Natasha Katz creates a neon jungle for Sweet Smell of Success

Say the words “film noir” and a child of three will know what you mean. They conjure up the moody, dark glamour of 1940s and 50s cinema, the chiaroscuro contrast of black-and-white cinematography, the fatalistic imagery of sex and death. There is no more indelible style in 20th-century culture.

All of which poses certain problems for a lighting designer who has to create a film noir world onstage. Just ask Natasha Katz about Sweet Smell of Success, the controversial new musical based on the classic 1957 noir about the vicious machinations behind New York's most notorious gossip column. The film, set in a Times Square where daylight never intrudes, is a neon-lit view of hell, where columnists troll for dirt about the rich and famous, and desperate press agents feed them manufactured “items.” A total flop on its initial release, the film ultimately attained cult status thanks to its punchy screenplay and the scathing performances of Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, as columnist J.J. Hunsecker (based on the notorious Walter Winchell) and press agent Sidney Falco.

The screenplay covers a 24-hour period, as Hunsecker seeks to destroy the romance between his sister, Susan, and her lover, jazz musician Steve Dallas. The agent of Hunsecker's fury is Sidney Falco, a flack who sets up a vicious smear of Dallas that destroys his career. And that's just for openers, in 96 minutes of cross and double-cross, no motivations offered, and none needed.

Interestingly, Sweet Smell of Success is one of the few musicals not to dilute its source material; John Guare's book is far more complex than the film, setting up an elaborate backstory that details the origins of the Hunsecker-Falco relationship and transforms Susan from an immature young girl to an assertive aspiring actress who knows a thing or two about deception and betrayal. The characters are more rounded, their motivations and fears laid out explicitly as the action moves to a climax that is even more violent than that of the film. Marvin Hamlisch's score (unsentimental lyrics by Craig Carnelia) blends blaring orchestral jazz with be-bop rhythms and vaudeville parodies, adding an extra tone of musical menace to these sad, sordid doings.

Given the film's celebrated look — James Wong Howe's black-and-white cinematography is a classic — the production's designers had their work cut out for them. In this case, they are more than up to the challenge. In Bob Crowley's scenic concept, a ring of New York skyscrapers is torn out of the ground and dangles ominously over the stage, with neon signs, tenement facades, and screaming newspaper headlines lowered in as needed. (Crowley's show curtain, in which an uncountable number of J.J.'s “Broadway X-Ray” columns retreats into the vanishing point, is some kind of classic.) It's a startling design that also allows the action to move from one scene to the next with the addition of minimal scenic pieces.

Equally gripping is Natasha Katz's lighting, with its daring experiment in color and angle. Nighttime sequences feature acid-etched neon colors — pinks, purples, greens — pouring in from sharply-defined angles — diagonals, sides, ultra-high positions — that fade into no-color mornings that, in contrast, have the look of period black-and-white photography. The show's backdrop, an ominous steel-gray collage of clouds, suddenly bleeds red as the denizens of Times Square line up at the newsstand to read about J.J.'s latest smears.

In addition, Katz's lighting efficiently carves up the stage as needed, isolating Susan and Dallas in a seedy bedroom at one moment, then finding J.J. and Sidney making an unholy pact in a dark corner of St. Patrick's Cathedral a few minutes later. Her command of space is really put to the test in the climactic number “Don't Look Now,” in which J.J., hosting a telethon, performs a beloved vaudeville routine while a gang of cops beats Dallas insensible.

“I've always wanted to do film noir in the theatre, but I never really knew how,” says Katz. She adds that it wasn't until the production's Chicago tryout that she realized, “You can do film noir with color — that's because film noir, in many aspects, is really about single sources of light. It's about creating an abstract environment in a realistic world. I don't think an audience would sit through a full night of black-and-white lighting.”

As for her unexpectedly angular compositions, the designer says, “I must attribute that to Bob Crowley — there's a ring of lighting units that sits on top of the buildings [suspended over the stage]. That was the beginning of those angles. I knew how dynamic that ring would be.” In addition, she says, “I was able to go even further with the angle idea. There are pipes way offstage, in the corners, put at very dramatic angles. Also, there are beams coming in between the buildings. That angle defines the look of the show.”

Katz says that sidelight was very important to her concept but, again, sidelight from unexpected angles. “When I used low sidelight, you could see the black legs on the other side of the stage. The dancers looked great, but you saw what holds up the buildings. So I shifted to a number of different angles, and it looked a hundred times better.”

