Ken Posner's Lighting Keeps HairsprayHopping

In New York, August is supposed to be the quietest month, a time for tourists to catch up with last season's hits while everybody else takes a well-earned vacation. This August, however, the joint was jumping, with an unprecedented number of high-profile openings. Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco triumphed in Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. The Roundabout Theatre Company mounted a new version of Rodgers and Hart's The Boys From Syracuse. The new revue Harlem Song brought Broadway-style entertainment to the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street.

Towering over them all, however, was Hairspray. Not that anybody was surprised — from its first tryout performances in Seattle in June, this musical version of John Waters' 1988 film had the aura of a megahit. By the second preview in New York, comparisons were being made to The Producers — and for good reason; Hairspray has the effect of a euphoria drug on audiences, who respond with glee to Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's hilarious book and the insanely catchy score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. They've pulled off a neat trick — a bouncy, family-friendly musical that makes brazen jokes about bigotry, obesity, and teen sex, all set to a score that revives the glories of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and the ebullience of early Motown. As staged by Jack O'Brien (with virtually non-stop choreography by Jerry Mitchell), Hairspray is a campy update of Bye Bye Birdie, both winningly innocent and wickedly knowing at the same time.

The plot of Hairspray closely mirrors the film. Set in Baltimore in 1962, it follows the adventures of Tracy Turnblad, the big-hearted teenager whose dream is to crash the cast of the local American Bandstand knockoff, The Corny Collins Show. Along the way, Tracy tangles with the evil mother-daughter team of Amber and Velma Von Tussle, romances local heartthrob Link Larkin, becomes a plus-size fashion model, gets a lesson in soul from black DJ Motormouth Maybelle, is thrown in jail, and ends up integrating the first national Corny Collins broadcast. Along the way, she transforms the life of her drab, agoraphobic mother, Edna, played to a riotous turn by Harvey Fierstein.

The production is filled with visual surprises, including the celebrated opening scene, which presents an overhead view of Tracy's bedroom; the moment in the song “Welcome to the 60s” when the poster for a black girl group, the Dynamites, comes magically to life, and the campy parade of costumes and architecturally ambitious wigs in the title number. (The Populuxe-meets-Pop Art design includes scenery by David Rockwell and costumes by William Ivey Long.) But the most original production element surely is Kenneth Posner's lighting. Posner is well-known for his ability to bump up the level of theatricality in any play or musical, and Hairspray is no exception. Each of the show's musical numbers pushes the action along, often bridging more than one location or time frame. “Welcome to the 60s” and the opener, “Good Morning Baltimore,” follow Tracy through the streets of Baltimore. Another number, “Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now,” is a sextet featuring three mother-daughter combinations simultaneously arguing in each of their homes. The second act opens with “The Big Doll House,” after all the female principals have been arrested; each line of the song is sung by a different character. Working closely with Shaiman's early-Motown-style music, Posner keeps the action moving, providing perfectly timed shifts of scale and focus, underlining the music's insistent beat, and directing one's eye to exactly the right place.

But Posner pulls off his most daring effect beginning with “Welcome to the 60s,” when a pulsating wall of light is revealed for the first time (the unit makes several more appearances in the show, most notably in the finale). The wall consists of hundreds of LED units placed in white translucent circular housings. The effects in the light wall are as carefully choreographed as any of the show's dances — they perform colorful chases, wipes, and pulses. The wall's color scheme splits into quarters, chevrons, and, at the end of the goofy, endearing quartet, “Without Love,” reveals a pair of intertwined hearts. In “Welcome to the 60s,” the Dynamites, dressed to the nines, perform in front of the wall, a moment that pays homage to the brilliant and very different wall-of-light design conceived by Tharon Musser for Dreamgirls. During the finale, “You Can't Stop the Beat,” in which the entire cast rocks out, the movement of bodies against the pulsing wall creates a surreal effect. Hairspray covers the period when early rock and roll gave way to the Motown sound; Posner's lighting suggests that the psychedelic era can't be too far behind.

Posner credits Rockwell for the wall-of-light concept, adding that it was inspired, during an early production meeting, by a piece of art owned by Shaiman and Wittman. However, it was Posner's job to find the technological solution: He immediately discarded the idea of conventional units, because of power, wiring, and maintenance issues. Neon, he says, would have been “too expensive and unreliable” and fiber optics weren't really workable. This left LEDs, namely Color Kinetics C-75 units. These had numerous advantages, being programmable and very energy-efficient (“You could plug the wall into your kitchen outlet,” he says, half-seriously).

