‘tick, tick… Boom!’ re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor Paul Hsu on the challenges of creating the ‘Sunday’ sequence [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

When director Lin-Manuel Miranda started to map out how he wanted to execute the “Sunday” sequence in “tick, tick… Boom!” the Pulitzer Prize winner aimed exceedingly high. “You know those posters where Amy Winehouse is eating with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe? I wanted it to be like that,” Miranda told Entertainment Weekly last year. 

So roughly halfway through Miranda’s musical, the space-time continuum ruptures as “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson (played in the acclaimed film by Andrew Garfield) sings about overpriced brunch and coffee orders at the Moondance Diner, Broadway legends from the last 60 years make appearances – everyone from Chita Rivera and Bernadette Peters to Miranda’s “Hamilton” co-stars Phillipa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry to even original “Rent” stars Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Adam Pascal, and Daphne Rubin-Vega.

But the star-studded sequence was anything but simple to execute: as Miranda has detailed, due to the health and safety protocols required to shoot during the coronavirus pandemic, the actors were kept separate – some even shot on different days and were later folded into the sequence via visual effects wizardry and post-production work.

That created a challenge for the sound team as well – particularly in making sure each Broadway legend can be heard clearly in the song’s mix – as re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor Paul Hsu tells Gold Derby during our “Meet the Experts” sound panel.

“I spent a lot of time on that scene doing just that,” Hsu says of balancing all the vocals. “I came up as a music mixer before I was ever a film mixer and then learned to be a sound editor. So I employ the music techniques – like you do the vocal-down, vocal-up mix or you do the tried-and-true music method: you listen on severe dim. The tradition often is we only play the track at 85 in the studio, but for scenes like that what I always do is dim it down to where you really have to strain to listen to the mix, and that’s how you tell is that track popping out, are those legends too loud or too soft? Are they audible but just barely audible?”

Based on the life of Larson in the years before he wrote “Rent” and became an inspiration to millions – including Miranda – “tick, tick… Boom!” is the first film from Miranda as a director. But his work not just on stage with “Hamilton” but as a producer on the “Hamilton” movie for Disney+ as well as the Warner Bros. musical “In the Heights,” meant Miranda wasn’t coming in cold, Hsu says. 

“Despite being a first-time filmmaker, he came in just really, really smart and informed, frankly – maybe just because he’s been around the process enough as a producer on the other films,” Hsu says of Miranda’s approach to the sound, which landed on the Academy Awards shortlist in the Best Sound category. The director, Hsu says, wanted the musical to remain big in its performance but connected to reality. “He really brought a New York sensibility to it,” he adds. “He said he wanted the music to be big, but for it to really have that connection to the groundedness of [New York]. Big music and forward dialogue but keeping the connection to the scenes that you’re in – not just floating away to only-musical land. And so that was definitely the early conversations were about that, for sure.”

“tick, tick… Boom!” is now streaming on Netflix.

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