The headline of this piece may have New York readers racking their brains for show tunes, but anyone out there who's theatrically inclined may very well have seen the current touring production of Kiss Me, Kate just last month and can identify it as the title of the “op'nin'” number of the Cole Porter classic, which closed at Broadway's Martin Beck Theatre so long ago it's now the Al Hirschfeld.
Many musicals never die; they just relocate to other cities and suburbs for four- to eight-week engagements at top theaters or one- or two-nighters in tinier towns. Fosse (which, like Kiss Me, Kate, ended its New York run in 2001) recently kicked up its heels in Anchorage before heading to Albuquerque; the corn's been as high as an elephant's eye from Costa Mesa, CA, to Vienna, VA, where Oklahoma! has been seen; and audiences from Houston to Hartford, CT, have enjoyed the bus-and-truck revival of Oliver!, a London import that's found Stateside success and come as close as Newark, NJ, without ever making it to the Big Apple.
To paraphrase the lyrics of the Porter song, from Philly, Boston, to Baltimore, touring shows are a chance for stage folks to say “hello.” To keep the goodwill flowing as smoothly as possible, Gaithersburg, MD-based NETworks Presentations, the non-Equity organization that handles all of the above across the country, thinks inside “the box” when planning all aspects of a Broadway or West End transfer, including the lighting. Production manager Jason Juenker explains, “‘The box' is our scenario where we factor in the number and weight of the electrics, the number of moving lights, those sorts of elements, for what we know will fit in the majority of our theatres. (Some of our shows play 150 venues per year, and the box reflects the average.) We go to the designers and say, ‘This is what you've got. You can't have a front-of-house truss and a whole list of things.’ They then have to come back to us and tell us what they can do within that box.”
Associate lighting designer Vivien Leone, who oversees Fosse, and British programmer and consultant Rob Halliday, who advised on the transfers and tours of Oklahoma! and Oliver!, have spent time in the NETworks box. “They know what their key elements are — the ones that make the show — and they can design some specific looks in and give us close to what the Broadway production looked like,” Juenker says. “After living through a six- or eight-week tech on Broadway, you tend to know the show backwards and forwards.”
Plus, they remain rational when a box-busting situation rears its ugly head. “Though it's worked out well, the box we stuffed LD Jenny Kagan into wasn't one that we should have put Oliver!, a show with numerous scene changes, in. We cut it and cut it to get it to move; it's a seven-truck show that we have to get in at 8 am and out that night, to the next venue the next morning. But the really difficult shows are those that have to play venues where we can only hang one or two electrics instead of eight. We approach the designers and say, ‘Let's say you only had two electrics, which two would they be? You don't ever have to come see it, but what would it look like in your head?’”
Leone figures out all the angles, both as a show is being prepped and when it's in motion. “My first question is how many trucks the tour will have, followed by how many hours to load in and out, because that gives you an idea of the scale that will be required,” she says. “I'm very adamant about putting a tour together in such a way that it can be recreated so the choices they're making on the road are adaptability choices, such as front of house. I will never send out a tour so that it is not doable to the extent that the crew has to say, ‘We have to cut the entire third electric because we don't have enough depth.’ That, to me, is a violation of what our jobs are. I know this happens on a long-range non-Equity tour where you find yourself in a high-school cafeteria, but it's important for all of us to be responsible to the design.”
Fosse has played the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in Medford, OR, where technical director Brad Nelson monitors the activity of touring shows at the 750-seat venue. “I'm sure some of the design integrity is sacrificed from the original, but, for the most part, the shows all end up looking pretty good, sometimes simpler, when multiple electrics are cut due to space issues or trim height problems.” For Nelson, “The one that stands out was Jekyll & Hyde a few years back. Touring with a few dozen moving lights as well as conventionals, they seemed to have their act together. During sound check, the performer would go to his mark, and the lighting tech would then focus all the moving lights needed for that specific area. This continued through sound check with all the performers, which seemed to work seamlessly and quickly.”
For its tour, “Oklahoma! was downscaled quite spectacularly,” says Halliday with wry understatement. “It's a big, big show that has to look decent at a 12-hour load-in.” Associate LD Ted Mather relit it based on David Hersey's original design, “squishing down the functionality of the many moving lights.” Halliday then merged control cues efficiently, “with a lack of struggle that surprised Ted. The machines did all the work.” Mather, he adds, “is good at figuring how to capture the essence of a show and what's important about a scene, getting about 70% of the same look in a third of the time with a third of the gear.” Halliday says a “constant stream” of digital photos were taken of the Broadway show to assist Oklahoma's replication in smaller venues. The huge, curved wraparound cyclorama at the Gershwin Theatre has been replaced by a smaller, straight version, with simplified cyc lighting that still uses dimmers (“always a pain on the road”) but substitutes DHA LightCurtains with L&E MR-16s. VARI*LITE® VL2000™ spots and washes are used with scrollers to further translate the original, layered look. “If you don't know New York,” concludes Halliday, “you're still getting a really good show.”
