“IT'S ALWAYS A JOY TO WORK WITH ARNONE,” BINKLEY SAYS, “BUT THE WHOLE TEAM GOT ALONG GREAT. IT WAS A VERY SMOOTH COLLABORATIVE PROCESS. I ATTRIBUTE THAT TO [DIRECTOR] JACK O'BRIEN, WHO REALLY HAS HIS STUFF TOGETHER.”
Despite assertions to the contrary, it's not easy to adapt a film into a hit Broadway musical. Indeed, the last decade has seen several prominent misfires of the genre, including Big, The Goodbye Girl, and My Favorite Year. The singular magic that makes a film successful all too often shrivels under the glare of theatrical lighting. The problems are only multiplied when the film is of recent vintage, and readily available in VHS and DVD editions, which means audience members enter the theatre overfamiliar with the source material.
All of which is why the Broadway musical version of The Full Monty looked like a strange idea when it was first announced. In this case, however, the naysayers couldn't have been more wrong. From its opening performance at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, The Full Monty took off like a bullet, cheered on by critics and audiences alike. A Broadway transfer was a foregone conclusion; the production opened in October at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre and quickly established itself as the musical to beat in the end-of-the-season awards competitions.
Interestingly, The Full Monty is not an exact replica of its source material. Terrence McNally's book retains the film's core idea, centered on a group of unemployed industrial workers who, led by a divorced dad (here named Jerry Lutkowski), reinvent themselves as male strippers to raise some desperately needed cash. However, McNally has relocated the action from the north of England to Buffalo, NY, a decision that gives the musical an entirely American (i.e. brash and breezy) quality.
Jerry's colleagues closely resemble their film counterparts, including hefty house-husband Dave Bukatinsky, budding gay lovers Malcolm MacGregor and Ethan Girard, bankrupt white collar worker Harold Nicholas, and graying black man Noah “Horse” T. Simmons. Then again, McNally has added a pair of characters not seen in the film: Keno, a gay stripper who gives Jerry a fistful of lessons on the evils of homophobia, and Jeanette, a gimlet-eyed goldenager who signs on as the act's rehearsal pianist.
In another sense, The Full Monty is so old it's new: an old-fashioned book musical, in which songs come out of, and provide transitions between, lengthy dialogue scenes — although there's nothing old-fashioned about David Yazbek's score, with its percussive rhythms, attractive pop hooks, and unusually clever lyrics. However, the key to the show's success is not any one element; it's the canny use of stage techniques to tell a story that makes the audience very, very happy.
John Arnone's set design evokes the world of Buffalo with an industrial-looking surround, dominated by a backdrop depicting factories and smokestacks; individual locations are indicated by smaller scenic units, most notably four headers and sliders, two of corrugated metal and two of translucent glass. Given this scenic design and the script's multiple locations (including a strip club, men's room, union hall, dance studio, cafeteria, abandoned factory, and various homes), The Full Monty is constantly on the move. That's where Howell Binkley comes in. The LD is a frequent collaborator of Arnone's; in fact, he says, he was hired for the project when director Jack O'Brien came to check out Arnone's work on the Broadway show Minnelli on Minnelli, which Binkley also lit.
In many ways, The Full Monty is a departure for Binkley, whose work in musicals has characteristically been with darker material such as Kiss of the Spider Woman and Parade, and whose designs for both classic and contemporary plays often have a chiaroscuro, neo-noir look. But Binkley notes that O'Brien wanted The Full Monty to have a warm, bright feel. “Jack didn't want the audience to lose anything of the book,” he says. As a result, Binkley's design works unobtrusively to keep all eyes on the characters while subtly highlighting their dramatic problems. Furthermore, he helps to make the show move with an ease that could only be envied by the script's would-be strippers.
Naturally, moving lights are an important part of the designer's plot, and his choice of units is eclectic. “In San Diego,” he says, “I went with [High End Systems] Studio Colors® and [Martin] MACs, because of issues of budget and availability. I wanted to keep the same rig for New York, because of time, money, and programming issues. Anyway, I was very happy with the color washes [from these units]. The MACs were brilliant for area lighting, with templates, and for sculpting the scenic surround.” Also included in the rig are five Vari*Lite® VL6B™ automated luminaires.
“I think all the units had a combined effect,” Binkley says, “especially in triggering the transitions, flooding the stage from side positions.” Also, he adds, the automated units allowed him to do chase sequences and, at times, fill the auditorium with hot, saturated colors, turning the audience into spectators at Tony Giordano's strip club, where many scenes take place.
Binkley's collaboration with Arnone was crucial to giving the production a cinematic flow. “You see everything move, which is one of the joys of the piece,” the LD says. For example, an early scene takes place outside Giordano's; then, as Jerry and Dave sneak inside through a window, the set turns around and reveals the men's room where they have entered. “It's like a tracking shot in a movie,” says the LD. Fortunately, he adds, Arnone's scenery is very transition-friendly and versatile. “The corrugated panels are translucent, so, in transitions, I could backlight them, and then, as we headed into scenes, I could frontlight them,” thus giving the pieces dramatically different looks. Similarly, there's a transition between the dance studio, where Jerry and Dave hook up with Harold, who becomes their choreographer, into the abandoned factory, where the three of them hold tryouts for additional strippers. The combination of moving scenery and light in this sequence creates an effect similar to a wipe in a film.
