B roadway boomers, take note: The 70s are back as London's West End sends forth a number of pop musicals rooted in the decade of glitter balls and earth shoes. Mamma Mia!, which spins its story around a playlist of ABBA's greatest hits, is a smash hit in London, with a Toronto production set for May, and, presumably, Broadway after that. In the meantime, New York is preparing for a spring revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, the rock opera that started it all.
Then there's Saturday Night Fever: The Musical, which sparked the current trend. Based on the 1978 film, which immortalized John Travolta, the Bee Gees, and tight polyester suits for an entire generation, SNF opened in London in May 1998 and immediately set off a disco inferno at the box office. As usual, Broadway beckoned. However, while London critics rocked out to the music and dancing, the New York press failed to get in the groove. Still, Saturday Night Fever looks like one of the season's few certain hits--audiences are literally boogyin' in the aisles nightly at the Minskoff Theatre.
LD Andrew Bridge had to do the hustle himself, to create the barrage of lighting that drives so much of Saturday Night Fever. This is lighting with flash and panache--super-saturated colors relentlessly prowling the stage, whirling mirror ball action, and a floor that pulses with neon. It's one of the most kinetic designs Broadway has seen in years.
And yet, Saturday Night Fever is also a book musical that takes place in various locations including a paint store, a dance studio, and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. In these scenes, Bridge had to dispense with the glitter and create other looks and moods. It's a design that calls for a strange combination of tact and showmanship, and Bridge admits that, at times, his task was a hard one. Still, says the designer of high-energy evenings such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Five Guys Named Moe, "I'm known for the ability to do rock and roll in a theatrical manner.
"I feel I've done two Fevers," he continues. "In London, the book and story were eclipsed somewhat by the dancing and the energy of the company. There, the show was marketed to a much younger audience--the 70s were really hot in England at the time. A lot of critics said the book was irrelevant, but loved the enthusiasm [of the cast] and the passion for dance. In New York, the whole premise was different; Saturday Night Fever is an icon of an age, and was marketed to an older audience." Indeed, although the 1977 film was praised for its grit and sexiness, the musical now plays in New York to an audience of families--period survivors and their adolescent children--hooked on oldies like "Stayin' Alive," "If I Can't Have You," and "How Deep Is Your Love."
In New York, Bridge says he was able to implement more clearly his original design concept: "I saw it as a black-and-white drama, with an incredible burst of color and energy when we went into the disco." Thus, most of the book scenes are done in a relatively muted palette, with all stops pulled out for the scenes set inside 2001 Odyssey, the local disco where protagonist Tony Manero hangs out with his gang: Bobby C, Joey, Double J, and Gus, in pursuit of female company like pushy, Manhattan-bound Stephanie Mangano, and desperate, needy Annette.
Interestingly, though Bridge's work differed in the two productions, his light plot remained essentially the same. "Nowadays, a lighting plot is only a foundation. In the old days, you could design a plot--without moving lights--and if someone stole it, they could reproduce the show, get the flavor of it. Today, the plot is only one minor part of the design. You design it, but what you do with it is so much more difficult, and interesting, and unique to you. Because of things like moving lights and scrollers, two people can do vastly different things with the same plot."
Of course, 2001 Odyssey is the centerpiece of the musical. It's the stage where Tony acts out his dreams and, as such, has to be flashy, glamorous, exciting; but to the audience's eyes it should also look a bit tacky and dated as well. Furthermore, the 2001 Odyssey set, as designed by Robin Wagner, serves as more of a framework for the lighting. There are tall light towers over the set, there are lights in the canopy roof over the dance floor, and there are lights in the floor itself. "Robin sat there with a big grin and said, 'I've designed the set, now fill it with lights,' " recalls Bridge. "I thought, Oh my God, that's a lot of kit. In London, the budget was tight. Once we had the initial design idea, the question was how to do it inexpensively."
Enter Martin Professional, which began as a club lighting company, then branched out into other forms of entertainment. "Martin was very eager for me to introduce its new moving lights [the MAC 500 and 600] for the first time into a standard theatre production," says Bridge. In fact, Bridge used a broad array of Martin equipment in the production, incorporating both theatre and disco lighting into the design. Speaking of his decision to go with Martin, the designer says, "Each show has its own requirements, its own style. The Martin colors are incredibly acrylic, making them perfect for the day-glo look I was trying to do."
Bridge admits to being nonplussed as he worked his way through the Martin catalogue, looking at disco units with names like Punisher and Destroyer. "It was like joining the Navy and these were the names of the missiles," he says, laughing. Still, the combination of theatre and club lighting was the key to his design. In the 2001 Odyssey set, there are three large lighting towers located at rear center, right, and left positions, which feature 72 Robocolor Pro 400s. However, the designer says, "In the 70s, they didn't have these small high-discharge units, so we bolted a day-glo blue ring on the front of each Robocolor, to make each one look like a large PAR can."
The Robocolors make a big statement each time the disco set appears, and within the dance numbers. But one challenge facing Bridge was how to suggest the look of a disco during book scenes there, without overwhelming the actors. "A disco is a cacophony of movement and color, but we needed to do a disco in the background. You can't have a disco book scene without some movement, so I used the Destroyers, which are very good units, to rotate gobos and create a background. All around the edge of the canopy there's a little truss, with about 10 Destroyers, used as backlight. That was the 'disco' look."
Then there's the deck. "We had to have a major floor effect," says Bridge; the deck consists of "neon squares," with each square constructed of a Plexiglas base, then a layer of black RP material, followed by a Plexiglas top. Inside the boxes are alternating lines of neon light, in red, white, and blue, with additional uplighting created by strobe units placed in the deck. The pulsing neon is mirrored in the canopy of the set, adding to the overall lighting environment.
