After years of two left feet, the Broadway musical is dancing again, and the more the music swings, the better. The trend began last season with the audience hit Footloose, followed by the Tony-winning revue Fosse. Fosse culminates in a lengthy, exuberant routine set to Benny Goodman's swing classic, "Sing, Sing, Sing." This season, Broadway can't stop dancing.
Its first hit (beginning Off Broadway but soon moving to a Broadway house) was Contact, which features lots of neo-swing music and dance, and climaxes with a routine based on "Sing, Sing, Sing." Next up was Swing!, a jump-and-jive revue featuring authentic swing dancers, culminating in, yes, a routine based on "Sing, Sing, Sing." New York hasn't seen this much jitterbugging since V-E day. (There's even more dance, of a different nature, in the Broadway version of Saturday Night Fever, to be covered in a future issue.) What follows is a look at the challenges of lighting two different musicals that are powered by dance.
Critics are calling Contact the most innovative new musical in years. In fact, Contact isn't a musical at all--it's a totally unique project, a so-called "dance play," made up of three different narratives blending dialogue by John Weidman and choreography by Susan Stroman. All three examine different aspects of romantic/sexual relationships, underscored by a wide variety of recorded jazz and classical tunes.
The first piece, "Swinging" is a witty cameo, lasting less than 10 minutes, based on Jean-Honore Fragonard's famous painting The Swing. It puts the 18th-century version of the eternal triangle--man, woman, male servant--through a number of role reversals, accompanied by Stephane Grappelli's rendition of Rodgers and Hart's "My Heart Stood Still." The second piece, "Did You Move?" features the dancing and clowning talents of Karen Ziemba, here cast as submissive mob wife (it's the 1950s) living out her romantic fantasies in an Italian restaurant. (The scoring includes selections from Grieg and Puccini, among others.) The final section, titled "Contact," stars Boyd Gaines as a self-loathing advertising executive who tries to hang himself, then is lured mysteriously to a swing dance club where he pursues a stunningly beautiful Girl in a Yellow Dress (Deborah Yates). "Contact" takes up the entire second half of the show and is performed to a cavalcade of songs performed by the likes of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Squirrel Nut Zippers, culminating in Benny Goodman's rendition of "Sing, Sing, Sing."
For LD Peter Kaczorowski, "Contact provided many challenges." This Lincoln Center Theatre production opened in the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, a small house with steeply raked seating and a thrust stage, which meant that the audience would be looking down on the action. Furthermore, the three pieces are sharply different in tone and emotional breadth. All three depend heavily on establishing--and maintaining--the proper sense of style.
Fortunately, Kaczorowski's work typically blends an understated sense of style with a knack for the right theatrical touch; his work in Contact at all times supports the action without overwhelming it. In "Swinging," he casts a warm daylight wash across the stage, using arboreal breakups on the floor to fill out the stage picture (The LD says that, given the theatre's configuration, he was all too aware of the floor's importance throughout the evening). The blend of colors--blue, green, yellow, and pink--is taken from the costumes designed by William Ivey Long and scenic designer Thomas Lynch's elaborately swagged drapery, all of which blend to create a warm, verdant look that is ideal for the erotic byplay onstage.
"Did You Move?" is more complex, shifting between two levels of reality. Ziemba plays a submissive wife dining with her thuggish husband (Jason Antoon) in a Queens restaurant. As he wanders off to the buffet table, her fantasies come alive; she stars in a series of ballets culminating in a romantic pas de deux with a handsome waiter (David MacGillivray). The piece is both wistful and farcical (Kaczorowski notes that Ziemba's comic style and the piece's 1950s time frame recall the great TV series I Love Lucy).
Thus the LD's work in this scene is distinguished by its witty and atmospheric touches. He provides a cool, elegant wash for the restaurant, with purple tones washing the stage floor. But when Ziemba's fantasies begin to erupt, a series of spinning patterns appears on her table (courtesy of City Theatrical EFX2 effects wheels), giving a madcap edge to the transitions. There is also a dramatic change of atmosphere, to a more overtly theatrical look. The green curtains are turned deep red ("I just blasted it with all the Lee 126 I had," says Kaczorowski) and a followspot is deployed on Ziemba as she becomes the prima ballerina of her dreams. "The followspot means fantasy for KZ's character," he says. "It means performance: I'm a ballerina, I'm onstage, I'm blossoming. But it goes off when we return to reality."
