Jukebox musicals: scourge of modern theatre, or breath of fresh air to a tired genre? Whatever side of the fence you fall on, there's no denying this relatively recent phenomenon isn't going away anytime soon. Despite the crash and burn earlier this year of Good Vibrations, the wobbly show based on the music of the Beach Boys, two more jukebox musicals are entering the Broadway breach. Jersey Boys, based on the music of the Four Seasons, is slated to open in November; right now friends and foes can cast their vote on Lennon: The Musical, a jukeboxer based on the life of John Lennon, which opened in August at the Broadhurst Theatre. Foes appear to outnumber friends of this show, based on the less than stellar reviews and lukewarm box office. Still, this production has several things going for it, especially in terms of design and technology, the product of intriguing work by set designer/projection designer John Arnone, associate projection designer Michael Clark, lighting designer Natasha Katz, costume designer Jane Greenwood, and sound designer Bobby Aitken.
Lennon is a biographical musical that tells the story of John Lennon's life using the late Beatle's own words and songs. The conceit here is that all nine performers of both sexes and various ethnicities take turns in the role of Lennon; everybody plays everybody, and cast members rarely leave the stage. The production is the brainchild of director Don Scardino, who worked closely with Yoko Ono in shaping the show, which is essentially told chronologically.
WATCHING THE WHEELS
Arnone's set is a deceptively simple affair, with a large raised circle surrounded by several projection screens and enhanced by individual set pieces flown in. The sparse set serves several purposes: with both a nine-piece band and nine performers onstage for most of the show, it's a bit crowded up there; also, with a wealth of images available from Lennon's life, including not only family photos but also illustrations and handwritten prose and lyrics, it was decided early on that projection would be a key component of the design.
But before tackling the projections, Arnone first had to solve the set. “The first set was more literal, but we went back and decided to take a more metaphorical journey, in the sense of the development of John's life as an artist, as well as his development as a human being walking around in the world,” explains the designer. “So we came up with the idea of the storytelling circle. Admittedly, every play tells a story, so that's not a new idea, but we thought about literally putting a disc onstage that could be embraced by the band. We'd always conceived of the band being onstage, even in the earlier design. So we described this disc onstage and surrounded it with ellipses and different shapes, elevated platforms that the band would perch or sit on. We went to Carroll Music and laid out the entire band in the studio to make sure we got the sizes and space right.”
For Arnone, the idea of a simple circle took on added significance during the design process. “I kept looking at it and saying, what is this?” he recalls. “The more I looked at it, and the more I referenced the Eastern thinking that John and the Beatles had been tied into, with the maharishi, the more it became almost like a mandala or a Tibetan wheel of life, which I thought turned out to be a perfect metaphor for John's life. And I thought, well, we're onto something here.”
Complementing the set are various set pieces flown in during the course of the production. For the scene at the Indiga gallery, where Lennon first met Ono, china white silk curtains are dropped in and used as projection screens. For the Beatles' dip into Eastern religion, a massive 24'×15' altarcloth of Krishna drops in; this setpiece was handpainted by F&D Scenery in Calgary, who built the rest of the set. For the pivotal trial scene in Act II, where Lennon is threatened with deportation, four collages, or icon banners are flown in; one is images of Lennon, one features various women in his life, from Ono to his mother to the Statue of Liberty, another features musical influences from Elvis to the Everly Brothers, and the last sports political, social and religious figures. These digitally printed banners were created by Rose Brand.
Once the essence of the set was solved, associate designer Brian Webb worked out the details while Arnone turned his attention to the projection design, working with Michael Clark, a designer in his own right (Dracula, 700 Sundays) who served as an associate on this production. Though it's not unusual for set designers to get involved in projection, this was the first time Arnone had taken such an active role, though as someone who's worked on both The Who's Tommy and Twilight in Los Angeles, he does admit, “I've always been the busybody, and had to get my fingers in there. I've always felt you can't approach it as two different areas of design.”
