My Fair Lady is one of the most popular stage shows of all time, and audiences at the current London revival of this Lerner and Lowe musical can be heard singing softly with Eliza Doolittle as she recalls how she “could have danced all night” or with her father, Alfred Doolittle, as he's on his way to “getting married in the morning.” This revival, which premiered last March at the Royal National's Lyttleton Theatre (produced in association with Cameron Mackintosh), transferred to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in July and has proved to be the hottest ticket in the West End.

The original production of My Fair Lady opened on Broadway in 1956 with Julie Andrews as Eliza and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, a linguistics professor who bets that within six months he can transform Eliza, a Cockney flower seller, into a lady fit for London society. Higgins wins his bet, but does not bargain for the effect Eliza will have on his peaceful life as a bachelor. The same cast moved to London, where My Fair Lady opened at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1958, and ran for almost six years, setting the record for the longest-running show at that theatre (the record held until it was broken by Miss Saigon in 1994).

Directed by Trevor Nunn, this year's My Fair Lady has choreography by Matthew Bourne, set and costumes by Anthony Ward, sound design by Paul Groothius, and lighting by David Hersey, in his return after a two-year millennium sail around the world. The production stars Martine McCutcheon (who has been on-again, off-again since the beginning and now is slated to only perform six times per week due to vocal problems) as Eliza, and Jonathan Pryce as Higgins. Set in 1910, the year King Edward VII died, the production evokes scenes of life in London in the early years of the 20th century.

A gauze scrim painted with floral patterns spans the stage at the top of the show, with soft, diffused lighting from ETC Source Four ellipsoidals with break-up gobos and Vari*Lite® VL7 automated spot luminaires to add color to the scrim. This scene crossfades to a 2.5kW compact halogen Pani projector and a black-and-white period photograph of people in Covent Garden, where London's wholesale flower market once stood side by side with the Royal Opera House. (In fact, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane is just steps away from the Covent Garden flower market site and the Opera House.)

The street scene in Covent Garden sees flower girls peddling bunches of violets to well-heeled operagoers. It is here that Higgins first hears the deplorable speech uttered by Eliza Doolittle. “At the top of the show the light grows slowly, and the gauze stays in to keep the light soft,” says Hersey, who worked closely with Jenny Kagan (associate lighting designer), Alistair Grant (production electrician), and Rob Halliday (lighting programmer) on this production.

“Because of the structure of the set, which has heavy steel arches to suggest Floral Hall and the Covent Garden market, there were only a few narrow gaps for the lighting,” says Hersey, who used DHA Digital Light Curtains to provide broad color washes and toplighting. “I had to get in early and book my space.” In fact, the arches are a permanent set element, remaining onstage throughout, with a lot of flown scenery coming in around them. “The sets are very cinematic,” Hersey adds. “They move in and out without any blackouts in the lighting.”

The shape of the lighting rig was dictated by the shape of the set, with the overhead instruments hung on electric bars of different sizes to follow the false perspective of the set. The bars get narrower as they go upstage, with eight-light and six-light DHA Digital Light Curtains in various combinations. Trapezoidal gobos in Vari*Lite VL6C automated spot luminaires are used with the zoom feature to change the size of the gobo and follow the shape of the set.

The set is delivered downstage by a scenic conveyor belt. Since there is 6' more forestage space at Drury Lane than at the National, Hersey was able to add five extra VL6Cs in the first electric position. A variety of Rainbow and Wybron color scrollers help get the best use out of the limited positions. The 5kW and 2.5kW Strand fresnels, all with Rainbow color scrollers, are used throughout the show to help light the cyc and as big color washes though the arches.

When the action moves into Higgins' study, for example, Hersey was faced with a large box set with little room for sidelight; the overhead light has to filter in through the high arches. As a result, the set is heavily illuminated by frontlight, with additional help from the overhead Digital Light Curtains and Vari*Lite automated luminaires. Hersey was able to sneak in a little bit of crosslight through the upstage door.

Because it is impossible to run cables to them, six practicals (table and floor lamps) in Higgins' study are run by radio-controlled dimmers, from Howard Eaton Lighting Ltd. (HELL), as they move onstage via conveyor belt. The practicals add a warm interior glow to the room, yet one of Hersey's challenges here was picking out the actors on a very busy set, filled with furniture, bookshelves, and extensive props. This is achieved, again, with frontlight from tightly controlled ETC Source Fours hung on two newly-installed front-of-house trusses, and the Reich & Vogel Beamlight followspots which are fitted with Rainbow color scrollers.

Hersey created a new gobo effect using the specifically designed DHA YoYo+ (a new indexing version of DHA's long-established YoYo). To create a window effect in Higgins' study, a YoYo+ is used in each of four Selecon Pacific 80V ellipsoidals. At the National, these gobos were used in ETC Source Fours. “David wanted more brightness in the rig at Drury Lane since the theatre is so much bigger,” notes Halliday. “He went to 750W Source Fours for the entire rig. For the window effect, he needed something even brighter,” hence the Selecons.

