For a guy who died in 1986, Bob Fosse is pretty hard to avoid these days. The current Broadway revival of the Fosse-Kander-Ebb musical Chicago, choreographed by Fosse's longtime muse Ann Reinking, is the decade's biggest smash, not only in New York but also in London, Vienna, Australia, Las Vegas, and various other points around the globe. A concert presentation of the musical Sweet Charity, originally conceived and staged by Fosse, was a sensation in New York last spring; a new production hits the road this summer, starring Paula Abdul. Even the current hit revival of Cabaret owes much to Fosse, as it includes musical numbers from his 1972 film version.
Now comes Fosse, the musical, a full-length retrospective of his choreography which, despite wildly mixed reviews, is shaping up as one of the few genuine hit musicals of the current Broadway season. Certainly, Broadway has seen nothing like it since Fosse's 1978 Dancin', a revue which was perhaps his greatest commercial success. But while Dancin' consisted of a series of discrete numbers, Fosse is a more complex entertainment.
Many of the choreographer's greatest hits are on display, including "Hey, Big Spender" from Sweet Charity, "Steam Heat" from The Pajama Game, and "Nowadays" from Chicago. But these numbers are knitted together by transition sequences made up of excerpts and dance ideas from other, lesser-known Fosse work, from films (Kiss Me, Kate and My Sister Eileen), television (including a 1968 Bob Hope special), and his nightclub act with first wife Mary Ann Niles. Each of Fosse's three acts is a stand-alone suite of dances aimed at distilling the essence of the choreographer's sexy, sassy, and occasionally sentimental style.
Andrew Bridge comes to Fosse with a resume that includes a number of hit musicals, including The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Blvd., and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (his most recent West End hit, Saturday Night Fever, opens on Broadway in the fall). Interestingly, although he has worked extensively in theatre, opera, and concerts, he has little experience lighting dance. Then again, Bridge, who never met Fosse, is second-generation show business. His father Peter was a West End producer in the 1960s, so Bridge saw many of Fosse's musicals in their original productions. As a result, the LD was thrilled when the offer came to design Fosse: "The passion of what Bob did, that spirit of showbiz invention and sexual energy, was just too much to miss," he says.
Fosse, however, turned out to be a complex project, for several reasons. Take a look at the convoluted program credits, listing Fosse as choreographer, Richard Maltby, Jr., Chet Walker, and Ann Reinking as conceivers, and Gwen Verdon (Fosse's ex-wife, another muse) as artistic advisor. Walker is also credited with recreating the choreography, Reinking with co-direction and co-choreography, and Maltby with direction. Translation: The entire project was conceived by Walker (a former Fosse dancer), when Fosse was still alive; later, Walker brought it to Garth Drabinsky, whose company, Livent, produced it. After an initial workshop, the project was reshaped by Verdon and Reinking. Maltby was brought on board to help give the production a coherent structure. Fosse and Verdon's daughter, Nicole, was on hand as well.
Even with all these captains there were moments when Fosse was a rudderless ship. The day after the production premiered in Toronto, Drabinsky was fired from Livent, thus beginning the financial scandal that has kept Broadway buzzing for months. Just to make things extra interesting, as Fosse moved from Toronto to Boston to Los Angeles, before its New York opening in January, the show went through enormous changes, as numbers were added, pulled, and rearranged. Fosse now runs about two and a half hours, but, the designer says, "From the time we started in Toronto, to the opening in New York, we probably lit over four hours of work."
Nevertheless, Bridge clearly relished the challenges of Fosse. "My biggest problem was how to pace the show visually," he says, and to this end he created a remarkably flexible rig that catches the mood and rhythm of Fosse's choreography with an uncanny sense of musicality.
Indeed, light is the design element that most drives the piece. Bridge describes the show's scenic design, by Santo Loquasto (who also did the costumes), as "a black environment in which magic could happen." Certainly, black is the main motif; in Loquasto's spacious, uncluttered design, the stage is most often defined by two onstage proscenium arches, which are turned around, giving the audience a backstage view. (These arches, which also serve as onstage light positions, are mirrored by the gold proscenium arch that frames the entire stage.)
Speaking of his plot, Bridge says, "Obviously, the style of the show is black on black. I had very limited crosslight--I could only get up to 12' (4m) before I hit those arches, so I put some vertical Light Curtains on the flip trusses at stage left and right, to compensate for the crosslight. I also put Mini-Strips into the deck, as mini-footlights." As for moving lights, he says, "We used [Vari*Lite(R)] VL2Cs(TM) as our main profile--I prefer the quality of their lenses and their color-mixing ability. Then I used [High End Systems] Studio Colors(R) as overhead wash units. From the bottom of each boom were hung VL5Bs(TM); they flared a lot, so we put miniature, honeycombed top hats on them, which stopped the flare. That way, I could then put them on the proscenium front kickers and they wouldn't dazzle people in the front row. The VL5Bs gave me low crosslight, and, on top of that, I used eight [Martin Professional] MAC 500s. I used them on Saturday Night Fever, and they have a few little toys that helped u s, including a prism and indexing gobos. They were placed on the side, on the flip trusses, and on Pipe One." The Martin units are frequently used to project patterns on the rear of the stage.