Such an approach has its advantages, especially for someone like Clark, who's used to coming on board much later in the process. “So often projections can be sort of an add-on, or something that someone decides might be a good idea late in the production. And the thing that was nice about working with Mr. Arnone in this way was that from day one we started incorporating how the scenery and projections would work together — or not, in certain cases.”
A plethora of still and moving images of Lennon and the Beatles, not to mention classic archetypal 60s imagery, created something of a double-edged sword for the designers. “We didn't want it to be Behind the Music or anything like that,” says Clark, referring to the rock biography show on VH-1. “When we started we weren't going to even use images of Lennon, and then we had to evaporate from that to reference him. But it was a challenge to come up with things that were iconic and American and helped convey a sense of time and place without being scenery.”
In addition to the usual sources for images — Corbis, Getty, Starfile — Clark worked with Karla Merrifield, an archivist with Studio One, Yoko Ono's design studio, which houses much of Lennon's personal effects, to unearth never-before-seen photos and films of Lennon, from birth up to his death in 1980. The designers ended up using everything from the iconic image of Lennon in a New York City t-shirt to the film he made with Ono for the song “Imagine,” which closes the show, to a wide range rare family photos.
Clark would research the material, come back with possible images, and then Arnone would storyboard with still images that would eventually become moving images. “We'd get about 20 pages done a week, once we actually started production,” says Arnone. “We'd grab Don Scardino at lunch and do a flipbook of the first 5-10 pages of the storyboard with the actual images we wanted to use, and he'd review them and way what worked and what didn't. Since Don is a TV and movie director (Law and Order, Advice from a Caterpillar) he's incredibly visually oriented and was so much help there, and that was a leg up, since we were working so quickly.”
In order to move further beyond the fear of a Behind the Music feel, the creative team drew upon Lennon's drawings and illustrations to create animated sequences for three key songs of the production: “New York City,” which opens the show; “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” which details their difficulties in getting married; and “Steppin' Out,” which covers the period when the two were separated. “There was a show in a gallery downtown not long ago of Lennon's drawings and illustrations,” says Arnone. “I stayed in that room a long time — there must have been 75 pieces — and just soaked it up. You get a sense not only of the technique and movement of the drawings and the sense of color and period, but you get a sense of him. So I started looking at the drawings that were more specific to our story in terms of plot, and pulled drawings we could possibly use, and then made up stories based on these three traveling pieces.”
Arnone and Clark took those pieces and then brought in Jesse Poleshuk, a designer who works with David Gallo, to create additional drawings based on Lennon's style; Clark took both elements and created the animation for “Ballad.” For “New York City,” the creative team filmed Washington Square Park (which is where Lennon and Ono first lived when they moved to New York), scanned the images and used it as the basis for the illustration. For “Stepping Out,” they created what Arnone calls “a very simple, nightmarish view of Los Angeles as every New Yorker likes to picture it.”
The technical aspects of the projections for Lennon are relatively complex for a show that onstage seems relatively straightforward. Three Christie LX66 LCD projectors point down at the deck and then bounce into mirrors and onto the three upstage screens. “The company members and the band are right up against the screen, but because of the angle the projection doesn't actually fall on them at all,” Clark explains. “Now, as you might imagine, when we project at this extreme angle, the image is rather keystoned. But we used this relatively new technology that has been used in stereoscopic projection called Warp Engine. What Warp Engine allows you to do is digitally compensate for extreme levels of keystone correction, so you can project onto curved surfaces, or in this case an extreme angle. So then we were able to digitally manipulate all of our lines to be straight, at least in terms of the perspective. And then we overlap the three screens with Watchout.”
In addition, two Digital Projection 12000 lumen Dsx projectors are hung on the rail, which handle the downstage screen and midstage silks that drop at various times during the production. Watchout is used as the main muscle for camera feeds and to display information through the screens. All of the projection gear was supplied by Scharff Weisberg.
