While Disney has made definite inroads into the realm of theatre with Beauty and the Beast, Aida, and The Lion King, now the House of Mouse is getting its act together and taking it on the road. Disney's On the Record is a brand new tour crisscrossing the country and features songs from the Broadway shows as well as from the entire Disney canon. The action takes place in a recording studio, but seeing as it's Disney, nothing is what it seems as the audience is taken on a magical journey to other lands as the songs change.
Taking this magical Disney tour are LD Natasha Katz, set designer Robert Brill, Acme Sound Partners, and costumer Gregg Barnes. The team came together to create an environment that is at once singular and sensational: a recording studio with a magic touch that proved fun and challenging for the designers. “We're in a big white box all night long,” says Natasha Katz of Robert Brill's set. “My design directive was to make it feel like a real recording studio, while at other times we would need to grab these songs by their emotional content.”
From Nostalgia to Abstract
Disney's developmental process for On the Record lasted well over a year, which allowed the designers to come up with a variety of ideas. Once it was decided that the set would be an exaggerated recording studio, the costumes followed suit. “We went down a path that had everyone in very heightened streetwear,” explains Gregg Barnes, “but once they entered this magical place, they were dusted with this glister.” The final set of costumes put the actors in shades of black.
While the costumes became more subdued, Katz found that color was a key element for her. “Color is huge in terms of the lighting design for the show,” she says. “As a matter of fact it was almost too much color. You can play the color card as a lighting designer so much that you say ‘enough!’ and you have to cleanse your palette.”
Color was especially important since the set was a white box; therefore Katz had no low sidelight positions. “It's all coming from overhead and it is somewhat limiting,” she says. “I was really able to color the box and add texture, and that's about 75% of what carries the lighting through. But the biggest challenge was the box. I had to embrace the box. Once I did that, I realized I didn't have to use everything available to me. You can make a cake without butter.”
Brill's recording studio was initially more nostalgic, he says, but in a good way. The show had been in development for a couple of years, and when Brill joined the team in November 2003, he had only read a two-page treatment. The evolution of his recording studio design actually happened very late in the process. “While the initial concept was fairly modern looking and abstract, it had more of the trappings of the actual environment in real scale,” he says. That changed once he did research on the Disney studios and discovered that it was not unusual for movie scores to be recorded on the actual soundstages. That discovery opened new doors for the designer. “We now had more of a creative playground to start thinking how we could use tools of filmmaking in the recording session,” he says. “Not that we couldn't drive anything from recording studio environment, but I became attracted to this notion of using elements of filmmaking in the recording session as a way of letting the session take flight.”
Therefore the main characters do not spend the show just standing at microphones; the movie-making magic is also a part of the show. These elements let the performers break free from their mikes and go off on fantastical journeys during the various recording sessions that break up the show into separate vignettes. “These escapes could happen via some of the other elements that could be sitting around an empty soundstage,” Brill says adding that the notion of the soundstage really jumpstarted the design process anew. As per director Robert Longbottom, Brill and the rest of the design team stepped up to the plate and essentially eliminated the potential nostalgia from the design to create a more glossy, abstract feel.
As part of the scenic abstraction, Brill created 3' by 3' white wall panels to resemble enlarged versions of the sound baffling foam used in recording studios. “This took the onus off of Natasha not to just use the set as a canvas, but it already had a texture and immediately it had character,” he says. “She didn't have to just rely just on angles and patterns to create variety. By simply throwing color across it, the shadow that's created across the surface is stunning.”
On the Road Again (and Again…)
As Brill's original idea of a more realistic recording studio was altered, so were the other designers' concepts, especially Barnes' costumes. He originally envisioned the four main characters — Diane, the established diva; Kristin, the young ingénue; Nick, the male ingénue; and Julian, the established mature male singer — in shades of gray that would emulate the characters' street clothes. “In the early parts of the planning we discussed working in as many variations as we could of each of the main characters' wardrobe,” Barnes explains. “For example the ingénue had a dance bag, warm up sweater, blouse scarf, purse, and so on. But when they got into the space, there was no place to store anything and it just seemed extraneous.”
Barnes then experimented with gray versions of the wardrobe but that was later scrapped. The final version resulted in black versions of those outfits. “We needed to put everyone into the same palette and black set the characters up in the space much better. We had to make them as real as possible without too much fuss. Ultimately it was more interesting to look at, even though it was much more plain,” he adds, citing Chicago as the “Rolls Royce of shows done in black.”
Ironically, the earliest incarnation of the show was a workshop of only the first act where all of the characters were dressed in black, as is often done with such showcases. “It's interesting that we didn't realize at that point that we couldn't sustain something more heightened than that,” Barnes adds.
