Seth Jackson Gives Barry Manilow a New Look
If meatloaf and mashed potatoes are comfort food, then the songs of Barry Manilow have to be comfort music. And right now, America certainly needs comfort music. Uplifting, sometimes sentimental, but always entertaining, Manilow's current tour is a balm to our collective psyche, taking us away from the occasionally unpleasant realities of the 21st century. Helping us along that journey is the show's lighting and set designer, Seth Jackson.
Jackson began working with Manilow towards the end of 1998 and has been with him ever since; their last collaboration was Manilow's musical Could It Be Magic, which ran for six months last year. “In fact, if it hadn't been for the 11th of September, it might still be running,” the designer comments.
Last July, while Jackson was working on Could It Be Magic, Manilow approached him with a demo tape of his new material. “After he gave me the demo, Barry asked me to just let it sink in, and then we'd develop what the new tour was going to be about,” he says. About four weeks later, Manilow brought together his creative team: Jackson, Ken and Mitzi Welch, his directors, and Kye Brackett, his choreographer, for the start of pre-production. “Everybody has an equal voice,” Jackson notes. “Barry is very much about collaboration; it's the way he likes to work.”
While Manilow and his band began informal music rehearsals, Jackson began his preliminary work on the lighting. “I like to allow my lighting designer to create his individual look for the show during my music rehearsals,” Manilow explains. “Then, on two consecutive evenings, we order pizzas and sit in the back of the house and go through each look for each song while a stand-in does my staging. If I have any lighting ideas, I suggest them and the additions are made right then,” Manilow adds. These meetings can last late into the evening, as Manilow attests. “We usually wind up staying until 1am and it's always a fun and creative experience, especially with Seth,” he concludes.
The starting point for the set was Manilow's current CD, Here at the Mayflower. “Since it was about people's lives in an apartment building, I asked Seth if he could create a design around scaffolding,” says Manilow. “I wanted it to be able to go from looking like a concert setting to looking like an abstract apartment building when he added specific lighting gobos of windows.” Jackson had his work cut out for him: create a scaffolding-based set that, for the most part, was very abstract, but at the same time could transform into something much more concrete.
Jackson went to work on the set, and e-mailed Manilow a number of potential designs. “We took a city and we ripped off all the mortar, all the plaster, and shined up the frame,” he explains. “The hope is that when you look at it, you'll get the urban feel, but until we get to the moment where we start adding the windows, you don't really connect it to the Mayflower.” In the end, Manilow was more than pleased. “What Seth created went way beyond what I could have imagined,” the singer says. “It's the most inventive set I've ever had. Plus it's easy to move and very economical.”
Since Jackson and Manilow have worked together for several years, the LD instinctively knows the performer's views on lighting. “There are ways that Barry likes to see the band illuminated, there are ways he likes to see depth created on the stage, and those were elements that I knew were going to be brought back,” the designer reports. Therefore, Jackson turned to sculpting with light to create the basic look of the stage. “It's a four-layer stage,” he begins. “Barry is pretty much in white light, while the band is sculpted like you'd do a dance piece: There's not much frontlight on them, or specials, but they're illuminated from the side and top with rich colors. The next layer is the metallic part of the set, which is treated, and then beyond, at the very back is the last layer, the cyc,” he concludes.
While the LD contemplated his truss layout and the show began to take concrete form, the unthinkable happened in the form of the events of September 11. “It threw us all a curve ball,” Jackson confesses. “The first question was, ‘Do we even want to do this? Do we even go on the road?’” The answer was surprisingly simple. “Barry eventually decided that yes, we're going to go out there, we need to be out there,” he admits.
At that time, the touring market slowed considerably, and, when the show came up for bids, it was seen as a highly desirable contract, since the tour was guaranteed to run for six months. In a perfect world, Jackson would have preferred to have multiple vendors, which was out of the question because of budgetary concerns. “I did the next best thing: I put myself in the mindset that I was doing a show with one single vendor and chose my instruments accordingly from the catalogs of Martin, Vari-Lite, and High End.”