From here it gets interesting. Clark has specified a Green Hippo Hippotizer, which gets fed through a Watchout input. “We use the Hippotizer for some cosmic background effects in certain numbers, and we're able to pull from the image archive and control everything through Medialon,” Clark explains. “Medialon tells the Hippotizer what cue to pull up, or it tells Watchout which cue to be in, and then it also — get this — tells the rail projectors to change their focus and their lens position so we can project downstage and midstage. We have these presets programmed into the projectors (we've taken the time to go through and line up our Watchout grids because those projectors overlap as well); at the top of the show we're projecting downstage, and when we move to midstage we're actually physically moving the projector lenses, changing the zoom and focus of the position the lenses shift, to correct for the new field. And then it shifts back for the end of the show.”
For Arnone, the blend of high-tech projections and simple set pieces struck the kind of balance he was looking for. “Time has taught me to mix the media,” he says. “If it's just projections, it's like what Wendall Harrington once said: ‘What do you want to hire me for, the weather?’ In the same way I have a thing about projections not being actual scenery. I've learned that the two work hand in hand, and have to find a certain sense of balance and harmony in order to exercise a dynamic onstage that not only tells the story but invigorates the story and gives you a full-bodied and varied picture.” Such is the picture on display at the Broadhurst.
Who better to design the wardrobe for Lennon than fellow Liverpudlian Jane Greenwood? She immigrated to New York in 1962, only two years before the Beatles changed musical history with their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. “This was an amazing piece for me to come to because I, too, went to the Liverpool Arts School and I felt a tremendous affinity for the piece,” she says. “My sister was still in Liverpool and I remember her telling me about these incredible boys she saw at The Cavern. When the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, someone turned to me and said, ‘you won't have to tell anyone where Liverpool is anymore!’”
Greenwood returned to Liverpool over the new year and sought out the area where the Beatles actually purchased their early costumes and came across Mark Astbury's Beatlewear. “They still had these items they used to sell back in the day and it was fabulous,” she says. “They sold those Beatle Boots and we ordered them for the whole cast. Mark even got a tailor who was in semi-retirement to make some clothes for us and they had a real knowledge of how it was made and what the fabrics were. That was a real find!”
As iconic as the man was, much of his wardrobe was equally so — the glasses, the “New York City” T-shirt, the Beatles' suits on the Sullivan show. These icons proved invaluable to the costumer. “It was an amazing character to look at how much he changed over the course of his rather short life and how different his approach to clothes was at different phases of his life,” Greenwood explains.
Throughout the show, as different actors portray Lennon in the different parts of his life, Greenwood opted to simply add an iconic accessory to complete the look rather than convert the actor into Lennon. “That was a real challenge to pick something that you could look at and know you're talking about John Lennon without doing too much,” she says. “It's funny how one thing can do it.” For example, actresses in simple t-shirts were given the same necklace Lennon wore when he visited India, and as focus shifted from actor to actor, the famous wire-rimmed glasses would come and go. Also, when actor Terrence Mann was portraying J. Edgar Hoover, his iconic piece of wardrobe was a pair of red pumps that made their appearance only as the actor strutted offstage.
The version of Lennon now at the Broadhurst is significantly different from what was first presented in San Francisco in July. “There were so many things we started off trying to do but kept eliminating,” Greenwood explains. “It was a job about refining, refining, refining. We rethought a lot of things and that was one of the big challenges: how little was needed in order to make the change so that it was somewhat seamless. The audience is not really aware of how much the actors are changing and the running around that goes on backstage. It was really a very complicated jigsaw puzzle.”
When the show began its life on the West Coast, the actors were dressed in a basic black costume ala Chicago. Greenwood felt that the black would be something of a blank slate upon which other items could be layered and the focus would then be on the iconic accessories. “We found that that didn't work as well for the personalities of the people who were portraying John Lennon and the other characters, as well as being a part of the pattern of life that's going on,” she says. “So we got everybody out of black outfits and put them in more of a variety of colors and it gave everyone an individuality rather than them all being the same.”