Interestingly, the designer says, “The color palette on this show is extremely limited, even if it is bold. You don't have any intermediate colors.” This is best seen in numbers like “Welcome to the Night,” in which J.J. takes Sidney out on the town, or “One Track Mind,” in which Dallas makes a splashy nightclub debut — colors stream in from steep side positions, giving the playing area a disturbingly artificial glamour. These scenes “have to do with the street versus the nightclubs, what makes these people live and breathe at night,” she says, adding that with those buildings towering above the cast, “it looks like cockroaches scattering at night. These are people who don't want to be seen at 3:00 in the afternoon.”

This contrast is best appreciated in “Don't Look Now”: “The song is defined by color; in the beating of Dallas, color is sucked out. Those two worlds exist side by side, in one visual idea. I think moving lights have a lot to do with being able to isolate different areas like that.”

One particular moving light was central to the design: the x.Spot from High End Systems. “They're on the ring above the buildings,” says Katz. “With the x.Spot's zoom optics we could light the buildings using gobos, then zoom them so it was just a slit of light on the building. Those zoom optics were the main thing — the units are trimmed really high, at 36' [10.8m], and the x.Spots are brighter than many other moving lights. On the other hand, they're noisy — that's our next big problem to solve in the theatre.”

Katz adds that an acoustician consulted with the creative team, adding baffles that considerably reduced the lighting units' noise. However, she notes, the noise generated by moving lights is an issue that isn't going to go away. “It's got to be fixed,” she says. “On one hand, I don't think Sweet Smell could look the way it does without the equipment I had. But this is an extremely serious issue that affects the lighting designer, the sound designer, the director. Do you edit yourself and not use the x.Spot, or do you find a way deal with the noise, or fix it?”

Katz is quick to point out that her close working relationship with Crowley and director Nicholas Hytner was responsible for the show's notably unified look. (“I can't tell you what a satisfying experience this was, creatively,” she says.) The trio also collaborated on the spectacular Lincoln Center Theatre production of Twelfth Night a few seasons ago, and she and Crowley have done several musicals together, including the current hit Aida. Each of their co-designs is filled with technical and creative challenges that result in unique looks.

Others involved in the production include associate LD Jeff Whitsett, assistant LD Daniel Walker, moving-light programmer Richard Knight, production electrician Robert Fehribach, head electrician Randy Zaibek, assistant electrician Lonnie MacDougall, and advance moving-light tech John Blixt. Equipment for the production was supplied by Fourth Phase.

Although Katz was nominated for a Tony, the only award the show received was for John Lithgow for Best Actor in a Musical. Unfortunately, the show closed June 16.

Like everyone else involved in the production, Katz was dismayed by its critical reception. However, she says, the work provided many compensations. “It was one of the most process-oriented shows I've ever done. I didn't know how far we could go with it, and every day it grew.” That's a statement that's worth any number of awards.

Contact the author at dbarbour@primediabusiness.com.

Sweet Smell of Success

Lighting Equipment

198

ETC Source Four 19º 575W

11

ETC Source Four 19º 750W

118

ETC Source Four 26º 575W

18

ETC Source Four 26º 750W

55

ETC Source Four 36º 575W

31

ETC Source Four 36º 750W

10

ETC Source Four 19º barrels

10

ETC Source Four 26º barrels

10

ETC Source Four 36º barrels

3

Strand Bambino 5kW 10" fresnels

6

L&E 500W Mini-10s

160

L&E 1kW NSP PAR-64s

85

L&E Baby Broad 1kW groundrows

6

L&E 6' 3-way 12V MR-16 Mini-Strips

6

Robert Juliat 933 SNX 2,500W HMI 30-53º zoom profile spots

10

WAC low-voltage short-nosed MR-11 birdies with independent dimmable transformers

21

TMB low-voltage short-nosed MR-16 birdies with independent dimmable transformers

60

TMB line-voltage short-nosed MR-16 FSC birdies

33

High End Systems Studio Spot CMYs

32

High End Systems Studio Beams

36

High End Systems x.Spots

18

Wybron CXI color-mixing scrollers for ETC Source Fours

176

Wybron Coloram II scrollers for ETC Source Fours

50

Wybron Coloram II scrollers for PAR-64s

3

Wybron Coloram II scrollers for 5kW fresnels

20

Rosco variable-speed Double Gobo Rotators for ETC Source Fours

10

Rosco DC/DMX controllers for Double Gobo Rotators

5

Lycian 1272 1.2kW HMI followspots

5

MDG Max 3000 foggers

1

ETC Obsession 1500 console

2

Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II consoles

10

ETC Sensor 96x2.4kW rack (5 racks control scenic electrics)

1

ETC Sensor 12x6kW rack

1

Variac dimmer for orchestra lights

40

Logical Lighting 150W 12V receivers

5

Logical Lighting 8-channel receivers

1

Logical Lighting 96-channel DMX-controllable transmitter