The expat LD lights the Great American Musical

It's most fitting that David Hersey, an American living in England, would be the LD for the revivals of three classic American musicals, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, and South Pacific, all directed by Trevor Nunn at the Royal National Theatre in London. My Fair Lady was Hersey's triumphant return to the theatre after a two-year sabbatical, during which time he clocked over 38,000 miles on his sailboat. Before that epic trip, he designed Oklahoma!; the production was a hit in London but, for reasons involving casting and scheduling, the New York transfer was delayed until this season, allowing Hersey to return to Broadway for the first time since he lit Miss Saigon. (It obviously agrees with him, because his design for Oklahoma! was nominated for a Tony.)

Over lunch in New York City in March, while the Broadway transfer of the production was in rehearsal at the Gershwin Theatre, Hersey commented, “The concept here is the same, yet more developed. The sets are basically the same, and they were shipped over from London. But it was a very quick install at the National, and I was glad to have the chance to take another look at things this go-round.” As a result, there are some additions and changes to the lighting rig.

The sets and costumes by London-based designer Anthony Ward evoke the state of Oklahoma in its infancy, when farmers and cowmen are striving to co-exist, and both the charming cowboy, Curly, and the threatening farmhand, Jud Fry, are vying to take the pretty young Laurey to the box social. Icons of the American Midwest, from a lifelike cornfield to stylized windmills, water tanks, and farmhouses, are set in a vast, open landscape as the drama of this 1943 musical unfolds with Rodgers and Hammerstein's memorable lyrics and score.

The set is defined by an expansive curved blue cyc, with a layer of gauze in front, masking the orchestra, which sits upstage throughout the performance, as the front edge of the stage has been extended over the orchestra pit to help to reduce the gap between the stage and the audience in the large theatre. (Since the orchestra sits behind the cyc, a plastic projection screen could not be used; the fabrics selected had to allow maximum sound transmission.) A grid over the apron allows for necessary lighting positions. The stage floor was painted in layers of dusty amber, or iron-streaked orange dirt, and is lit with various breakup patterns and custom gobos in ETC Source Fours hung above and on the sides of the stage.

Hersey talks about his lighting mostly in terms of emotion and mood shifts, emphasizing the strong narrative in the musical's book. He also plays upon the lyrics. “A hawk in the sky, a bright golden haze in the meadow, the images are there,” he says. “I believe the lighting has to respond to what the action is doing as you develop a color range, or define a time of day.”

For the opening sunrise, Hersey rear-projected the cyc with a DHA YoYo+ in an ETC Source Four. DHA Digital Light Curtains, rigged to follow the curve of the cyc, add a red haze as the sun rises, moving and color-changing as the lighting becomes a warm glow. PAR-56 500W striplights with Special FX Fade-Not glass filters in Rosco 85 are hung overhead to add a dark blue effect for night looks.

The large cyc created a “big sky” to which Hersey added various kinds of clouds, from wispy and white to dark and stormy, and a glowering sky for those moments when Jud Fry is at his most threatening. As in London, the moving clouds are rotated in various speeds using the White Light VSFX effects system, mounted to the front of Strand Toccata fixtures, fitted with a mixture of cloud disks from White Light and DHA Lighting.

For the more abstract lurid skies required by choreographer Susan Stroman's new interpretation of the show's famous dream ballet, the London production used three Pani projectors fitted with slide changers and color scrollers. In New York, these projectors were replaced with a dozen ETC Source Fours with combinations of DHA glass gobos and Rosco Colorizer glass effects to create static cloud patterns in a monochrome sky. These are augmented by a pair of Source Fours placed on ladders on each side of the stage to add a streaky cloud effect, with red and cyan ripples. “We played with the focus to get phenomenal depth,” says Hersey. “I prefer this to flat projections, and it will be easier for the tour.”

The cyc lighting around the clouds was created by using L&E Mini-Strips as groundrows and PAR-56 500W striplights from above as fill between the cyc and the gauze scrim. There are also front projections of realistic moon images, created with DHA glass gobos in Source Fours. The moons were front-projected from Source Fours hung on the balcony rail, as rear-projection onto the cloth would have revealed the source.

“I like this way of doing a sky,” says Hersey. “It allows you to mix the elements, and for any image onstage, it's how things mix that makes it interesting.”

