Howard Harrison has an international triumph with Mamma Mia!

“This is definitely my biggest hit,” says British lighting designer Howard Harrison, who has lit five versions of Mamma Mia!, a red-hot musical with songs by the Swedish pop group ABBA. From London, Toronto, and Australia to New York via a US tour, Mamma Mia! continues to snowball, with a second US tour starting next month, and Tokyo on the calendar later this year.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, Mamma Mia! is one of those musicals that almost never works: a string of songs by one band, loosely inserted into a simple plot line. But this time the formula has struck gold. The music and lyrics by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson are winners and audiences are singing, clapping, and literally dancing in the aisles to 22 ABBA songs including “Dancing Queen,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Waterloo.”

Harrison is a relatively unknown name in the US, having designed two flop Broadway musicals (Kat and the Kings and Putting It Together) and a revival of Nabucco at the Metropolitan Opera last season. In the UK, however, he is one of the busiest designers around, with a résumé that includes Henry VIII and The Merchant of Venice at Royal Shakespeare Company, Private Lives and Look Back in Anger at the Royal National Theatre, and a number of Cameron Mackintosh-produced musicals, including Martin Guerre and The Witches of Eastwick. Now, with Mamma Mia! he has, for the first time here, a smash Broadway success.

“We didn't have the sense this would be such a big hit when we began working on it, but it all started coming together during final previews,” Harrison points out. “No one knew exactly what it was. It is a relatively small show we thought would play to ABBA fans. But it's also an old-fashioned book musical, so we were treating it as one, not as a pop show.”

The story is set on a Greek island, where a wedding is about to take place. Not knowing who her father is, and unbeknownst to her mother, the bride, named Sophie, sends out invitations to three possible papas (she discovers their names by reading her mother's 20-year-old diary). All three men arrive and good-natured chaos ensues, with short dramatic scenes linking the toe-tapping ABBA songs.

The sets and costumes, designed by UK-based Mark Thompson, evoke the simplicity of a Grecian isle. Whitewashed walls convey the interiors and exteriors of a taverna nestled behind a blue proscenium with multiple blue legs. The floor is patterned with an oval of paving stones bisected by a wooden jetty on a scissor lift.

The upstage blue wall is dense gauze with a bounce cloth behind it that glows when illuminated. “The set dictates a lot with its whiteness,” says Harrison. “The main image is a hot Greek island with sun-drenched white walls against the blue sky and ocean.”

Harrison tested various shades of blue to create aqua waters and the dark blue of night, opting for Roscolux R68 (Sky Blue), R68 doubled, R385 (Royal Blue) and Lee 201 (full CT blue). “The action takes place within a 24-hour period and moves from brilliant sunlight to moonlight on the beach,” he notes. “I learned what looks good and what doesn't with a white set in a big blue sealed box.”


The lighting rig is heavily populated with Vari*Lite automated luminaries provided by VLPS-New York. There are also 17 DHA Digital Light Curtains, including six of the new pitching version, with built-in color scrollers.

“We knew there were parts of the show that required the movement and energy of automated fixtures,” Harrison notes. In fact, he has redesigned the moving lights package, with the biggest change happening between the first production in London and Toronto, the first North American venue. This is the case partly because variations in the set configuration (solid blue sidewalls in Toronto versus simple blue legs on the first US tour) made room for sidelight booms. The rig has also changed simply because of new available technology.

For example, the VL4s used in London and Toronto were replaced with VL2416 units which Harrison found “much more reliable, as well as very bright and very good.” The VL7s and VL6s hung over the stage in London have been replaced with VL6Cs. “The VL6Cs do all we need in a smaller unit. When the show opened, the VL7 was the only technology available for the zoom and water-ripple effect,” notes Harrison.

The automated luminaries create the backbone of Harrison's design, providing key light, sunlight, and general ambiance. A battery of 28 VL5s, custom powder-coated white and placed on white truss, make a special appearance in the show's megamix finale, in which several songs are reprised. “This is the most rock-and-roll moment,” says Harrison, who placed 16 white VL5s on a downstage truss and an additional 12 units on an upstage truss for the Broadway version. “They are not used at any other point in the show,” he adds.