Other scenic pieces are a series of house exteriors, which appear in several scenes, including one where Jerry has a confrontation with his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. The houses are very flat and cartoon-like; however, “There's RP screen in the windows of the houses,” says Binkley, adding, “I could backlight the windows and then, using the MACs, I could do some crosslight with breakup patterns, and the bounce from the floor would give the scenery some dimensions.” He adds that he's very grateful for the set's rather reflective blue deck — “in this show, bounce light is my friend.”
TWISTS AND TURNS
Binkley uses different color strategies for different parts of the show. Most of the book scenes, which focus on the characters' dreary and often desperate lives, are cool and restrained. “A lot of times we used CTO, or color correction inside scenes set in the cafeteria or dressing room,” he says, adding, “CTO, from a front position, worked really nicely on the corrugation.” On the other hand, for a fantasy sequence in the number “The Goods,” in which women appear to belittle the men's stripping aspirations, he turns on the color. And, of course, scenes set in Giordano's feature lots of saturated purples, oranges, and blues. “It's a tacky Buffalo strip club,” says the LD.
In other numbers, Binkley's lighting provides subtle support. The first song is “Scrap,” in which Jerry and his fellow unemployed vent their frustration. As the number builds, Binkley's lighting shifts positions, adding sidelight at the top of a verse to sculpt the men's bodies and create a tableau that vividly expresses their helplessness and isolation. The act ends with one of the show's cleverest numbers, “Michael Jordan's Ball,” in which Jerry uses a basketball metaphor to teach the guys about dance. Binkley isolates each actor in his own pool of downlight from Martin MAC 500s; as they learn to move in unison, the patterns traced on the deck by the moving beams provide an extra kick to the choreography. “[Choreographer] Jerry Mitchell's work is impeccable,” says Binkley. “Programming that number was so difficult; we begin with a big area wash, then get it down to those six pools of light,” performing complicated movements in time to the music. “What helped was finding the rhythm of the number, which gave us a reason to do what we wanted to do, without it being lighting gimmickry.”
In other moments, Binkley and Arnone provide a fresh twist on the typical star curtain effect used for ballads or other serious moments. Arnone says that he was tired of the now-ubiquitous star curtain, used in “serious” musical numbers. Thus, during the song “Breeze Off the River,” in which Jerry reveals his deep feelings for his son, the industrial drop is in, and red aircraft warning lights, placed at the top of the smokestacks, are turned on, creating a melancholy effect that supports the mood of the song yet is totally in keeping with the world of the play.
THE NAKED TRUTH
Of course, the moment that everyone is waiting for comes at the end of Act II, when the guys, now known as Hot Metal, make their fateful appearance. Dressed as security guards, they do their stuff to the number “Let It Go.” It's a moment of supreme satisfaction for the audience; all six guys have overcome huge obstacles to take this big risk in front of their friends and families, and their joy is contagious. The number is no longer about stripping, but about commitment, about having the guts to go all the way for what matters in life. Here, Binkley sheds all restraint, using deeply saturated sidelight to sculpt the actors' bodies, while moving beams prowl the stage and auditorium. (The look is, intentionally, miles away from the comparatively stark lighting of “Scrap,” which begins the show.) At a certain point in the number, the small rain curtain at the rear of the stage flies out and a much larger one, spanning the width of the stage, flies in; at this point, the action jumps to another level, departing from the strict reality of the play, and a giant sign is revealed, spelling out in lights the words “The Full Monty.”
“The sign is a metal frame, with star strobes and PAR floods and spots built in,” says Binkley, adding “it requires 48 dimmers. Jimmy Fedigan, the production electrician, did a great job with this and other parts of the show. It flies in to 6' from the deck, then slowly comes in.” The number ends just as the guys bare it all; at that moment, the lights go up and blind the audience, allowing the actors to disappear behind the sign and get into terrycloth robes for their curtain calls. “Actually, the sign never goes up to full,” the LD says. “We tried that, but then you could see more of the actors than you wanted to. So now, on the final blast, as they drop their hats, the lights go to 70%.”
With all the show's scenery, and given that the Eugene O'Neill is rather small for a musical, Binkley notes that he put his units where he could. “A lot of stuff is on ladders,” he says, adding, “there's some low sidelight just upstage of the portal.” These units are prominently used in a key second act scene when Malcolm and Ethan share their first romantic moment. Also, adds the designer, “We did sneak in two booms up and downstage, each of which goes to the floor.”
Conventional lighting for the show is controlled by an Obsession console from ETC, with moving lights under the control of a Wholehog® console from Flying Pig Systems. The two share a MIDI link and the Obsession runs the entire show. Four Star Lighting was the supplier for all but the Vari*Lites. Other personnel include associate lighting designer Mark T. Simpson, moving light programmer Timothy F. Rogers, head electrician Jon Mark Davidson, and assistant electrician John Van Buskirk.
For Binkley, The Full Monty is only one highlight in what is turning out to be an unusually buoyant season. He's already designed the well-received Broadway revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man. As this is being written, another of his projects, the musical 3hree, has completed a successful Philadelphia run and will open in Los Angeles in April. In May, he's designing The Pied Piper, a major new ballet for American Ballet Theatre. But for him, The Full Monty remains something special. “It's always a joy to work with Arnone,” he says, “but the whole team got along great. It was a very smooth collaborative process. I attribute that to Jack O'Brien, who really has his stuff together.” Credit also smart designers like Binkley who care more about the story instead of creating gratuitous effects. Thanks to them, The Full Monty is stripped for action — and poised to succeed.
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