Most of the costume cuts were done on the road as numbers got cut or moved around within the show, according to Barnes. “Everyone was so concerned about my ego,” he says. “The interesting thing is that you have this vision, but you have to be a good listener, too. Other people develop the idea with you and if they aren't responding to it, then you have to acknowledge that something about it is not working.”
However, in the show's finale the cast changes into shiny brilliant red costumes that not only add a shock of color to the proceedings but capture the light with an array of sequins letting the audience know that something special is about to happen. Barnes refers to this costume change — which begins gradually with the band — as the show's “champagne cork moment” that adds a flash of dazzle.
While Barnes did not have to concern himself with designing the wardrobe to travel easily, Katz certainly did. “The fact that this was a tour and had to get into a theatre in eight hours definitely defined some of the creative parameters for me,” Katz says. “In many ways we lived the very dream that a lot of people talk about, which is the more you are constrained, the more creative you can be.”
Katz made every effort for the lighting rig to be assembled as quickly as possible. “I made a very conscious decision that the show is driven by moving lights, so from the tech point of view nobody has to get on a genie and focus the show because it's all done remotely,” she explains. “There are fewer than 60 conventional lights, a very small front of house because sometimes they might have to hang the equipment, and there's not a lot of time. There are no scrollers or moving lights front of house; the moving lights are on stage and that is driven by the design of the show.” Katz' moving light package consists of 22 VARI*LITE VL2000™ Spots, 24 VL2000™ Washes, 6 VL3000Q™ Spots, and 20 Martin MAC 2000 Performances.
Katz also gives high praise to the LiveWire special effects lights she used during The Little Mermaid sequence. LiveWire is essentially a semiconductor cable that creates a glare-free green light along its entire length that resembles neon or cold cathode. Five different lengths of the cable are used to recreate the evil sea monster Ursula's tentacles. “It's really bright and effective, especially for 3,000-seat houses,” Katz says. “It looks like neon but you can wrap it around you like plastic.”
Had On the Record been staged in a permanent theatre, Katz admits that she probably would have done things a little differently. “I still would have had a lot of moving lights, but I would have had more conventionals in terms of color temperature and for a different feel,” she says. “Color temperature of a conventional light is so much more flattering to someone's face, so I probably would have used more from the old-fashioned world.” The conventionals were programmed on an ETC Obsession® II console while the automated lights were programmed on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 2 by Richard Knight. Katz was further assisted by associate LD Yael Lubetzky, and assistant LDs Richard Swan and Aaron Spivey.
Brill, on the other hand, did not tailor his design to be portable, as he tried to keep focus on the broader strokes and the visual design rather than how it would pack into six trucks. He did have to temper his vision and keep in mind that scenery could not enter from trap space since not all venues have trap space. Also the deck had to be a certain size to fit into the truck so that prevented a larger deck that could hold an entirely automated scenic rig. However, if the show ever took root in a permanent setting, Brill admitted that he would likely stick to the main design he created for the road with a few added embellishments.
From “When You Wish Upon a Star” to infinity and beyond, Disney's catalog of great songs is so staggering that it must have been a challenge to narrow the selection performed in On the Record to only 64. As cheering audiences from Cleveland to San Antonio and from Philadelphia to Detroit greet the show across the country, On the Record may be on the road for a long time.
|1||ETC Obsession® II|
|2||Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 2 (1 is Back-Up)|
|2||96×2.4kW ETC Sensor® Advanced Feature Touring Rack|
|6||ETC Source Four® 19° 575W|
|24||ETC Source Four 26° 575W|
|1||ETC Source Four 26° 750W|
|5||8' 0" PAR56 500W NSP Strip Lights|
Color Kinetics Units
|6||Colorblaze 72 Striplights|
|4||Provided by Theatre|
|22||VARI*LITE VL2000™ Spot 700W|
|24||VARI*LITE VL2000™ Wash 700W|
|6||VARI*LITE VL3000Q™ Spot 1200W|
|20||Martin MAC 2000 Performance 1200W|
|30||Wybron Coloram II #4520|
Radio Control Dimmers
|1||Logical Lighting Radio Control 96-channel DMX Transmitter|
|12||Logical Lighting Battery-Operated Dimmers|
|12||Logical Lighting 8-channel Receivers|
|6||High End Systems AF 1000™ Xenon Strobes 220V with HO1 lamp (retrofitted into long nose PAR64 cans)|
|2||MDG Max 3000 Fog/Smoke Generator|
|2||MDG Atmosphere Haze Generator|
|2||Bowen Jetstream variable speed fans|
Associate Lighting Designer
Moving Light Programmer