As the show continued, Greenwood says that it got easier to pare down the costumes because “the rhythm began to make itself clear. What we've ended up with is very strong and I feel good about that. There are certain moments when we really do go there,” she says, adding that the Beatles' famous gray suits with black piping are in the show, albeit on four of the female cast members portraying George, Paul, John, and Ringo. “That is a very iconic moment. It's almost like a wave and comes and goes. You have a strong image and then it goes away.”
Aside from working on a show about a fellow countryman, Greenwood also feels that it is a show about a special man who was “so varied and colorful and clever and ironic in many ways. He was quite remarkable and I would like to think that people walk out really having been uplifted by that life.”
The costumes were made by Mark Astbury Beatlewear in Liverpool, Parsons Mears in New York, Haight Asbury in San Francisco, and from various Salvation Armies across the country.
GIVE PARS A CHANCE
When Natasha Katz was adjusting her lighting scheme for Lennon's eastward migration, she had to realign her lighting with the show's new linear scheme of storytelling the creators thought would be more suitable for New York. Prominent in the lighting rig is a ring of automated fixtures directly above an elevated disc on the stage. “In San Francisco it was not a linear story at all; it bounced all over the place,” she explains. “Many times when we'd go to a song we'd be in a concert version of it. Since we weren't telling a story, it allowed for a more abstract way of looking at the songs and that's why the lights are exposed. Now there's a whole other aspect of the show that has a lot of narrative moments following his life and not the music. Now it has a more intimate feel to it. As a matter of fact, we tried not to use the ring truss because it felt like it was of the concert world all the time and now we're telling the story about the man.”
When the show made its Broadway debut in August, two new lighting instruments also opened as ingénues but ended up stars — the new Martin MAC 700 and a custom made auto-yoke for incandescent beam projectors courtesy of City Theatrical. Katz picked the MAC 700 because it had “lots of gobos. We wanted to do some of those designs that were reminiscent of the 1960s psychadelic designs,” she explains. “We needed a fixture that could overlay gobos on top of each other, and we needed a small fixture because the lighting fixtures are in plain view all night long. It was the right size, had all the right things in it plus a prism, which was important, and we thought that it would be bright enough. It's like the MAC 2000 Profile, only smaller and quieter, which was also important since there was so much exposed equipment. They really came through for us.”
Katz describes the custom-made yoke by City Theatrical in one word: “perfect.” When the show starts during World War II, John Lennon was a newborn in Liverpool during the bombing by the Germans. “It looks and moves like an old-fashioned search light and we can move it in other places because it's got a very tight beam,” she says, “and it's incandescent. I like the humanity of the incandescent light, to tell you the truth.” She adds that she did not mind being a guinea pig for these brand new fixtures because she was working with Martin and City Theatrical. “Those are two companies that you feel like everything is going to be okay and if it's not, someone will be there to fix it,” she says. “Customer satisfaction very important especially when you're in the throes of a new Broadway musical. It really is a ‘you need it yesterday’ situation sometimes and our show's been through a lot.”
According to Katz, as Lennon goes from telling the story of John Lennon's life to musical numbers and back, the lighting contracts and expands to meet the mood of the action. “I always love that and in many ways it's just like music or like trying to do any theatre piece where the dynamic from one moment to the next changes abruptly,” she says. “All the narrations look very similar and open up to these different songs and what they meant to his life. It really is just kind of simply a backlight and a follow spot.”
However, throughout the night projections are the biggest scenic element and Katz found that to be her biggest challenge because it was a “chicken and egg” situation on stage. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the projections defined my color palette and tone to each moment in the show,” she says. “That's just the way collaboration is and it's a good thing and it's kind of beautiful. We all key off different things. My color palette always keys off the set. There are historical keys like in “Twist and Shout” on The Ed Sullivan Show done in black and white because everyone had black and white TVs so I made it look like you might've seen it on a video. It's completely exciting to me because I do get to set the tone in many ways.”