All of the above makes up what Bridge calls the "disco rig." ("I also pumped in a lot of [Wildfire] blacklight, to give it an extra bit of disco quality.") In addition, there's the "musical rig," the units that light the stage action, consisting of conventional lighting (including approximately 320 ETC Source Fours, Strand Cantatas and Cadenzas, plus CCT Minuettes) and automated units, including 33 MAC 500s and 35 MAC 600s. The latter are used most prominently in the disco scenes, to support the light created by the disco units.
There are three major sequences set inside 2001 Odyssey. "Each time we go there, we reveal something a little bit different," says Bridge. "The first scene is the basic disco," with lots of lighting action. For the Act I finale, the canopy roof, called "the spaceship," unfolds a vista, with CO2 jets letting off steam, like a rocket landing. Smoke and fog effects are provided by MDG, Reel EFX, Rosco, and Bowen equipment. Act II climaxes with a big dance competition in the club; the scene begins with Annette and Stephanie singing "Nights on Broadway," where a series of lights pulse up and down in the rear wall, making an effect "like a graphic equalizer," says the designer. The look is achieved with rows of 40T8F bulbs ("They're basically an aquarium lamp," says associate designer Vivien Leone); each bulb is covered in a double layer of red latex.
Of course, disco lighting isn't meant to be controllable in the same way as theatrical lighting. "In a disco, when an effects unit doesn't quite snap to blue, you don't really know it," says Bridge. "But, by golly, in a theatre show, you know it. It was a big effort to bed in the disco equipment" with the rest of the plot. With the Robocolors, he adds, "It was quite a trick getting them to douse out at the right time and stay out." There were other frustrations, he adds: "I had a lot of scanners and slow helicopters in London. We wanted slow rotations from the helicopters, but in the US they only went very fast, so we had to cut them from the show, because we didn't have the budget to rebuild the motors."
Furthermore, the set, with its onstage disco lighting towers, center canopy, and many reflective surfaces, provided the designer with a limited number of effective lighting positions. "I wanted to do solid crosslight," says Bridge, "but you couldn't get it in. You had to rely on lighting from the disco itself. The floor is highly reflective, which is a killer when you're doing book scenes. I used reflections on the floor, off the towers, for certain cues, as a deliberate effect."
When not infusing the stage with a case of disco fever, Bridge had other challenges to deal with. There are two scenes set on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The first time, at the top of Act II, it provides a setting for the principals to perform the number "Jive Talkin'." However, "the bridge," notes the designer, "is our Electric Pipe One. The bridge flies in and--bang!--there goes Pipe One." Further complicating matters: The actors are wearing flying wires. "There was an RP screen behind the bridge which we couldn't touch, and we had to avoid all crosslight because of flying wire safety issues. So I eventually added another pipe above Pipe One, which flies in with the bridge scene, with 10 ETC Source Four VNSP PARs. It's Pipe One-A, which is actually the top of a girder on the bridge." For the second bridge scene, in which the beleaguered Bobby C. jumps to his death, a storm effect is created using two Prolite 120 strobes and 10 High End Systems Dataflash(R) units for lightning flashes, six ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, fitted with Diversitronics strobe caps to create lightning forks, and four Strand Toccatas to create clouds.
A pair of scenes takes place in a dance studio, where a large, mirrored wall at the rear created some headaches for Bridge in London. "If any artist got too far downstage," he says, "the frontlight would hit them, then hit the glossy floor, bounce back up on the mirrored wall, then come flying back into the auditorium." A slight adjustment of the mirror's angle prevented most of the glare. (Bridge says in London the followspot operators, claiming migraines from the reflection, took to wearing sunglasses, until the situation was resolved). When Tony's pals take part in a rumble with another gang, Bridge uses a combination of CCT Minuettes (650W) and Strand Cantata fresnels (1,200W) in low side positions, which cast ominous shadows on the set. "It was a refreshingly somber effect," adds the designer.
Not somber at all is the "megamix" section, a popular feature of British musicals, located at the end of the show, in which the cast leads a reprise of the score's most popular tunes. In Saturday Night Fever's megamix, a barrage of disco equipment placed in the auditorium is activated, causing the audience to get up and boogie down. Bridge says he had a bunch of disco equipment left over from an effect on the canopy that was cut; since he had the units anyway, he placed them in house positions. "Then when the ubiquitous megamix came in," he says, "we thought, let's try, in as easy a way as possible, to turn the auditorium into a disco. So we put in these [Martin] Robozaps and other odd pieces of kit. I also put in half a dozen [Martin] Starflashes across the auditorium. It's basically a lamp with a gobo that rotates; inside the unit is a microphone and it wobbles to loud sounds. The end result was cleaner than what I could have done with Source Fours and gobo rotators."
As always, Bridge sees his work as a team effort, and he has nothing but praise for his associates on the project. They included Leone, production electrician Michael S. Lo Bue, assistant designers Philip Rosenberg and Paul Miller, automated lighting programmer Stuart Porter, moving light assistant Mick Addison Smith, and master electrician Tom Lawrey. Lighting for the production was provided by Four Star Lighting. The show is controlled by an ETC Obsession 1500 for the conventional units and a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console for the automated units. The consoles are linked together through their MIDI ports. ETC Sensor dimmers were also used.
Perhaps the key to Bridge's design for Saturday Night Fever is the idea of moving light as dance. As the designer says, "I used to say, jokingly, to [director/ choreographer] Arlene Phillips, 'You've been in a rehearsal room for weeks with your dancers. I've got 62 dancers up in my rig that I've got to train, and only days to do it." It's an interesting analogy. If it's so, then Bridge is a master choreographer.