Altamont native takes a Tony

GUILDERLAND — Leon Rothenberg’s mother, Carol Rothenberg, said it wasn’t always apparent to her that her son would go into the music or theater business, even though he showed interest in it from a young age. Now that he’s won a Tony Award, however, she said she hopes he continues to find his career “intellectually and emotionally challenging.”

Rothenberg won the Tony Award for best sound design of a play, for the show The Nance, a recreation of the burlesque shows of the 1930s. The play, written by Douglas Carter Beane, stars Nathan Lane, and tells the backstage story of his character, Chauncey Miles.

“When I was asked to do this play, I felt like it was the right decision,” said Rothenberg this week. “It really felt like it could be a great, special thing.”

Rothenberg moved with his family to Altamont when he was 5, and attended the Altamont Elementary School, and Guilderland schools for middle and high school.

Even before age 5, though, Mrs. Rothenberg said, he was very interested in music, art, and performances.

“He had a very long attention span and was interested in shows, so we took him,” she said. “He had seen The Nutcracker three times before he was 5, and he would come home and dress up and act it out.”

“My parents exposed me to a lot of different kinds of music, dance, and art when I was little,” said Leon Rothenberg. After his family moved to Altamont, they continued taking him to shows that came to Proctor’s Theatre, Troy Music Hall, and The Egg.

“His dad and I were very interested in music and we played a lot of it at home,” Mrs. Rothenberg said. “We had a little portable cassette player, and a reel-to-reel tape deck, so he learned how to record one track, record a second track, and then mix them; I think 

that was his first experience with playing with sound.”

Local legacy

Rothenberg took piano lessons, from Altamont’s Agnes Armstrong, beginning in the sixth grade.

“He was a good student,” said Armstrong. “He is very, very bright, and he caught onto music theory right away.”

Music theory, Armstrong said, is important, because it can be transferred to any instrument or activity, the way Rothenberg has taken it to the stage.

“He just has a technical aptitude for how things work,” said Armstrong. “He was always kind of a laid back kid, but very intellectual, and he absorbed things very well.”

In high school, Rothenberg studied musical composition, played the cello, taught himself to play the guitar, and was a member of the Guilderland Players, as both an actor and part of the sound crew.

While in high school, he worked for a specialized audio-visual company, SAVI, in Clifton Park, and worked on the sound systems at the Old Songs Festival at the Altamont fairgrounds and for the Guilderland Community Players performances in Tawasentha Park.

Rothenberg also worked for Dick Spadaro’s Early Ford Reproductions while he was in school, along with writing for the school newspaper and playing soccer.

“He had a diverse group of friends and a diverse group of interests,” said Mrs. Rothenberg. “I could not have predicted that he would have gone into the theater field; he had so many other talents, including being really good at math.”

After graduating from Guilderland High School, Rothenberg went to Oberlin College and Conservatory, in Ohio, where he double-majored in music composition and computer science.

“I wanted to try to be a composer,” said Rothenberg. “Composing solitary pieces can be quite isolating; I started writing music for theater, and discovered that was a lot of fun, because you got to collaborate.”

He said throughout college he was writing music, but also experimenting with mixing music and sound.

“Toward the end of college, someone told me what I was doing was called sound design, and I thought that was cool,” he said.

Immediately after graduating from Oberlin, Rothenberg worked in the computer-science industry in Boston for two years, before he went back to school for his master’s degree in theater sound design at the California Institute of the Arts.

From there, he worked in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and finally New York City. His credits include sound design for two Cirque du Soleil shows, several Broadway shows — including The Nance — and numerous plays at other renowned theaters, such as the La Jolla Playhouse and the Theater at Madison Square Garden. He has also worked on sound scores for several films.

Rothenberg was nominated for a Tony Award in 2009, for a Broadway showed called Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, but did not win.

At the top

The Nance was produced by The Lincoln Center Theater, where Rothenberg had worked on previous shows, and he said he was part of the “Lincoln Center family,” which is how he got involved with the recent show.

“You can get your name known and, if people like your work, they will ask you to do something else, and you say yes,” said Rothenberg. “Well, I say yes, because I don’t like to say no to anything.”

The Nance was a unique play, he said, because, in order to be authentic to the era, none of the performers wore personal microphones.

“It was a challenge,” said Rothenberg. “It was a different kind of sound with a different kind of feeling.”

The music written for the play was “fantastic,” he said, because the show was actually about theater, and included a band, live music, and sketches.

“From the sound design side — the effects, playback, atmosphere, and interaction with the audience — there was a lot of meat in it to work with,” said Rothenberg.

People often say winning a prestigious award is surreal, he said, but he did not feel that way.

“I didn’t think it was surreal; it actually felt hyper-real,” Rothenberg said this week. “Looking out at this audience of 6,000 people and remembering you’re supposed to say something from your heart — that’s what I tried to do.”

He dedicated the award to his stepmother, who died in April.

“We were watching the awards show on TV, and we were waiting with bated breath,” said Mrs. Rothenberg. “Then I was thinking how Leon must feel sitting there, and I was just so pleased for him, because he’s worked so hard.”

When they announced his name as the winner, she said, “It was such a high.”

“I am very proud,” said Armstrong, of learning that one of her former piano students had won a Tony Award. “I was really proud when he’d just been nominated, so, when it all broke loose the other night, I was so excited.”

“It certainly gets your name and face out there,” said Rothenberg, of receiving the award. “It might open some doors, I don’t know; you are only as good as your last show.”

Rothenberg is already booked for shows through January.

“The thing that really propels your career is how good you are at what you do, how easy you are to work with, and what you bring to the table,” he said. “The important thing is engendering a reputation for what you do.”

“Obviously, I’d be proud of my son no matter what he did,” concluded Mrs. Rothenberg. “Leon’s accomplishments just happen to be off the scale.”

For the future, she said, she hopes he continues to enjoy his work.

“I hope that he will always have a sense of fulfillment about it, and always take pride in it,” she said.

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