In the London production, the top horizontal section of truss flew independently from the vertical legs. This allowed the horizontal truss to act as a #1 Electric. Yet the VL5s were of little use in this position because of the borders and flying pieces upstage of the truss. Broadway is the only production to have two individual trusses, with the upstage truss a little narrower and shorter to create a sense of perspective. The truss shapes were designed by Thompson and associate set designer Nancy Thun.

Conventional fixtures (mostly ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and Source Four PARs with Wybron Coloram II scrollers) serve as specials to light the performers, or provide frontlight from the balcony rail, for the blue proscenium and wooden surround.

Also on the rail are two Altman HMI-703 400W UV fresnels for the “Under Attack” dream scene, where the chorus appears in bathing suits with lifejackets, snorkels, and fins painted to glow under the UV light as the bride has a pre-wedding nightmare, and one VL7B for effects such as the projected moon in beach scenes. A big box hung under the central dome in the newly renovated Winter Garden Theatre houses followspots as well as additional general frontlight cover.

Two consoles are used: a Vari*Lite Virtuoso DX for the automated luminaries, and a Strand 550i for the conventionals, along with four ETC Sensor 96x2.4kW dimmer racks. The Strand console triggers the Virtuoso via MIDI, using Richard Bleasdale's SAMSC software. SAMSC stands for Serial and MIDI Show Control and bridges the two consoles for easier control. “This is a good system,” notes Harrison. “This way the Virtuoso knows what cue it is going to, and doesn't just follow a ‘go’ cue.”

Before Broadway, the production used a Vari*Lite Artisan console for the automated lights. “Broadway seemed like the right time to make the transition,” says Vari*Lite programmer Andy Voller, who wrote new software called AV Updater (AV stands for Andy Voller and for Artisan to Virtuoso). This allowed him to take all the data from the Artisan and translate it to the Virtuoso format.


At the top of Act One, a water effect using a DHA YoYo Plus has one fixed water gobo, and one water gobo moving up and down. The Strand console controls the position and speed of the gobo movement via DMX. “Howard originally conceived the idea for the London production, using a regular DHA YoYo, as he was interested in a linear motion rather than the continuous rotational motion that could be achieved by effects wheels and gobo rotators,” explains Voller.

Rosco Double Gobo Rotators are used in Source Four ellipsoidals at the top of Act Two to create a twinkling effect as the action veers from reality to the “Under Attack” dream sequence.

“The same dot breakup gobo is used in both positions, rotating against each other. This creates the green twinkling,” Voller continues. “The VL6Cs and front VL7B in the auditorium are overlaid on top with a rotating dot breakup in UV to add some color texture. At the top of the act, the audience is covered in twinkling green dots [R76 Light Green Blue]. Once the show curtain goes up, the green swirling effect continues on a midstage drop, using two VL7Bs, one each side on the #1 boom with a rotating water gobo.”

A more disco-oriented look appears near the end of Act I with such songs as “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” and “Voulez-Vous,” both of which are staged during a party sequence. The stage floor, made of 3/4" Lexan chemically treated for an opalescent look, lights up (on Broadway and in London only) with red, blue, and green neon tubes creating an additive color-mixing system. The “paving stones” were created by using opaque paint as grout, so that only the stones light up via the neon. The floor was built at Hudson Scenic with the help of Dave Rosenfeld and Rick Mone, based on an e-mailed JPEG of the London floor.

“The neon tubes are placed under the floor in tin holders shaped like the stones so that the light does not bleed from stone to stone,” says Ed McCarthy, Harrison's US associate LD (David Holmes was the UK/Toronto associate LD). The neon was not used on the US tour or in Australia, as these shows moved from place to place too quickly to install such a complex floor.

