Taboo is one of the more talked-about Broadway musicals in recent years, what with rumors of backstage discord, a difficult preview period, and producer Rosie O'Donnell's notorious (if largely unrelated) legal difficulties associated with her adventures in magazine publishing. Nevertheless, all can agree that LD Natasha Katz has given the show a dark, noirish glamour that vividly evokes the nightclub scene of 1980s London.
The show, of course, is the double-edged tale of the young Boy George's rise to fame (and descent into drug addiction), juxtaposed with the life and death of the bizarre fashion designer/performance artist Leigh Bowery. Charles Busch's libretto, based on the original London script by Mark Davies, follows both characters and the crowd of eccentrics, cross-dressers, artists, and poseurs — both gay and straight — who moved around them.
Did the show's look pose a design challenge? “Well,” says Katz, wryly, “I am from that era, and I did spend time in a club or two. [The design] didn't come from researching magazines.”
Of course, it's not a snap to create disco lighting in the context of a Broadway musical, an animal that has its own needs. The entire show takes place in the abandoned venue that once housed the club Taboo, where all the characters congregated in their youth; the story is told in flashback, as narrated by the club promoter Philip Sallon and Big Sue, a member of Bowery's entourage. Thus Tim Goodchild's setting is an empty industrial space, wrapped in a combination of silk and plastic. “It was very difficult to light,” says Katz, adding that she was limited in her choice of angles and colors, given the material's highly reflective nature. As a result, she relied heavily on side angles, and, as for color, “It took blue well, plus some greens, and a little bit of red. That was it.”
Nevertheless, Katz turned such limitations into an advantage, creating looks that evoked the neon-tinted allure of the perpetual night world inhabited by Boy George and his playmates. The designer's plot made use of the usual suspects from the automated lighting world, including the Martin Professional Mac 2000 Performance (“It's fantastic; the shutters are unbeatable,” she says), as well as High End Systems Studio Beams. On the balcony rail she placed HES Studio Spots, because their convection-cooling system makes them quiet.
However, Taboo is a show about club life, so Katz also turned to club lighting company American DJ for the army of effects units deployed in the second-act opening number “Everything Taboo.” Her favorite is Razz Matazz, a many-windowed unit that emits dozens of beams and comes with a dichroic color wheel that rotates back and forth to the sound of music. (“If anything, we could have used more of them” she now says.) Razz Matazz is sound-activated, she adds: “When we pre-cued them, they didn't do anything. Then the music came on and they were phenomenal.” (This scene is dominated by a giant Taboo sign; in addition, there are dimmable neon units from Neotek placed elsewhere on the set.)
Katz also made use of DMX-controlled mirrorballs from American DJ. “They just came out with them,” she says. “You set the speed and run them from the control board. That was huge for me, because in the opening number [‘Freak/Ode to Attention Seekers’] and the song ‘Genocide Pyroxide,’ the mirrorballs could be run at different speeds, and could also go in reverse.” The mirrorballs are a key to the design, as they reflect light in every direction, creating a kind of 3D lighting effect that pulls the audience into the world of Taboo.
Control for the show was provided by an ETC Obsession II, for the conventional units, and a High End Systems Wholehog II, for the automated gear. “We had a lot of chases going in both boards,” says Katz about the design's more active moments. “The most exciting thing is when the entire Obsession screen turns red, because there are so many chases.” It's probably no surprise that she worried about the fact that the power system in the Plymouth Theatre dates back to its opening in 1917, but no problems appeared in this area.
Lighting equipment for the production was supplied by Fourth Phase. Other key lighting personnel on the production included assistant LDs Jeffrey M. Whitsett and Lara Dubin, programmer Paul Turner, and assistant to the LD Richard Swan. Katz also mentions David Rosenfeld at Hudson Scenic Studios, who was instrumental in preparing and installing the set electrics. Another key person, of course, was producer Rosie O'Donnell, who cut quite a controversial figure this fall. However, Katz says, “She was fantastic to work with. She's so committed to what she does.” She adds, “In fact, the more I talk about the show, the more I realized how much fun I had.” And isn't that was clubs are all about?