The moving lights — which included VARI*LITE VL2000™ Washes, VL5 Arcs, VL3000™ Spots and Q Spots, Martin MAC 2000 Profiles were programmed on a Wholehog® 2 by Paul Turner and David Arch; the conventionals — including over 400 ETC Source Fours — on an ETC Obsession® II console. Yael Lubetzky served as associate LD, and Patricia Nichols and Daniel Walker were assistant LDs. The lighting equipment was supplied by PRG.
POWER TO THE PREAMPS
With We Will Rock You, Mamma Mia!, and now Lennon under his belt, Bobby Aitken might just be the sound expert on jukebox musicals. But as he is quick to tell you, each one is different, especially the latter two. “Lennon is very different from Mamma Mia!,” he explains. “People are coming to hear the songs, whereas in Mamma Mia! they're coming to see the show. So we tried to preserve the integrity of Lennon's songs.”
Not that he didn't have difficulties, chief among them being the presence of nine musicians onstage the entire show. “Having a band onstage and having actors onstage with the band is something you generally don't do in musical theatre,” Aitken notes. “I've dealt with chamber bands onstage, but not a rock band, and not with a proper rock drum kit. The band is blasting away onstage and the cast three meters downstage of them.” Aitken helped mitigate that by loading up on monitoring (d&b E3s, sunk into the floor of the stage) for the cast and also for crew, (Anchor 1000s, with Etymotic ER4 in-ears and Pitmix personal mixers).
One thing neither Aitken nor director Don Scardino wanted on stage was a lot of baffling, with screens behind the brass or the drums. “We all felt the integration of the band and the cast were enormously important, and if the band were going to be onstage then we should see them. The biggest noise generator up there is the drum kit, and it's the one iconic piece of equipment; if we lose the second keyboard player it wouldn't matter as much, but having the drums behind the screens just really wasn't going to happen.” Aitken was able to solve the issue by placing tiling at strategic points out of sight on the stage.
Also helping to preserve the integrity of the songs, according to Aitken, was the use of boom mikes for the vocals rather than head mikes. That took some persuading of the director and producers; but in the end Aitken got his wish: a half-dozen Sennheiser MKH40s serve as booms for the cast.
The speaker rig changed significantly from the production's out-of-town tryout at the Orpheum in San Francisco to its Broadhurst opening. Aitken opted for L'Acostics V-Dosc in a standard 12 per side drop in Frisco, but due to space restrictions switched to d&b Q1 line arrays on Broadway, with DvDoscs remaining as a center cluster. “The sightlines are so cramped at the Broadhurst that we had to find a really small box that was capable of delivering enough power for the show,” Aitken explains. “We took a chance with the Q series; I was a little concerned because they're passive and I'm so used to using a three-way active box, but it has worked really well.” Aitken had the opposite issue with the d&b B2 subwoofers; their size made it hard to find the space on stage, but Aitken was able to persuade set designer John Arnone to raise the set about 9” to get them under the stage.
Rounding out the rest of the gear, Aitken chose a Cadac J-Type for this production (he's been using the Digico D5 and D5T for several years but opted for the analog board here for cost reasons) along with a Yamaha DM2000 as a monitor board for the band; DPA 4066B wireless mikes with Sennheiser SK 5012 transmitters; and XTA 324 SiDD processors for vocals. The sound gear was supplied by Masque Sound.
One issue Aitken asked to address for this article was the noise from the lights, a problem he says he continues to encounter on shows, despite improvements in moving light technology. “On some of the more intimate moments, it's difficult to get the sonic landscape right over the increased noise floor due to the force of the moving lights,” he says. “It's something [lighting designer] Natasha [Katz] is absolutely aware of, and between us we made a lot of changes; she was very supportive. But it remains a problem in the theatre.”
All we are saying, is give peace a chance.