With these instruments, as well as a full complement of conventional units, Bridge created a repertory of looks and styles that matched the shifting, nearly manic-depressive moods of Fosse's work. This becomes clear during the opening sequence, "Fosse's World," staged by Reinking using dance elements from the film The Little Prince and featuring signature Fosse styles culled from Damn Yankees, Redhead, New Girl in Town, Little Me, Sweet Charity, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Cabaret, and Chicago. Teams of dancers, led by featured performers Brad Musgrove and Jane Lanier, move in and out of the darkness (the striplights in the deck are especially useful here), while moving VL2C beams, positioned directly above the stage, caress their bodies. Bridge's lighting sets the tone for this haunting sequence, which then segues into "Bye Bye Blackbird," from the television special Liza with a Z, which makes pronounced use of sidelight.
Speaking of the "Fosse's World" sequence, Bridge says, "I wanted each group of dancers to look a little bit different. There's a group that's backlit, a group with only a front followspot on them, and another position where they're lit only from the footlights. Each group has its own feel; it only comes into cohesion when we move into 'Blackbird.' " "Fosse's World" is, in fact, a kind of danced overture, which sets the style--both in choreography and design--for the rest of the production.
Because Fosse is, necessarily, a rather abstract creation, Bridge says that he often used private images and stories to help him design certain sequences. For example, he saw the lineup of bored, cynical dance hall girls in "Hey, Big Spender" "as a bunch of tired old ghosts." Although the sequence has plenty of saturated colors--orange, red, and blue--he used stark white light overhead, along with footlights, to give the dancers a harsh profile. This number is followed by Neil Diamond's "Crunchy Granola Suite," from Dancin'. "It's a big number split in two parts," says Bridge. "There's a slow, balletic, rehearsal room sequence--with people at the bar, doing their warmups--then it goes into rock and roll. I invented a storyline for myself, with little aliens, or animals, coming out at night, doing their stretching in a forest. Suddenly, they get shot with electric jolts, jerking them into a formation of dancers. I know it sounds wacky, but it gave me an idea, a direction, to hold onto." Bridge, who notes tha t Fosse also played the drums, also uses a series of High End Systems Dataflash(R) AF-1000s to create a series of percussive strobe effects, keyed to the song's drum section, to further heighten the number's excitement.
Throughout the production, each number dictates its own particular look. "Mein Herr," from the film of Cabaret, features Valarie Pettiford, backed by six women, all sitting astride bentwood chairs in the best Blue Angel fashion. Bridge added a battery light under each chair, to create a sinister shadowy effect. "I wanted smoky shadows, fingers clicking in a stark light. There are also zigzag templates on the floor, which possibly look like swastikas." The song "Dancing in the Dark," which commemorates the work of Fosse and Mary Ann Niles on a number of early 1950s television shows (including Your Hit Parade and Cavalcade of Stars), features a fiber-optic curtain, a look that the LD describes as "very TV." The famous "Rich Man's Frug," from Sweet Charity, features a series of Op Art floor templates that vividly recalls that show's satire of 1960s trendiness. "Funnily enough, the name of that template is 'Hangover,' " says Bridge, "which I thought was relevant."
For other numbers, Bridge draws on a chiaroscuro look, with little color and the starkly theatrical use of white light. "Dancin' Dan," from Big Deal, is set to the song "Me and My Shadow," and is dominated by the Mini-Strips built into the deck, which emphasize the shadow of dancer Eugene Fleming. "Take Off With Us-Three Pas de Deux" is an abbreviated sequence from the film All That Jazz, in which the Fosse-inspired lead character turns an insipid musical number into a steamy erotic ballet. The sequence was heavily cut out of town; what remains is a trio of erotic encounters--one heterosexual, one gay, one lesbian--and Bridge uses white toplight to exquisitely delineate the dancers' stunning bodies. "Mr. Bojangles," from Dancin', features Sergio Trujillo as a broken-down tramp and Desmond Richardson as the dancer he used to be. "I saw it as stark and shadowy," says Bridge, "absolutely drained of everything--and I stuck to that as best I could. I wanted it in one backlight followspot; Desmond needed a little bit of coverage on the floor, but I kept it as stark as I could."
