean boy band, producing live cast albums for classic musicals and why Six is a sound designer’s dream
There aren’t many success stories like Six. Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’ musical has gone from student production at the Edinburgh Fringe to award-winning West End musical in less than two years. It has already notched up a UK and North American tour and in March 2020 it will open in the 1,000-seat Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway.
For Paul Gatehouse, who joined Six when it returned professionally to Edinburgh in 2018, the show is “a sound designer’s dream”. He says: “The songs are so contemporary and hooky and so well put together around a story with a really powerful message. It’s 75 minutes of high-energy, witty storytelling, and the songs land with the fans and the audience. It’s brilliant.”
And what’s interesting about Six, says Gatehouse, is that whereas most musicals try to hide microphones and seek a “transparent vocal sound”, this musical makes no such attempt. “It’s very much like a gig,” he says. “We use handheld mics and in-ear monitors, so we’ve gone full-tilt into how you would do a pop concert, which gives the audience licence to get involved and enjoy themselves.”
He continues: “Beyoncé did a concert film called Live at Roseland, with her dance troupe and her female band, providing a really punchy, close-quarters performance. That was the sound-design brief that Toby and Lucy gave me.”
It is, then, pretty much the perfect show for Gatehouse, a self-confessed music buff whose career has involved everything from sound-designing for Cameron Mackintosh musicals, to producing live cast recordings, to mixing studio albums – one single, by South Korean boy band Shinhwa, even reached number one in Taiwan.
Theatre has always been his first love though, ever since he did work experience at Theatre Royal Plymouth, aged 16. “I didn’t go to college or do any kind of formal study. It was all hands-on, being there every day, gradually getting more responsibility. Running the shows, doing a bit of design work, that sort of thing.”
And, within theatre, musicals have always been the focus of Gatehouse’s work. He was “a bit of a bedroom guitarist [who] loved being around collaborative, musical people”, so musical theatre offered “the perfect blend of music, technology and liveness”.
He says: “Sound design for contemporary musical theatre and sound design for drama are very different disciplines. Drama is much more based around sound effects and soundscapes. They’re both equally fascinating, but for me it’s always been the music side of things. That’s where my talent lies. I wouldn’t be able to compete on the same platform as the guys who do drama.”
Gatehouse was fortunate, because Theatre Royal Plymouth was a well-visited stop for big, touring musicals. Helping out with the sound on those shows, he says, was like being thrown in at the deep end. He watched, listened and learned, and “that was when the musical bug really kicked in”.
In 1999, he moved from Plymouth to London, joining the sound team of Miss Saigon, then that of The Lion King, which was making its UK premiere. Over the next decade or so, he gradually built up a career, project by project, slowly getting more responsibility. For years, he worked with the Olivier-winning sound designer Mick Potter, first as his assistant, then as his associate.
“We were working on the big Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, and there were a lot of remounts on tour,” he says. “As an associate, you would go out and put those shows on in different venues on behalf of the designer, but you would ultimately have the responsibility of making it work in that territory.”
According to Gatehouse, it is a job with a lot of responsibility. “A big national tour has to be of the same standard as any West End or Broadway show. But on a tour, it has to be able to move quickly from place to place in a reliable and replicable way, so that’s a real challenge. Everyone knows the songs, too, and if they sound strange or different to what they know, then that doesn’t create a full connection.”
‘With sound, you can create a world out of nothing really’
He continues: “People have a high bar now when it comes to sound and rightly so. With ticket prices the way they are, people deserve that quality. I feel that very strongly. I’m aware that people spend a princely sum to spend an evening in the theatre, and it’s my job to make sure that ticket price is justified in terms of sonic delivery.”
It is also a job that encompasses a lot more than the title implies. “Sound design is probably the department that collaborates with all the other departments the most,” Gatehouse continues. “We work with scenic designers in order to sympathetically install our systems. We work with wardrobe and wigs in order to hide microphones. We provide communications and video infrastructure so stage management can do their job. It’s definitely not just about sound.”
As an associate designer working on big musicals – Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera – Gatehouse has travelled all over the world, to Germany, around the US, even as far as Japan and Australia. “I’ve been very lucky to see some great places,” he says. “Musical theatre happens all over the world, but it’s always done in a very different way, so it’s interesting to work out how to interface with local sound teams. It’s always a meeting of minds.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I’ve never had a proper job.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I ran some sound effects from minidisc players in the studio theatre in Plymouth.
What’s your next job?
We’re in previews for Mary Poppins now, and we’re just about to do Six in Australia and on Broadway.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I’ve been quite lucky with the people that have guided me. They told me it’s all about relationships. It’s a collaborative industry and you have to get on with people.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
That’s a hard question. It’s like asking for my favourite song.
If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have been?
A studio engineer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I never whistle on stage. If you whistle, something might fall on your head.
Working with musicals didn’t just lead Gatehouse around the world, it also took him from the stage to the studio, working with multi-track recordings of stage performances to produce live cast albums. “It’s fairly simple, but it ticks a little box for me, because I’ve always wanted to do studio work,” he continues. “It’s something you can have a lot of control over, and something you can craft and shape that you can’t do in a live situation.”
Gatehouse also dabbled with mixing studio albums for pop artists – Sarah Walk, Nell Bryden, Janet Devlin and others – but that world wasn’t for him. “It’s a very different industry,” he says. “It’s speculative – you wait to see if something is successful – and that certainly wasn’t sustainable for me in the long term, so I refocused back into sound design for stage.”
It was early in 2018 that Gatehouse got the chance to take full responsibility for designing a show’s sound. Cameron Mackintosh took Mary Poppins to Tokyo, the first time the production had been performed in Japanese, and he asked Gatehouse to redo the show’s sound design completely. Not long after, Six came calling.
For Gatehouse, sound design plays an integral creative role in both musicals and drama. “You can play around with a lot of emotion and texture in terms of the dynamics of the music and the sound effects and the soundscapes,” he says. “You can create a world out of nothing really. You can support all the other disciplines and design aspects of the piece. Sound is very important in informing emotion.”
Born: Plymouth, 1976
Training: No formal training
• Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary (2010) (associate sound designer)
• Mary Poppins, Prince Edward Theatre (2019)
• Six, Arts Theatre (2018)
Agent: Michael Garrett at Global Artists (UK)
Six is at London’s Arts Theatre, as well touring the UK, US and Australia. Mary Poppins opens at London’s Prince Edward Theatre on November 13 and is booking until May 2020