Donald Holder brings new technology to Broadway

When it was first announced, the idea of a Broadway musical version of Thoroughly Modern Millie provoked disbelieving snickers among those in the know. The 1967 film is a collection of peerless camp moments: Julie Andrews' rendition of the “Jewish Wedding Song,” Carol Channing singing “Do It Again” as she is shot out of a cannon, the performance of legendary English comedienne Beatrice Lillie as the leader of a Chinese white slavery ring (flanked by two henchmen, billed as “Oriental #1” and “Oriental #2”). The film offers vivid proof that they don't make them like they used to — and a good thing, too.

Still, the idea of a Broadway Millie wouldn't die, as it wended its way through the development process of workshops, rewrites, and a tryout production at La Jolla Playhouse. Indeed, the musical proved to be as plucky as its heroine, weathering multiple extensive revisions, then opening to decidedly mixed reviews. Nevertheless, Thoroughly Modern Millie is shaping up as one of the season's big successes, doing solid business at the box office and raking in six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Actress in a Musical, and Best Costume Design, for Martin Pakledinaz.

The show's book, by Dick Scanlan and the late Richard Morris (author of the film's screenplay), follows the movie's general plot outline, focusing on Millie Dilmount, a bright young thing from Kansas who crashes Manhattan in the 1920s, determined to be “modern,” i.e., find a job and marry her boss. A dazzling typist, she is soon employed, and spends her time chasing the square-jawed Trevor Graydon, fighting off the advances of free and easy Jimmy Smith, hitting the speakeasies with her best friend Miss Dorothy Brown, and hanging out with socialite/nightclub star Muzzy Van Hossmere. Little do the girls know, however, that the hotel where they live is a front for a white slavery ring, and the owner, Mrs. Meers, has her eye on Miss Dorothy.

Even so, Thoroughly Modern Millie is far different from the film. No longer a coy spoof of the Charleston decade, it has become the ultimate love letter to Manhattan, the Emerald City were talented young people go to reinvent themselves. This concept is well articulated in the show's design. David Gallo's setting, inspired by the minimalist work of Hungarian sculptor Mihaly Nagy, provides a series of surrounds and drops that evoke the skyscrapers and girders of 20s Manhattan, and it has a lighting design by Don Holder to match. “The scenic treatments are designed to accept another layer of color ideas from the lighting,” he says. “It's a lot of aluminum and metal. There's no attempt to create a gritty New York — it's New York from Millie's perspective.”

In fact, color is everywhere in Holder's design, from the overture, when he bathes the show curtain in saturated reds, violets, blues, and greens, to a speakeasy sequence that is seen in purple and yellow haze, to the deep colors that flood the cyc behind Gallo's scenery.

In giving the glamour treatment to Gallo's vision of New York, Holder has incorporated some thoroughly modern technology. This becomes clear in the opening sequence, which features the famous title number. Millie, the new girl in town, is singing and dancing with the chorus in front of a dimensional drop that depicts the skyline of Manhattan. (Gallo has piled building on building in thin layers, splitting them in half so they look like mirror images, or Rorschach blots.) “David wanted each layer of the drop to float,” says Holder. To effectively backlight the layers, he says, neon appeared to be his only choice, “given the extreme limitations of depth and space” posed by the drops. However, he adds, given “the ease with which neon gets broken, we felt it wasn't the best way to go.” Gallo suggested taking a chance on LED technology: “We found a Color Kinetics product, the iColor Cove, that worked well,” says Holder. “That gave us the ability to do what David wanted, which was a series of colorful a vista changes — to almost have movement in color at certain moments.” In fact, during the title song, the stage wash, a combination of frontlight by theatrical units and backlight by LEDs, is subjected to a series of split-second color changes.

Now, says Holder, “I can say that LEDs are very easy to work with. The more we got into the show, the more sense they made. They're bright, easy to install, and focusable. Their only drawback is the cost, which is pretty astronomical. But they have a very long lamp life of 10,000 hours. Also, the iColor Coves are DMX-addressable; we run them off the show's control board.”

Another drop used throughout is a kind of cross-hatch of metal girders, which are backlit by neon units. “In that particular piece of scenery, because of its mass,” says the LD, “it needed the neon to float the unit a bit; also, I needed to have a variety of wall treatments. Neon did make sense for some exteriors.”

Those rapid color changes in the opening number are partly facilitated by High End Systems Studio Beams. “I've used High End Studio Colors® before and have been pleased with their performance,” says Holder. “I wanted a very bright wash light, with good color-mixing. I could have chosen the [Martin] MAC 2000, but I hadn't used it at the time. I could have also selected the [Vari*Lite®] VL2402. But [the Studio Beam] was a product that I assumed the shops already owned, making it a more cost-efficient choice. Typically, if a shop has to buy a new product, it may increase the cost of the rental.” Lighting equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase.

