The new Broadway musical In My Life has an interesting story that goes like this: God is writing an opera and decides to use as his subjects the anal-retentive Jenny and JT, a songwriter with Tourettes, OCD, and ADHD. The opera is being directed by Winston, a former CPA who has a higher calling to the opera world while God has taken a leave of absence. How this will end is anyone's guess, but since Oscar-winning songwriter Joseph Brooks (“You Light Up My Life”) is the director and creative force behind the show, which opened at the Music Box Theatre on October 20, expect a score full of rich melodies and drama.
Also, expect a feast for the eyes since the creative team includes set designer Allen Moyer, costumer Catherine Zuber, projection designer Wendall K. Harrington, and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, taking on his first Broadway show since winning the 2005 Tony Award for his work on The Light in the Piazza. “I was attracted to this project because it's a story on multiple levels,” he explains. “One of the locations is heaven, and God is a character, and these projects always appeal to me because, as a lighting designer, it gives me the opportunity to create a very detailed earthbound reality as well as a different heavenly reality that operates in juxtaposition. As a theatrical lighting designer, creating images like that is infinitely more interesting than making plays that have just one kind of reality.”
As the show shifts from heaven to earth, Akerlind had to put his imagination in high gear and create a vocabulary that would succinctly differentiate between the two very diverse worlds. But the LD was not stressed; rather he reveled in the opportunity. “I get happier because it demands more of me and my imagination,” he says. “A lighting designer is supposed to observe the world around him and recreate that world on stage, or at least a heightened version of that world. But this is heaven, and unfortunately, we don't know what heaven looks like. It gives me a place to use my imagination and find out what the rules of heaven are going to be in terms of its ultimate look.”
The heaven that exists at the Music Box seems to be very much like the office of any governmental bureaucrat; the walls go far beyond the sightlines and are lined to infinity and beyond with file cabinets full of God's info on everything and everybody that ever existed. It might be time for the Almighty to invest in a computer with backup. “We were looking for something that was rich but also looked utilitarian in the heaven context,” Akerlind explains. “The light is very rich, but it also feels like I made a version of fluorescent light but pumped up to a heavenly level.”
One of the striking delineations between the scenes is that the utilitarian — albeit well lit — heaven makes normal life on earth seem even more rich and colorful. “It turns our sense of how these things work on its end. As we experience our lives, it sometimes feels predictable,” Akerlind explains. “This musical says that we should value the color in our lives and make the best of the opportunities we are given while we can. The design reflects that. It doesn't say heaven is a terrible place, but the earthbound landscape feels very, very vivid by comparison, as do the characters.”
Another helpful tool in making the scene changes were Harrington's projections from a pair of Christie LX100s, which were — as in many cases — added at the last minute. “Nobody thought about transitions, but as a projection designer, I'm used to being thought of as ‘Transitions ‘R Us,’ which is the way it was when I started out in the 70s,” she says. “I wanted to create a way to differentiate between heaven and earth, so my notion was to create these video transitions where time would shift. It's all about getting from one place to another.” From visions of moons amid a field of stars, video of ballerinas, gritty Manhattan skyscapes, and even dancing skeletons, the projections provided a much needed dividing point between time and place. The projections also served to, in essence, fill a void. Without them, the stage would have simply been a big empty space, but the projections made it more actor-friendly, especially in the dancing skeleton scene. There is no chorus of high-kicking dancers, but Harrington — ably assisted by Zach Borovay and Rupert Bohle — created one with video of the cartoon skeletons that were the perfect accompaniment for Winston as he tangoed with an actual skeleton. “The one thing I never try to be is distracting,” she says, “except when there's nothing else going on. [The projections] are doing what Winston is doing, so the audience doesn't get restless.”
With 1,010 seats, the Music Box Theatre is one of the smaller houses for a musical, and it has pretty close quarters backstage. There is also a lot of flying scenery as well as a flying effect in the show which takes up an additional 4' to 5' of stage depth, leaving Akerlind with three electrics with which to configure. “Because it's a new musical with a new director I've never worked with, and there was no real sense about where things were happening or what their image was, we asked for and got a lot of moving lights, which is very interesting for me because I've never done a project that is almost exclusively lit with moving lights,” Akerlind says. Among those moving lights are 40 VARI*LITE VL3500Qs™, 12 VL3000™ washes, and six Martin MAC Performances. There are also 350 fixed units in the rig that come into play at a wedding scene where it gets “bright and flowery.”
Relying on so many moving lights required Akerlind to change his creative process somewhat. “I'm used to working very fast,” he explains. “I'm quite fast with fixed units when I get into the focus process and put the light exactly where I need it and make it do what I need it to do. For In My Life, we began tech with a bunch of lights that do anything and need to be meticulously programmed to create the various looks. The focus was short compared to a show with 700 or 800 lights, but the tech period was extended because you can't just turn things on and move on. My rhythm is to turn things on, make a cue, and move on. Here you turn things on, make a cue, then wait for five minutes until it's programmed, and then move on.”
Akerlind also had the opportunity to try his hand at using LED technology, specifically Color Kinetics' ColorBlast®. “There was a need for flexible scenery washes so we asked for a lot of Color Kinetics stuff and got them all,” he says. “It's my first time working with LEDs, and it's really beautiful. The mixing is beautiful, and the punch is beautiful. It's been great to learn more about that equipment.”
A self-admitted ETC Obsession® console addict, Akerlind programmed the show on an Obsession that was slaved to a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 2. He adds that the Obsession works on copying cues over and over again. “I do so much work on the Obsession, and it was suggested we just program the show on a Wholehog, but my head is just in Obsession speak,” he adds.
The lighting equipment was provided by PRG, and Scharff Weisberg provided the projection system.