The transitions in "Did You Move?" are broadly, intentionally comic; in "Contact," they are seamless, dreamlike. In fact, the entire piece may be taking place in a few seconds, as Gaines' character dangles between life and death. There are two main locations in the piece: Gaines' apartment, which Kaczorowski describes as "clean, empty, as spare-looking as possible," with white and steel blue as the dominant lighting colors and an "urban breakup" pattern on the floor, which mirrors the skyline seen through the windows of the set (for this piece, the draperies give way to a more naturalistic scenic design). On the other hand, the club is a smoky, erotically charged atmosphere, filled with gorgeous women and men, insolently displaying their bodies. Here the LD uses "hot colors. The music and dancing are so sexy and hot that it was only appropriate to use reds and oranges and purples. There was also a great deal of yellow--Lee 104 all over the place," in honor of Yates' yellow-clad character.
As Gaines' character wanders desperately between the two locations, trying to make contact with Yates, Stroman has staged a series of quick dissolves that mirror the shifting reality of a dream. Through a mixture of choreographic action, strategically deployed haze, and carefully arranged light cues, the stage is totally transformed in a matter of seconds. "You sort of see it all happen, but out of the corner of your eye," says Kaczorowski. The LD brings the followspot back in for the dance club scenes, to pull Gaines' character, clad in a black tux, out of the crowd.
The piece builds to a nightmarish climax as the dancers drag Gaines back to his apartment and put him back in the noose. It's a key moment that posed a problem for Kaczorowski: "He's not really fully back in his apartment, because the Girl in the Yellow Dress is still there with him. I needed a way to show this. So when the lights bump back to Boyd, alone in the noose, the skyline outside of the three upstage windows is yellow. And as the Girl slowly turns and walks out the door, there's a crossfade upstage in those windows as well, that drains the yellow out as she leaves, leaving them steel blue--the look that we now associate with his apartment."
In many ways, Kaczorowski's design for Contact is most remarkable for what it doesn't have--there are no moving lights, no giant flourishes or effects, not even any dramatic sidelighting often seen in dance. Instead, he uses an array of subtle touches and effects to transform the stage over and over again--and to set the proper emotional tone.
The light plot consists of approximately 350 ETC Source Fours, 35 Lighting & Electronics Mini-Strips, one Lycian followspot, 72 Wybron scrollers, 24 fluorescent tube fixtures (to light up street signs seen during the scenic transitions in "Contact"), three High End Systems Dataflash(R) AF-1000 strobes (for flashing photo effects in "Did You Move?"), top hats for all the Source Fours, and one MDG hazer. The show is controlled on an ETC Obsession 600 and makes use of four racks of 96x2.4 dimmers, also from ETC. Other personnel include assistant lighting designer Michele Disco, production electrician Graeme McDonnell, light board operator Joshua Rich, and maintenance electrician Kevin Strohmeyer, Sr. Equipment was supplied by Four Star Lighting.
Contact represents the latest collaboration between Kaczorowski and Stroman, which began with the stunningly designed but short-lived musical Steel Pier (1996) and continues later this season with the Broadway revival of The Music Man. You could say that this season, Kaczorowski's career is in full swing; it's been an extraordinary year for the designer, whose other credits include the smash hit revival of Kiss Me, Kate and the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of The Rainmaker, starring Woody Harrelson. Contact officially becomes a Broadway show in March, when it moves upstairs to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center.
December saw the opening of Swing!, a crowd-pleasing revue dedicated to all things that swing. Interestingly, Swing! is not the typical nostalgic song-and-dance show that seems to land on Broadway about once a month. Instead, it's a then-and-now exploration of the swing phenomenon, mixing timeless tunes by the likes of Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, and Count Basie, with new songs in the swing manner by the show's featured players, Ann Hampton Callaway, Everett Bradley, and Casey MacGill (who leads the onstage band). Similarly, the dancers are an eclectic mix of Broadway hoofers and swing dance specialists, many of whom perform their own choreography. The show is not meant as a museum of style, but a celebration of a living, breathing tradition.
For LD Kenneth Posner, Swing! represents something of a departure. Although he has a couple of Broadway musicals to his credit (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Little Me), they were book shows. Swing!, on the other hand, is an exercise in pure song, dance, and style. Nevertheless, he has created a remarkably supple lighting design that supports the production's exuberance without overwhelming it.
Posner notes that the show was developed over the course of three workshops by director/choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett, in association with production supervisor Jerry Zaks. The designer admits "it took a long time to discover the best way to attack the show," especially as it "was always in development," until very late in its preview period. Nevertheless, he developed a clear strategy, giving distinctive looks to each of the show's sequences, quietly building his effects so that each number tops its predecessor.
Thus the show begins with bandleader Casey MacGill in a shaft of white light, presenting the opening number, "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Then it's lights up for a series of numbers ("Air Mail Special," "Jersey Bounce," "Opus One," and "Jumpin' at the Woodside") that introduces the company of dancers. "The idea was that the top of the show would be very crisp and white--a clean palette," says Posner. In fact, he has moving lights on four overhead pipes and two side positions that go to work here, isolating different groups of dancers as they seize focus, and using colors to sculpt their bodies in motion. The plot makes use of High End Systems moving lights; according to the LD, "the Studio Spots(TM) work as moving specials, the Cyberlights(R) are used primarily for low sidelight, and Studio Colors(R) were devoted to the show drop."