Posner, his assistant LD Paul Miller, and programmer Paul J. Sonnleitner spent countless hours pre-programming the light wall — and continued doing so well into the Seattle engagement, as they discovered just what could be done with this new technology. “We started with eight colors, then evolved into many more,” Posner says, adding that, with 1,800 control channels, the wall “has its own Wholehog® II.” Everybody got into the act, he adds, making suggestions. Late one night, at the end of a long rehearsal, the design team experimentally programmed the image of a pair of hearts into the wall, and brought it up at the end of “Without Love.” “I used it as a button at the end of the song,” he says. “Everyone loved it,” and the gag stayed in the show. The designer's pursuit of new effects was so insistent that by the New York opening, he says, amazingly, “We maxed out the Wholehog.”

Of course, Hairspray makes use of a great deal of more typical lighting equipment. The automated units come from many sources. There's the Martin MAC 2000 Performance, which, says the LD, “has wonderful shuttering.” He also chose the Vari*Lite® VL2402 for washes and High End Systems Studio Colors® for the upstage scenery. There's a considerable lineup of conventional units as well. In addition to the Wholehog II for the light wall, there's another for the automated units and an ETC Obsession II for the conventionals. Equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase New Jersey. Other key personnel on the production included associate lighting designer Philip Rosenberg, supervising production electrician Michael Lo Bue, head electrician Brent Oakley, and assistant electrician Jessica Morton with additional automated programming by Tim Rogers, Joel Young, and Patrick Schultz.

Throughout Hairspray, Posner works to balance his effects, carefully highlighting the actors in one scene, then, a few minutes later, gleefully assaulting the audience's eyes with color. Throughout the show, however, Posner is guided by three principles. First is respect for the cast: “You have to be careful not to block out the actors,” he says, adding that the light wall's most visible effects are used mostly for large-scale numbers, where they won't steal focus. Second is the option to go with a relatively restrained color palette that fits in with the Necco-wafer colors favored by Rockwell and Long in their designs. (“These colors are right for the period,” he says. “High saturation is more appropriate for 10 years later. I'm trying to be true to the John Waters world.”) Finally, there's a deep sense of musicality in the cueing. Posner swears he isn't a fan of early 60s music, but his cueing is closely tied to the music, picking up on its driving rhythms; as the final number states, “You Can't Stop the Beat,” and the LD, for one, certainly isn't going to try.

The LD happily admits that Hairspray is the Broadway hit of his dreams. Now that the show has settled into the Neil Simon Theatre for what one imagines will be a long, long time, Posner is off working on an even more unusual project. As we go to press, he's in San Diego, at the Globe Theatre, at work again with Jack O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell on Imaginary Friends, a play with music by Nora Ephron about the rivalry between literary lionesses Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. The ladies are played by Cherry Jones and Swoosie Kurtz. Just to make things interesting, the songs are by Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia. It's a frankly idiosyncratic project, but Posner says that given the names involved, he found it irresistible. Also, he's a big fan of Jack O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell. “Jack brings out the best in anyone — an actor, a designer, or a stagehand,” the LD says. At any rate, he's helped Posner get onboard for the hit of his career so far.

Contact the author at dbarbour@primediabusiness.com.

Hairspray EQUIPMENT LIST

Lighting Supplier
Fourth Phase New Jersey

Lighting Equipment

42 ETC Source Four 10° 750W
156 ETC Source Four 19° 750W
124 ETC Source Four 26° 750W
96 ETC Source Four 36° 750W
14 ETC Source Four 50° 750W
58 ETC Source Four PAR MFL 750W
6 ETC Source Four PAR WFL 750W
120 Wybron Coloram II 4" color scrollers
40 Thomas 75W 12V birdies
15 Lighting & Electronics Mini-Strips
8 Lighting & Electronics 300W Mini-10s
24 Martin Professional MAC 2000s
13 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Performances
10 Vari*Lite VL2402s
5 High End Systems Studio Colors
2 Robert Juliat Ivanhoe 2,500W HMI followspots
2 Lycian 1293 3kW xenon followspots
2 MDG Atmosphere haze machines
1 ETC Obsession II console
2 Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II consoles
5 ETC Sensor AF 96x2.4kW dimmer racks
5 8-channel receivers
5 linear dimmers (for Lab Units)
Color Kinetics C-75 LED units