The four Selecon luminaires have distortion-corrected glass window gobos with mesh as a net-curtain effect. The YoYo+ gobo has a heavy curtain profile, so that when Higgins pulls a rope, all four window curtains “open” to reveal the window patterns, as the room floods with light (the effect is heightened by the sound of the curtains opening). The Selecon Pacific fixtures are also used to light people through the windows, with Wybron Coloram scrollers adding effects for different times of the day. In the final scene, as Higgins and Eliza are each standing in a window, the gobo curtains “close” as the set fades to black.

A pretty effect for Eliza's song “Wouldn't It Be Loverly?” is a sharkstooth gauze scrim placed upstage with painted clouds. This sits in front of a backcloth with the same images for depth, and a plastic layer to diffuse light. The top of the front gauze is lit with L&E Mini-Strips. DHA Digital Light Curtains (with their built-in scrollers) are also used to light the scrims and add washes of color.

To solve some of the problems involving the lighting and the moving sets, Hersey worked with Dave Stewart of London's Stage Electrics (conveniently located on the ground floor of Hersey's DHA headquarters) on a series of WYSIWYG renderings. This turns out to be the designer's first direct encounter with WYSIWYG, but he admits to being “intrigued by it. WYSIWYG gives you a leg up on the planning and gets you thinking about things earlier in the process.”

Hersey's rather effective “rain” for My Fair Lady was created using four Vari*Lite VL7s with modified gobo wheels. First, he replaced the usual 11-gobo wheel in the VL7 with a special DHA-made gobo wheel with a continual image of rain (there is one clear gap or “hole” in the image so that you can “park” the gobo and use the VL7 during rain-free moments in the show). This gobo spins continually, with the “rain” falling through vertical lines of “rain” on a second gobo which remains upright in one of the indexing positions (which give you control of the orientation of the gobo image). “The use of these gobos together creates motion for the rain that is linear and not just curved,” explains Hersey. “It's a question of scale and good intensity.”

The Ascot Derby racing scene (unforgettably black and white in the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn as Eliza) takes on a new look this time around, with the color scheme for the costumes almost all black with deep plum trim. “Since it was the year the king died, they had a ‘Black Ascot,’ with fancy mourning clothes in his honor,” explains Hersey, who livened things up a bit with bright green in the Vari*Lite VL6Cs and VL7s. The green accents a green grass carpet that is rolled out to create an exterior look.

The Wimpole Street set, a shallow exterior facade of Higgins' house (where Freddy, Eliza's “boyfriend,” sings “On the Street Where You Live”) has windows which are backlit with MR-16s on lighting bars since there is not enough depth for anything else. One VL6C lights the doorway. “There is a combination of very big and very little lights,” notes Hersey, who decorated the facade with custom DHA tree patterns in Source Fours and VL7s (two hung on the balcony rail). DHA fiber optics create stars in the sky above the house.

The year 1910 was about the time the first Underground line opened in London, so Hersey created a moving train effect. A Source Four in a City Theatrical AutoYoke has a period train window gobo combined with a DHA DMX-controlled vari-speed flicker wheel to produce an effect of the train slowing to enter a station. There is also a DHA indexing gobo rotator to keep the window straight as it pans across the stage. “It creates an authentic look,” notes Hersey.

The steel arches of the set are used beautifully in the ballroom scene, where Eliza makes her society debut. Hersey used VL6Cs overhead, with their patterns and prisms moving with the music. When Eliza appears in an all-white gown she shimmers in the light of the automated luminaires, with a followspot to heighten her entrance. Three chandeliers made by HELL have been added to this scene at Drury Lane. The tiny bulbs built into them add extra sparkle to the scene.

In contrast to this is a cabaret scene featuring Alfred Doolittle and his pals singing “Get Me to the Church on Time,” in which Hersey used vivid pinks and reds in VL6Cs and DHA Digital Light Curtains. “The director and choreographer didn't want to do just another pub number, so they added the dancing girls. It works well in context,” says Hersey. “A lot of cues happen really quickly and the Wybron CXI scrollers allow for a bigger range of colors, and simple dissolves from one color to another,” adds Halliday.

The rig used for the Drury Lane production was supplied by White Light and The Moving Light Company, with the Vari*Lites from Vari-Lite London. The rig in its entirety is controlled from a Strand 530i console (with a Strand 510i for backup). Drury Lane's in-house Strand dimmers are being used as well. Halliday points out that this was also the first show to use Strand's new version 2.5 of its Genius Pro software for the 530i. “This was very helpful in modifying the show from the National to Drury Lane,” he says. “It made the whole process more efficient.”