The neon is controlled via a DMX-dimming module made by Mode Lighting in the UK, using a power supply in the basement of the theatre, run via the Strand console. “This allows us to have 864 individually-controlled neon tubes without all the extra dimmers,” notes McCarthy, who redrafted Harrison's plot using VectorWorks software, and provided all the necessary paperwork via Lightwright for the Broadway production electrician, Rick Baxter.

In the show's epilogue, right before the grand finale number, Sophie and her fiancé walk off into the moonlight. The oversized aluminum-framed moon, 20' in diameter, is faced with Gerriets Opera Blue RP screen material. It is lit with 154 Sylvania 4' dimmable fluorescent tubes. “The back is slightly smaller than the front, so it looks like a flat disk as it flies in,” says McCarthy. The moon in London was concentric white neon tubes; it was incandescent in Toronto and the first US national tour; in Australia it was fluorescent, like on Broadway.


The second US national tour opens in late February in Providence, RI, with a condensed version of the rig, for quick turnarounds from venue to venue. As McCarthy explains, “There is a different concept for the tour. Until now, much of the design was based on the DHA Digital Light Curtains, but we can't tour with them. They are too big for our touring trusses. To fit into all of the various venues, the set is a little shallower, so we don't have the room for the finale truss.”

Instead, two of the five overhead trusses will be powder-coated white, and fly in for the finale with 40 custom white powder-coated Vari*Lite spot and wash luminaries (20 VL2202s and 20 VL2402s). There are also special white Source Four PARs with custom white City Theatrical AutoYokes and Wybron color scrollers. “The AutoYokes replace the Light Curtains,” explains McCarthy. “There are 30 units, six banks on three pipes.

“The moon has been cut due to space considerations,” he adds. “A blackout drop with a 12' circle cut into it will fly in between the cyc and bounce cloth so that when the cyc is lit you only see the shape of the moon.”

The tour will be run on one board, the Virtuoso DX, rather than splitting the conventionals and automated luminaries. This also means using one board operator instead of two. Westsun is providing equipment for the tour.

No matter where you see it, Mamma Mia! is a musical that cries out “Take a Chance on Me.” And, in fact, it has rewarded its producers with a New York hit on the scale of The Producers.

Contact the author at


Howard Harrison

Ed McCarthy

David Holmes

Andrew Voller

Rick Baxter

Don Lawrence

Andy Sather

Jeffrey Lowney

Fourth Phase New Jersey
VLPS-New York
Westsun (US tour)



Vari*Lite VL5s with stipple lens


Vari*Lite VL5s with clear lens and custom white finish


Vari*Lite VL6Cs


Vari*Lite VL7Bs with sound baffles


Vari*Lite VL2416s


DHA Digital Light Curtains


DHA Pitching Digital Light Curtains


ETC Source Four 10º 750W


ETC Source Four 19º 750W


ETC Source Four 26º 750W


ETC Source Four 36º 750W


ETC Source Four 19º 550W


ETC Source Four 26º 550W


ETC Source Four 36º 550W


ETC Source Four 50º 550W


ETC Source Four PAR WFL 375W


ETC Source Four PAR MFL 375W


ETC Source Four PAR NSP 550W


ETC Source Four PAR MFL 550W


2kW 8" fresnels


1kW NSP PAR-64s


Strand 1kW Beamlight


300W Mini-10s with two-way barndoors


Lighting & Electronics Mini-Strips


L&E Nano-Strips


Wybron Coloram II scrollers


Rosco Double-Gobo Rotators


DHA Yo-Yo Plus


Altman HMI-703 400W 10" blacklight fresnels with Wybron Eclipse mechanical dousers and four-way barndoors


High End Systems Dataflash AF-1000s


Le Maitre Neutron hazers


Bowen fans


Le Maitre G300s


Le Maitre LSG Low Smoke Generators


Robert Juliat Ivanhoe 2.5kW HMI followspots


Vari*Lite Virtuoso DX console


Strand 550i console


Strand 550i backup


Strand R130 handheld Remote


ETC Sensor 96x2.4kW dimmer racks