To create a 30-second flaming fire effect along the horizon in the dream ballet, Hersey opted for 10 Selecon Pacific 90° 1kW fixtures, each with a DHA Varispeed Animation Disc to add the flicker; the minimal throw between the orchestra platforms and the cyc necessitated the use of these wide-angle units. Low smoke created by Le Maitre LSG MKII smoke machines adds atmosphere.

The lighting team for this production included Hersey's long-standing associate lighting designers, Ted Mather (in New York) and Jenny Kagan (based in London), with programmer Rob Halliday, who transferred the production from the National to the West End. (Kagan also did the West End transfer and worked on a film version that was seen on British television.) “Ted is great at doing the paperwork,” says Hersey, indicating that Halliday had organized the technical side of the automated lights.

Hersey's rig includes 14 Vari*Lite® VL2202 spot fixtures and 21 VL2402 wash fixtures. “These are used primarily as roving specials, allowing the right light to be in the right place at the right time,” Hersey said. During the dream ballet, live movement enhances the choreography, but this is the only time the audience sees the fixtures in motion.

“The trim height was very high,” notes Halliday. “Anthony Ward wanted a high cyc with no lights against it. In London the rig was lower, but due to the height we went with the Vari*Lites for their brightness, and for the VL2402's ability to spot down to a relatively tight beam.” The rig was also designed with a truss curved to match the cyc and placed just downstage of it.

Lighting looks mirror the sizes of the sets, which are built in different scales, and with false perspective. “If there is a little house, we use little leaf gobos, for a big house, a bigger image,” says Halliday, who notes that the zoom feature of the VL2202 allows the custom gobos to follow the size of the set pieces.

At one point, a tiny set piece, a train, crosses the stage, following custom DHA railroad track gobos (made by Mather) in Source Fours in Lee 161. There are also tiny light bulbs in the train windows. “The track gobos are in homage to Starlight Express, which David also lit in the Gershwin,” says Halliday.

Color comes from the automated portion of the rig as well as Wybron Coloram II scrollers on the Source Fours, and Wybron CXI color mixers on the PAR-64s and the Strand Alto PC fixtures. “The color palette is very warm with a lot of rich outdoorsy tones, a lot of sunsets and dawns, and a brief romp in the dance hall with a lot of dark reds and deep blues,” says Mather, adding that all the gobos from stage left are in open white while the ones from stage right are Lee 161. “This gives you the choice of cool light from one side and warm from the other. This makes a strong compositional statement.”

Control for Oklahoma! was provided by Strand Lighting's 500-series consoles. In the Olivier Theatre at the National, the Strand Galaxy house board was used, with a Strand 530 to control the Vari*Lite VL6s used in that version of the show. When the production moved to the Lyceum Theatre in London's West End, the entire rig (with the exception of the DHA Light Curtains which are run from their own Macintosh) was controlled by a Strand 530 console. On Broadway, a Strand 550i is used to control the entire rig, including the automated luminaires and Light Curtains, with a second 550i serving as a backup.

“With the show already programmed on a 530, it made sense to keep using the same type of console for the New York production. The automod [automatic modification], update, search-and-replace, and other functions offered in the GeniusPro 2.5 software allowed us to quickly and easily update the show file to suit the expanded rig and the new moving lights it contained, while magic update allowed the New York rig to be focused very quickly,” says Halliday. Data is carried from the console to the lighting rig over Strand's ShowNet Ethernet network system.

All of the lighting products and services for the Broadway production of Oklahoma! are provided by New York-based PRG/Fourth Phase, one of the newest members of Vari-Lite's international dealer network. “This production of Oklahoma! ushers in a new dynamic in the relationship between Production Resource Group [PRG] and Vari-Lite,” said Darren DeVerna, vice president of PRG. “We look forward to the tremendous opportunities this presents for all of us.” Installation into the theatre was done by a team led by production electrician Mike LoBue and show electrician Mike Ward.

For the production period of the show, Halliday also made use of the full Strand 300 and 500 family of consoles to meet the different demands of the lighting team. “David, Ted, Jenny, and I each wanted to see different combinations of channels arranged in different ways,” Halliday explains. “Using video nodes didn't work, as the designers would always see the same display as the programmer. We therefore specified 300 consoles as designer's video remotes.”