“This is a big show, and the challenge was getting it all done on time,” says Hersey, who starts the design process by dealing with the physical realities of getting light onto the stage. “Working with a good director makes it easier. There is a real clarity you get from watching rehearsals. But the rig for My Fair Lady was an issue,” he insists. “It had to be terribly specific because of the set. I didn't want to see the rig or the moving lights, except for a swirling effect in the ballroom scene. Yet you couldn't do this show with a conventional rig and get anywhere near the variety and color options we had.”

It remains to be seen if this production of My Fair Lady can win back its championship title at Drury Lane by running longer than Miss Saigon (also produced by Cameron Mackintosh, starring Jonathan Pryce, and lit by David Hersey), but for Hersey the move from the National Theatre to the West End meant a chance to make the lighting more precise. “Look at Miss Saigon,” he recalls. “The lighting evolved as we went along from London to Tokyo to New York and Chicago. Having a second bite at the cherry is really nice.”

Contact the author at elgreaux@primediabusiness.com.

My Fair Lady
SELECTED LIGHTING EQUIPMENT
197 ETC Source Fours 750W
2 Strand Pollux 5kW fresnels
6 Strand Alto 2.5kW fresnels
4 Strand Alto PCs
13 Strand Cantata PCs
10 Strand Orion 4-color cyclights
30 Thomas MFL PAR-64s
9 Thomas 4-cell cyclights
24 Thomas MR-16s
6 L&E 6' Mini-Strips
4 Selecon Pacific 80V ellipsoidals
40 Wybron CXI color-mixing scrollers
3 Wybron Power Supply Units
30 Wybron Coloram scrollers
11 Rainbow scrollers
4 White Light VSFX cloud effects with Dallmeyers lenses
4 White Light VSFX cloud projectors
1 Pani 2.5kW compact halogen projector
9 DHA 8-lamp Digital Light Curtains
18 DHA 6-lamp Digital Light Curtains
1 DHA Flicker Wheel
1 DHA Indexing Rotator
4 DHA YoYo+s
1 Howard Eaton Lighting Ltd 6-way radio-controlled dimming
1 Cirrus Strata haze machine
2 Smoke Factory Data fog machines
1 Le Maitre LSX smoke chiller
2 Reich & Vogel Beamlights
2 Robert Juliat Aramis followspots
1 Strand 530i console
1 Strand 510i back-up system
380 Strand STM in-house dimmers
1 City Theatrical AutoYoke
19 Vari*Lite VL6Cs
4 Vari*Lite VL7s
Strand ShowNet network DMX system
Strand 2.5 Genius Pro software

STRAND IN CONTROL ON MY FAIR LADY

Lighting control on My Fair Lady at both the National Theatre and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was from Strand Lighting's 500-series lighting consoles, with one console controlling the entire rig of moving lights, conventional lights, color scrollers, and effects.

At the National, the consoles were running 2.4e, the current version of Strand's GeniusPro control software. For the Drury Lane transfer, Strand was able to supply programmer Rob Halliday with the first trial version of its latest software update, GeniusPro version 2.5. “It proved invaluable,” notes Halliday, “since it adds a number of new features designed to simplify the task of modifying and updating shows — exactly what we were doing on this show, where we were having to adapt the showfile to deal with a lighting rig that was considerably different in its make-up from that used at the National.”

The principal new feature is something that Halliday has taken to terming “magic update,” though Strand hasn't given the function an official name yet. “It means that, if you have a state onstage where a number of different moving lights are in a number of different preset focus groups, you no longer have to worry about what those groups are. You merely reposition the lights as required, then hit ‘update group’: The console does the rest of the work of figuring out which position came from which group and updating them all accordingly. This feature alone saved many keystrokes and a considerable amount of time.”

Other new features include additional macro keys by allowing the use of shifted sub-bump keys; the ability to copy channel levels from live into blind; and an improvement to the time command that allows times to be set, increased, or decreased across multiple cues in one operation. Also added, though not used on My Fair Lady, is support for 16-bit operation of any attribute, not just pan and tilt as in previous versions, which will be invaluable as ever-increasing numbers of moving lights add support for 16-bit gobo indexing and other functions.

At Drury Lane, the main console was a Strand 530i, with four universes of DMX taken to the dimmer room via Strand's ShowNet ethernet network before being redistributed around the building on conventional DMX cable; one line fed the theatre's house Strand STM dimmers via a DMX-to-D54 converter. The theatre also has a 510i as a backup; the consoles and network nodes were supplied by White Light.

“The 530i was the obvious choice for the show because it existed in 530 format from the National,” says Rob Halliday, “but I also still believe that these consoles are the best choice for this kind of theatrical production, where the rig is a mixture of moving and conventional lights. The consoles have also proved utterly reliable once again, with Strand quick to attend to minor problems with and suggestions for improving its new software.”