From there, the show moves into what Posner calls "the nightclub section;" the big number is "Throw That Girl Around"/"Show Me What You Got," which showcases West Coast and Latin swing dance styles. Here the LD unleashes an array of hot colors, including oranges and purples, to match the steamy intensity of the dancers' duets. Posner says that he drew his palette from William Ivey Long's costumes, a blend of strong colors and clinging fabrics intended to emphasize the dancer's bodies, and Thomas Lynch's setting, a fusion of Art Deco and Classical architectural elements.
The mood and the palette change in the USO sequence, with the dancers cast as a gang of World War II servicemen and their dates. "The color becomes more pastel," says Posner. "It has a more nostalgic feel to it." Moving lights cast white patterns across the stage, aiding and abetting the romantic mood. A ballet sequence, set to "I'll Be Seeing You," makes use of classic dance sidelight to shape the dancers' bodies as they enact the parting moments of a serviceman and his girl. Then strong color makes a decided return for the act's finale, "In the Mood"/"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree."
Act II begins with a clever effect, using the show curtain, an assemblage of silver musical instruments against a brown background. As the entr'acte plays, the instruments, backlit by the Studio Colors, transform through a series of deeply saturated colors. Throughout the top of the second act, greens and purples are used prominently. One of the show's most stunning moments comes in "All of Me"/"I Won't Dance," performed by Callaway and Bradley in front of a scrim covered with a green arboreal pattern. Behind the scrim, the band is outlined in a purple wash, for a look as elegant and clean as a classic jazz ballad. This is quickly followed by the show's most gimmicky number, "Bill's Bounce," featuring the dancers Beverly Durand and Carol Bentley suspended from bungee cords while taking part in athletic antics with Aldrin Gonzalez and Scott Fowler. Here, Posner washes the scrim with spinning patterns and ballyhoo sequences of moving followspots, giving the number an even more outrageous edge.
Of course, all stops are out for the finale, "Sing, Sing, Sing," in which the designer pulls all the elements together--lots of color, moving floor patterns, moving beams--against the beveled mirrors of Lynch's last setting, for a high-energy finale. The evening ends on a lightning-quick effect, as the cast lines up at the lip of the stage, while a rapid series of spotlights chases across them, cueing the audience for applause. This is achieved, says Posner, by "moving lights and phenomenally talented followspot operators. I have three of the best followspot operators on Broadway," he adds, mentioning frontlight coordinator Carlos Martinez and operators Tom Galinski and Steve Pugliese.
Then again, Posner notes that many talents were involved in the creation of Swing! The show has approximately 500 cues in less than two hours, with alternate cue sequences for certain numbers, if they are performed by understudies; thus automated light programmer Warren Flynn played a significant role. Posner also mentions associate lighting designer Martin Vreeland and assistant lighting designers Jeff Nellis and Michael Jones. Other personnel include production electrician James Maloney, head electrician Bob Hale, assistant electrician John Taccone, and production stage manager Karen Armstrong, who has to call all those cues.
Besides the High End equipment, Posner's plot consists of approximately 450 ETC Source Fours, plus six L&E Mini-Tens, 35 L&E Mini-Strips, 12 Altman T-3 strips, two Altman Micro-Strips, with 40 High End Systems Studio Spots and eight High End Cyberlight SV units (the latter featuring City Theatrical Cyberlight sound baffles, mirrors, and yokes). Other equipment includes 164 Wybron Coloram scrollers, 16 Wybron CXI color-mixing scrollers, 14 Rosco variable-speed Gobo Rotators, one MDG Atmosphere haze machine, and three Lycian 1290 XLT long-throw 2,000W xenon followspots. Conventional lights are controlled by an ETC Obsession 1500, with the moving units controlled by a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II. ETC dimmers are used as well. All lighting equipment was supplied by Four Star Lighting.
"It's a big challenge when there are no book scenes," says Posner, about working in the revue format. "You're constantly watching a cue or a transition happen. Then, we didn't go out of town--we previewed only in New York--so we knew we were only going to get one shot at it. Naturally, your stress level goes up. But the collaboration with Tom Lynch and William Ivey was great--they were very supportive and inspiring. Also, Jerry Zaks and Lynn Taylor-Corbett guided me and edited me. It was a great spirit, with a great company." As for the multiplicity of swing shows, he adds, laughing, "You're going to see a lot of them in the near future. It's a phenomenon."