Strand supplied the production with two 300 consoles, configured as remotes to the main console, allowing Kagan and Mather to arrange their channel displays in their own styles and to interrogate cues in preview independently of each other and the main console.

“To reduce the amount of clutter in front of David, we didn't give him a console, but instead ran Strand ShowNet into his Apple Macintosh laptop,” adds Halliday. “He then ran the GeniusPro off-line editor through the VirtualPC emulator on his Mac; this was configured as a remote and therefore picked up the show information from the console. His display was set to only show the channels active in any particular cue, allowing him to concentrate only on the channels in use at a particular time.”

Halliday also made use of the console's ability to save show files directly to his Macintosh, through the Strand Server application, to keep backup copies of the show at the end of each day. By the time the production opened, he and Mike Ward had their Macs talking to the console wirelessly through Apple's AirPort card and a wireless Ethernet receiver connected to the console.

The technology used in Oklahoma! is certainly the most up-to-date in any state, “But you don't feel like you are seeing a lot of technology happening up there,” Mather says. “We are not drawing your attention to it too much. It's more a question of color, direction, and timing, rather than movement. The lighting looks like a Winslow Homer painting to me. It's a vast landscape of natural color, with the expansive feeling of being outside.”

Contact the author at


Cameron Mackintosh

Trevor Nunn

Susan Stroman

Scenic Designer
Anthony Ward

Lighting Designer
David Hersey

Sound Designer
Paul Groothuis

Associate Lighting Designers
Jenny Kagan, Ted Mather

Lighting Programmer
Rob Halliday

Assistant Lighting Designer
Greg Guarnaccia

Production Manager
Jake Bell

Production Electrician
Mike LoBue

Head Electrician
Mike Ward

Assistant Electrician
John Kelly

Lighting Supplier
Fourth Phase

Lighting Equipment

14 Vari*Lite VL2202s
21 Vari*Lite VL2402s
5 DHA 8-lamp VNSP Digital Light Curtains
6 DHA 6-lamp VNSP Digital Light Curtains
11 DHA 6-lamp MFL Digital Light Curtains
2 ETC Source Four 5º 575W
31 ETC Source Four 10º 575W
96 ETC Source Four 19º 575W
32 ETC Source Four 26º 575W
2 ETC Source Four 36º 575W
3 ETC Source Four 50º 575W
8 ETC Source Four Zoom 15-30º 575W
6 ETC Source Four 10º 750W
12 ETC Source Four 19º 750W
28 ETC Source Four 26º 750W
4 ETC Source Four 36º 750W
26 ETC Source Four Zoom 15-30º 750W
10 Selecon Pacific 90º 1kW
98 PAR-64 NSP 1kW
8 PAR-64 MFL short-nose 1kW
16 Strand Alto 2kW PCs
4 Arri 5kW fresnels
18 Strand 10" 2kW fresnels
4 Altman 6" 500W fresnels
1 Mizar 3" 500W fresnel
6 Ianiro 2kW fresnels
17 L&E 4' EYC 2-circuit Mini-Strips
11 L&E 6' 3-circuit 500W NSP PAR-56 striplights
1 Pani BP2.5 tungsten projector
10 White Light EP effects projectors
5 White Light VSFX storm cloud effects disks
5 White Light VSFX custom DHA cirrus cloud disks
1 DHA YoYo+
10 DHA Varispeed animation disks
3 Robert Juliat Ivanhoe 2.5kW followspots
2 Reich & Vogel 1kW Beamlights
14 Wybron CXI 7.5" color-mixing scrollers
96 Wybron CXI PAR-64 color-mixing scrollers
32 Wybron Coloram 4" scrollers
6 Wybron Coloram 10" scrollers
5 Rainbow scrollers with local control for followspots
2 Le Maitre LSG MKII low smoke generators
5 Look Solutions Tiny Foggers
1 Rosco 1500 handheld smoke machine
2 Strand 550i consoles with GeniusPro v2.5e software
2 Strand ShowNet103 network nodes
1 Strand handheld remote
5 ETC Sensor 96x2.4kW dimmer racks
1 ETC Sensor 12x6kW dimmer racks
ETC DMX splitters
DHA Lighting custom metal and glass gobos
Rosco Colorizer gobos and custom Vari*Lite colors
Devon Glass color for PAR-56 striplights and 5kW fresnels
Logical Lighting radio-controlled dimming