The show's finale, the Benny Goodman number "Sing, Sing, Sing," (featured in Dancin') was one of Bridge's biggest challenges. It's a lengthy sequence in which teams of dancers give way to stunning solos in which dancers imitate musical instruments, followed by a galvanic group finale. "It was one of the most difficult numbers, because of the costumes," says Bridge. "They're made of a metallic gray sparkle material mixed with metallic gold. If you put silver light on the gold, it looked horrible; if you put gold light on the silver, it looked horrible, too. We did so many different color mixes. In the end, lavender came in with the steel, and in the slower sections we added a saturated salmon and blue look."
The "Sing, Sing, Sing" drop, also used in the earlier "I Want to be a Dancin' Man" (also from Dancin') features columns of clear bulbs. In "Sing, Sing, Sing," Bridge exploits his cueing capability to create exciting effects. "Elizabeth Parkinson, who dances the trumpet solo, jumps on the rostrum; then she comes forward, until we hear"--he imitates a certain drumbeat--"and there's this little chase that happens to work perfectly." In moments like these, the lighting works as a visual adjunct to the music, helping to create a totally unified music and dance experience.
Also totally unified were Bridge's co-workers, including associate designer Vivien Leone ("She's fantastically dedicated") and Vari*Lite expert Patrick Schulze ("a great, inventive programmer"). "I place a great deal of importance on cohesion with my team," says Bridge. "I also encourage participation from them, in a design sense. They're not robots; if the board operator says, 'I noticed a scroller change,' or 'Would you be happy if I used this instead of that,'--it's all healthy stuff. We had a good team in Toronto; by the end of eight weeks of putting the show together, we knew how to manipulate the rig in quite spectacular ways." Other key personnel included assistant lighting designer Eric Chenault, production electrician Jonathan Lawson, head electrician Blake Elkin, assistant electrician Brent Oakley, and assistant followspot electrician Edward "Skip" Schultz. Lighting equipment for the production was supplied by Four Star Lighting; the Vari*Lite automated luminaires came from Vari-Lite, Inc.
Bridge has a distinct point of view about moving-light programming, which sheds light on the possible difference between English and American practice. "We don't have to spend six hours doing a lighting call, programming when the cast isn't there. I find that a total waste of time. Some designers can only watch what's happening onstage, then they need another three-hour call to do the programming. The overtime bills for this are getting ridiculously frightening for the management. I just want to see the dancers do it; I'll work it out as they're doing it and clean it up later. If you do your homework and your programmer is in tune with you, you can get a lot done without having to go overtime." He adds, laughing, "A lot of times, somebody would say, 'Do you want another three-hour call?' My reply would be, 'I want to go home and have a rest; it's been quite long enough, thank you.' "
Despite the show's tumultuous development period, Bridge points to one moment on Fosse which provides him with satisfaction. During rehearsals, Ann Reinking flew in from Australia, where she was staging yet another company of Chicago. As she watched a number in progress, Bridge says, "I asked her, 'How do you think it's going?' And she said, 'Bob would be smiling.' " Proof positive that Bridge is now a citizen of Fosse's world.
General manager Frank Scardino, Livent
Production manager Don Finlayson, Livent
Lighting designer Andrew Bridge
Associate lighting designer Vivien Leone
Production electrician Jon Lawson
Equipment List (20) ETC Source Four 10-degree (75) ETC Source Four 19-degree (115) ETC Source Four 26-degree (70) ETC Source Four 36-degree (8) ETC Source Four 50-degree (4) ETC Source Four PAR VNSPs (4) ETC Source Four PAR NSPs (8) Altman 360Q 750W 6x9s (12) Altman 4.5" fresnels (30) 1kW NSP PAR-64s (2) 500W MFL PAR-64s (8) Lighting & Electronics Mini-Strips (4) Lighting & Electronics 500W Mini-Tens (16) 100W 13V PAR-36 rain lights (10) Thomas 75W EYF MR-16s with dimmable electronic transformer (34) Thomas 75W EYC MR-16s with dimmable electronic transformer (12) High End Systems Dataflash AF-1000s (2) Altman 405 400W UV units (2) Wildfire 400W UV units (11) DHA Digital Light Curtains (6) custom-built 100W PAR-36 striplights (3) Lycian 1290 XLT 2kW xenon followspots (18) High End Systems Studio Colors (8) Martin Professional MAC 500s (20) Vari*Lite VL2Cs (12) Vari*Lite VL5Bs (2) MDG Atmosphere hazers (2) Reel EFX DF-50 Diffusion hazers (4) Bowen variable speed fans (12) Wybron Coloram 10" scrollers (28) Wybron Coloram 7" scrollers (70) Wybron Coloram 4" scrollers (17) Wybron Goborams (6) 96x2.4kW dimmer racks (1) ETC Obsession 1500 console (1) Vari*Lite Artisan Plus console (1) Vari*Lite mini-Artisan console