The Tony Award-winning musical of 1991 was The Will Rogers Follies, with book by Peter Stone, music by Cy Coleman, and lyrics by the duo of Comden and Green. Director Tommy Tune took home a Tony, as did Jules Fisher, who won for his dynamic lighting design (Willa Kim's costumes were so honored as well). The sets were by Tony Walton. A new version of this musical, based on the life of popular American humorist and performer Will Rogers, is out on a national tour that continues through the summer of 2006. The production features updated technology, as seen in the lighting by Mike Baldassari that utilizes LED-based light tubes driven by video to replace a special feature of the lighting scheme.
One of the main set elements in the original production was a staircase that ran the full width of the stage and evoked the lavish designs of the Ziegfeld Follies, where Rogers often performed. The 14 steel-framed stairs had Plexiglas® fronts. “Each step served as an individual light box,” recalls Josh Alemany of Rosco, who remembers the original design. Every step was its own circuit with one very narrow PAR fixture, and a Rosco Coloroll color scroller was placed at each end.
In that production, a combination of special 3M optical films from Rosco (plastics with a micro-etched pattern) utilizing the principles of total internal reflection and refraction inside each stair transported the light along the stair to bend it toward the audience. “The hot energy from the PAR fixture was piped to the center of the staircase,” says Alemany. “The excess light was diffused so it would be even all across the steps. The goal was to have even illumination without a dim center and bright edges.” The scrollers allowed for color-changing effects such as red for rubies or green for emeralds. Michael Eddy, who worked for Rosco at the time, was the product manager who made it all work. “The low-voltage PAR lamps caused a lot of interference with the scrollers,” says Eddy. “The scroller solution never toured well and was replaced quickly for the national tour with fiber-optic lighting.”
Fifteen years later, technology allows for a very different solution to light the stairs, still the centerpiece of Walton's set. Baldassari decided to use Element Labs Versa™ TUBE, the LED-based light tubes controlled by video signal. “We're basically lighting the steps with video,” he explains. “The result looks as if people are walking on a giant video screen.”
In looking for a new solution, Baldassari thought about LED technology. “I considered LED strip lights built into the fascia of the stairs, but they would involve too much programming, I knew we needed something with a media server,” he says. He had seen Versa TUBEs installed in the MTV store in Times Square and liked the fact that they could fade colors and were bright enough to be seen in daylight. The fact that the tubes could be built into the set was also an important time saver on a tour that plays everything from one-nighters to short two-week runs.
“We designed a way for the tubes to be mounted just underneath each step, in full view, facing the audience,” Baldassari explains. “You do not see them when they are not lit.” The original 40'-wide framework for staircase was used, but this time, the steps themselves were rebuilt and are all wood. There are a total of 10 steps, each with a Versa TUBE built into the top 1/3 of the front riser, with reflectors at a 45° angle to catch ambient light from the tube.
Paul Turner programmed the content for the tubes using a media server from Element Labs. The result is one large video image that seems to cascade down the steps. “He figured out how many pixels were needed per step,” notes Baldassari. “Your eyes fill in the blanks. Products like this are often used as eye candy. The difference here is they are totally integrated into the design.”
The video images range from a giant sunflower when the chorus girls are wearing sunflower dresses, to a large hat for the powder puff number (a video image of the actual hat the girls are wearing), and a stained glass window for a wedding scene. Baldassari took a photo of a swimming pool and colorized it with the media server, so that as each girl comes down the steps during a number about jewelry, the sparkling image changes color to match her costume. He also added images of the moon and star fields (from NASA) and a cartoon image of a radio tower with waves radiating out from it. To complement the chorus girls when they appear wearing Native American blankets, Baldassari clipped pictures of authentic blankets from the Web and created his own image using Adobe® Photoshop®.
A painted scrim in front of a RP screen served as a backdrop with what Baldassari calls “stair continuance,” with the color provided by conventional strip lights. The lighting rig, provided by Christie Lights, includes automated fixtures by Martin Professional (MAC 2000s, 500s, and 600NTs) programmed on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog 2. But when it comes to the special staircase, here is a perfect example of converging technologies, with video reigning where lighting once did the trick.