With numerous nods to her first solo album, including five Grammy awards and the cover of Time magazine, Lauryn Hill (below) has become the frontwoman for the entire hip-hop nation. But even with her unparalleled crossover success, including the first Best Album and Best New Artist Grammys awarded to a hip-hop artist, Hill rejected the glamorous trappings due her newfound celebrity and sought simplicity in the design of her first solo tour, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Her no-frills approach turned into an exercise in restraint for LD Peter Morse, renowned for delivering tour de force lighting looks for clients including Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Reba McEntire.
"In my opinion, it's truly a very supportive design with nothing that steals the show," says Morse. "In fact, the tour manager called me one day and said, 'Everybody is really happy with the lighting, but interestingly enough I never hear a comment about it after the show.' I said, 'That's exactly what she asked for and I feel I did my job.
"She was quite clear about what she wanted and I was quite clear about how she could be provided with it," the LD continues. "She said, 'I don't want rock and roll. I don't want disco. I don't want wiggle or flash. I want something that looks like a New York high school out of the 60s, or maybe the 50s.' I said the words 'sepia tone' came to mind and she said, 'Absolutely.' "
Hired on the spot after meeting Hill, Morse set out to create that look with a lighting package that had already been specified by The Obie Company. "She just wanted an overall wash that was kind of gymnasium-looking which I saw as very tungsten. That was kind of hard to do because Obie had already contracted them to use all Coemar equipment, which is anything but tungsten. The easy part was knowing what equipment I had to work with and that there would be no bidding wars, so I could basically go to work and use what was provided."
The Obie Company, repped by Ray Woodbury, supplied a lighting package including 38 Coemar CF1200s, 14 Coemar HE 1200s, six Coemar NAT TM 2500s, six High End Systems Cyberlight(R) automated luminaires, four High End Systems Technobeam(R) automated luminaires, 26 PAR-64s, two 26-degree ETC Source Fours, six Berkey 3-cell cycs, 12 Strand Orion single-cell cycs, two Lycian Starklite truss spots with chairs, two Reel EFX DF-50 hazers, two Reel EFX fans, 10 Wybron PAR Colorams, one Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II, one ETC 48x2.4k dimmer rack, three Pro Power racks, six ETC Data Splitters, truss, a safety system, controllers, and motors.
"The Obie lights worked out fine," says Morse. "I think we were one of the first tours to use the new 1200 HE, the hard edge. I call it the 'zucchini' because it looks like a giant zucchini. We only had a few color problems for the first week until we found out that the lights really needed to be optimized a few times because they were new. But it all came together and they're holding color really well. They're good lights."
In terms of color, Morse toned down his usual palette. "I've been told I have the habit of creating an Easter basket of colors," the designer laughs, "but I avoided that this time. Lauryn just isn't there now, although she was specific about wanting Rasta or reggae colors--green, yellow, and red--for one song, she didn't care which one.
"Most of the other songs are [lit with] almost no color, but corrected wash, and other colors are not vivid, but muddied intentionally," Morse continues. "It's an exercise in simplicity for me."
Simplicity also translated into the lighting rig which the LD envisioned as a trapezoid with a front truss for key lighting, a back truss, and two radiating side trusses following a diagonal created by Marla Weinhoff's set pieces, two banks of school lockers (above). Morse added to the scenic texture by incorporating incandescent factory lights purchased at an industrial supply house in Detroit.
On the programming side, Morse says he and his crew--programmer Chris Medvitz and Dave "Gurn" Kaniski, lighting director for the first leg of the tour--were "relieved of the pressure of having to program a lot of whiz and bang" because of Hill's no-flash policy. However, the tour allotted more time for music rehearsals than production runs, which left the lighting team scrambling to complete a design before the February 18 opening in Detroit. "We got into Detroit maybe four days prior to opening night and just went off the tapes to program," says the LD. "I was extremely conservative, being very careful I gave her what I thought she wanted. It was just me and Chris, and Gurn sitting back and watching so he could run it. It was kind of nice because it went really quick. I'm so used to having multiple boards and multiple programmers, and here it just went boom, boom, boom."
While Kaniski ran the show through its first leg in the US, Michael Keller took over as lighting director when the tour headed to Europe in May. Others instrumental on the lighting side were crew chief Jeff Gregos and head technician Mike Hale. Once again, Morse and company were pressed for time to prep the lighting design to travel abroad. The solution was for everyone involved--Morse, Medvitz, Kaniski, and Keller--to strategize in a WYSIWYG studio. "We worked on WYSIWYG for about a week, which is not a great format for learning to run a show, but Michael learned the focuses and cues with a tape," says Morse. "Then we flew overseas to Norway and floated in the show and he basically had two more days to finally look at the rig, run the lights, and get focuses."
After playing to sell-out crowds in Europe, the Miseducation tour was scheduled to make its way back to the US this summer. Morse predicted a triumphal return with even bigger audiences and production values, a natural extension for Hill's growing superstardom. "At the beginning, there was definitely more wattage than was needed for what she wanted," the LD explains. "But the lighting is not necessarily overkill because she is playing larger venues and larger crowds, so she's growing into the dynamics and the capability of the lighting."