Bandit Lites did the last Manilow tour, and was brought back again; Jackson had a Martin package to work with. “This time I went for bulk rather than for effects, because of the size of the set — 52' wide by 24' tall [15x7m] — there's stuff to light everywhere,” Jackson says. He turned to the Martin MAC 300. “The bulk of the rig is the MAC 300, which I love — I used them on Carman in arenas and I just think they're the coolest little lights out there.” Working alongside the MAC 300s are MAC 500s and 250s. “The MAC 500s are my heavy gunners, so to speak, for all the gobos and sharp-edged beam looks, and there are MAC 250s clamped all over the set — anywhere that we could tuck them in, we did.”
For the upstage cyc, Jackson chose the MAC 600. “I used Molefays with scrollers last time out but that's such a large amount of hardware back there and space is at a premium for this gig.” Enter the MAC 600. “Instead of the Molefays, I used eight MAC 600 wash lights with wide-angle lenses on the floor and they are fantastic on the cyc — I can also spin them around and do that big, blinding ‘God light’ thing with them as well.”
Stylistically, the show has several different moods, from the decidedly theatrical feel of the Mayflower section to the frenetic pace of the fondly remembered hits to the surprisingly techno feel of the opening. “The opening is my salute to all of those young bands that have in-your-face lighting,” remarks Jackson. “We've never done anything like this, and nothing about the way the show opens fits most people's idea of Barry Manilow.” The LD bombards the audience with light, movement, and shocking color, encompassing 70 lighting cues with Manilow songs embedded in a techno drum loop; obviously, this isn't your father's Manilow concert.
The first part of the show is all about color — from the saturated and upbeat orange cyc in “Daybreak” to the blues featured in “Even Now” to the congo blue opening of the suddenly quite meaningful “I Made It Through the Rain,” Jackson uses the stage as his canvas. However, the LD's treats don't stop there. “Harmony” is taken from Manilow's musical, about the 1930s musical sextette the Comedian Harmonists; in this number, Jackson brings six unseen performers onstage with Manilow. “We used choreographed lighting,” Jackson explains. “Barry said, ‘I want six spotlights that can become six people.’” And voilà — through the magic of cueing, six spotlights on nonexistent talent become people in the minds of the audience. “We probably spent two days of our production rehearsal just working on the timing and cues for this song,” Jackson says.
In the second act of the show, the Mayflower songs come to the forefront, creating a more theatrical mood. “In the MAC 500s, I have a lot of different gobos straight out of the Rosco catalog of windows, and that's what creates the Mayflower,” he explains. “We built the base look of where each of these windows is on the stage, and then, for each one of these songs, each apartment dweller gets a window. It's kind of subtle, and I didn't think anybody would get it, but they do.”
As the show moves towards its conclusion, Jackson gets to reveal one of the most astonishing aspects of the program: a behemoth of a mirror ball nicknamed the Dingleberry. Jackson was reluctant to bring out the mirror ball, but when it became apparent nothing else would do, he took the concept one step further. “I thought, if I'm going to do a mirror ball, I'm going to do it big. With my tongue firmly in cheek, I ordered a 3'-diameter ball and encased it in a diamond of truss that then lowers down with strobe lights on it.” This gargantuan mirror ball descends out of the trussing during “Copacabana,” proving that both Jackson and Manilow have a sense of humor. “It's a great effect, and in the context of the show it's absolutely the perfect thing to do,” Jackson asserts.
Early on in production, Manilow wondered if he should go out on tour. As he stands in front of the audience, leading them in “My Country 'Tis of Thee,” there is no doubt that he should be there. At the words “let freedom ring,” complete with a large, Kabuki-rigged American flag, Manilow gives the audience a much-needed feeling of catharsis. “When we saw the reaction of the audience, we knew we had to do this every night,” Jackson says. “It really summarized the whole reason we did the tour in the first place.”
Manilow's tour continues through the States until late April, then heads directly to the UK, with talk of summer ampitheatre shows. Not only does the show provide a welcome relief from the nightly news, but how many times do audiences get to see an authentic Dingleberry?
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BARRY MANILOW LIVE 2002!
Ken and Mitzi Welch
Concert Producer/Personal Manager
B&R Scenery/Brian Sullivan
Selected Lighting Equipment
Martin MAC 250s
Martin MAC 300s
Martin MAC 500s
Martin MAC 600s
Coffing Hoist motors
7'7" sections Pre-rigged Truss
10' sections A-Type truss
8' sections A-Type truss
5' sections A-Type truss
4' sections A-Type truss
10' sections 12" truss
Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console