Of course, where Holder was going to put any of his lights became a major question. Given the show's extensive scenery, “there's very limited space overhead.” The biggest consumers of onstage real estate are the full-scale working elevator at the Hotel Priscilla, and Muzzy's Penthouse, both large units that rise into the flies. Also, given the scenery's preponderance of shiny, sometimes abstract surfaces, the LD says, “It was very important for the lighting to bring warmth and specificity to the space. The piece needed a celebratory voice, which required a lot more from the lighting, including very specific angles, colors, and ideas for specific spaces. It also meant using light to create smaller areas in the larger space, but with limited lighting positions and shiny surfaces.”

For this reason, and because Millie is a dance-heavy musical, Holder made as much use as he could of sidelighting. (The speakeasy sequence is particularly notable for this.) However, he adds, “Even getting low sidelight into the space wasn't easy, because of the constant movement of scenic elements at deck level. All the dance towers, in side positions, were rigged on automated ladders that flew in and out for an actor or scenic element to come on, then got repositioned.”

These problems were all worked on during the 10-day tech period. “We spent a lot of time figuring out how to light each space,” says Holder. “Some of my ideas didn't work because of the set's reflectivity, which wasn't easy to predict. But there were some delightful discoveries — the black walls were highly reflective, and they reflected color in an interesting way.”

The show is controlled by a grandMA console from MA Lighting (distributed in the US by AC Lighting), a product that makes its Broadway debut with Thoroughly Modern Millie. “Warren Flynn, my programmer, was very interested in using the board,” says Holder. “He was passionate about its capabilities, its ease of use and flexibility — the choice was really driven by him. I'm very flexible about the control system for moving lights, and prefer to give the programmer the system he is most comfortable with.”

Holder says he works in a collaborative manner with moving-light programmers: “We have an ongoing conversation about what's going on onstage. I usually don't talk about keystrokes and commands. We typically discuss what the lights should be doing — rarely about the specifics of programming them. I find that with these huge shows, you must rely on the moving-light programmer to make some aesthetic decisions, based on what you've described as the overall intent of a cue or moment.”

The LD also notes that the grandMA has “been a very reliable board. The only drawback to it is that there aren't that many programmers available. Warren had to leave at one point, and it was hard to find a replacement.”

“I like the grandMA because it has every feature you'd want right now,” says Flynn. “It makes my job easier. The big word today is speed: With grandMA I can program as fast as, if not faster than, with other consoles. The operating system is constantly updated and MA Lighting is adamant about releasing software with no bugs in it. I had it in the theatre for two months and it never crashed once, which is amazing.” He does caution, however, “The effects package is very different from the Wholehog II, or anything else that anyone is used to. I've found, as have others, that it's the hardest part to get used to. But once you set the board up for yourself, you can carry a floppy disk with your user profile, plug it into any board, and away you go.”

The designer is always quick to add that he has the support of an extensive team. In addition to Flynn, there are his associate Karen Spahn, assistants Hilary Manners and Michelle Habeck, production electrician Jimmy Maloney, head electrician Carlos Martinez, and assistant electrician Kevin Barry.

In spite of it all, Holder recalls Millie as “a labor of love. We all feel proud that we came up with a production that has a unified single voice — we did the production we wanted to do. This has been a wonderful collaboration with Michael [Mayer, the director], Rob [Ashford, the choreographer], David Gallo, Dick Scanlan, and [composer] Jeannine Tesori. I wish I had this much fun on every project.” He's aware that Millie is not his most critically acclaimed production, but the show's success is proving its own reward. And, he says, “If you make strong choices, you must live by the courage of your convictions.” Spoken like a true modern.

Contact the author at

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Lighting Equipment

4 Selecon Pacific 90º 600W
87 ETC Source Four 19º
144 ETC Source Four 26º
103 ETC Source Four 36º 550W
14 ETC Source Four 5º 750W
7 ETC Source Four 50º 550W
10 ETC Source Four PAR MFL 750W
2 ETC Source Four PAR WFL 550W
2 Arri 5kW fresnels
42 L&E 3-circuit Mini-Strips
21 L&E 650W Mini-Broads
652 Color Kinetics 12" iColor Coves
89 Color Kinetics 6" iColor Coves
2 High End Systems Dataflash AF1000 strobes
2 Robert Juliat Ivanhoe 2,500W followspots
2 Lycian 1290 XLT 2kW followspots
2 Vicom Supernova 5000 projectors
5 150W MR-16 birdies
26 35W MR-11 birdies
123 Wybron Coloram color scrollers
6 Wybron CXI color-mixing scrollers
2 GAM Products TwinSpin 2s
4 Rosco variable-speed DMX Double Gobo Rotators
1 MDG Atmosphere hazer
2 MDG MAX 3000 foggers
3 Bowen fans
12 muffin fans
6 City Theatrical AutoYokes for ETC Source Fours
5 Vari*Lite VL2202s
16 High End Systems Studio Beams
6 High End Systems Studio Spots
23 Martin Professional MAC 2000s
4 DHA Digital Light Curtains
1 MA Lighting grandMA console