MOVING RIGHT ALONG
Given the growing number of automated lights in use on theatre tours, it's no surprise that most of the road warriors out there are veterans of concert touring who've said goodbye to Ozzy Osbourne and Van Halen and hello to Seussical: The Musical. Electrician and moving light technician Brendan Quigley was there when the first VARI*LITE® VL1s came out of the shop, and he subsequently built expertise sought after by tours on which he spent a total of three years. “If you're doing split weeks or one-nighters with a show, it's a lot more like rock and roll touring,” Quigley says. “The upper end of Broadway touring is easier, given the longer times that a show ‘sits’ at a venue, but there's a higher standard that you're held to.”
Automated lights help maintain the standard. “Everyone needs to know moving lights and the Wholehog II,” insists Drayton Allison, production electrician and board operator on tours of The Secret Garden, The Full Monty, and the marching-band extravaganza Blast!, which will take on Tokyo this summer. Quigley's experience with the WholeHog® II (and his ability to move big tours like Kiss) got him his 1999 engagement with Riverdance, which carried more than a hundred moving lights. From 2001-2003, he traveled with Disney's Aida, which had a load-in time of 16 hours and a load-out of eight, with 60 moving lights. “A VL3000™ I can take apart in a dozen screws,” he says of the ease of maintaining current “far more bulletproof” equipment, adding that Tomcat crank truss and Tait Towers service truss for the tour's three dimmer racks helped escort Aida. “We only had four dimmer racks plus our front-of-house package, whereas, in New York, they had eight or nine electrics. Natasha Katz, the LD, cut it down with a chainsaw for the road. We were doing as much with less to keep the look and feel of what you paid $100 a ticket for on Broadway.”
“When I was touring shows myself, you used to have one light that was a down special…and also a backlight and a sidelight. Now, we're able to put almost all of Fosse on with moving lights,” says Juenker. “On the road, they fill gaps and smooth things over. It used to be that three on a show was amazing, but they exploded in use a few years back, when Vari-Lite opened up its process and allowed ETC and Wholehog II consoles to work with its lights, and tours no longer had to travel with a Vari-Lite tech. Plus, High End and Martin Professional have really cleaned up their acts in terms of customer service, and prices have gone down over the past four years.”
TALKING IT THROUGH
One thing there cannot be enough of when touring a show is communication, from every standpoint. Before a tour starts, Quigley says the producer should have “as an overriding main concern, from the get-go, moving the show. The minute he says, ‘We're going to have a tour, but it has to move quickly,’ then he has to give the freedom to the lighting designer and the production electrician so that they can make the best choices that further moving the show.” Says Nelson, “The better prepared the house is for the road crew, the better the day goes for everyone, and with complete paperwork from the tour, there are less surprises during the entire process.”
Leone, who also handles The Phantom of the Opera tour, and J.T. McDonald, its head electrician for 11 years, work together to minimize surprises. Typically, Leone only visits when a staff member changes. “Long-range tours turn into a game of telephone,” Leone says. “I say it's really important that the followspot be hard-edged and bright, and after two changeovers in frontlight personnel, the person says it was supposed to be soft and dim, and I'm like, ‘Hello?’ I try to give them as much knowledge of the show so they can solve the problems of the move-to-move autonomously.” Says McDonald, “When she is here, and that may be once every two years if she's busy, my aim is for her to be able to look at the show and not have any notes.”
Phantom, McDonald says, was the last big Broadway musical to tour without moving lights. Currently, he and Leone are discussing a few changes to keep the music of the night in sync with changing times, like upgrading the front of house package to all ETC Source Fours to help save cabling and move the show more efficiently as well as fixing its DHA Light-Curtains.
Finding audiences on the road by early next year will be the Broadway hits Little Shop of Horrors and Wicked, a little less grand, perhaps, than the New York editions but no less innovative when it comes to lighting. “The use of moving lights, projections, and even automation on smaller shows is something that wasn't there years ago,” says Juenker. “I went to see the current tour of Miss Saigon, by Big League Theatricals (a company I toured with in the past) and was amazed by its use of projections and the sheer amount of moving lights in the air. If you have a chance to go see some of these ‘little’ shows, a term I use lightly, you should. They really know how to push the limits of design and technology.”
Robert Cashill is a former editor of Lighting Dimensions.