A novel, a film, and now a musical, Big Fish opened on Broadway in October, with lighting by Donald Holder, sets by Julian Crouch, projections by Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions, costumes by William Ivey Long, and sound by Jon Weston. Based on the 2003 Tim Burton film, which was taken from the novel by Daniel Wallace, the plot of Big Fish is that of a father who spins tall tales much to his son’s dismay, with an array of characters, from a mermaid to a witch, encountered along the way.
Big Fish premiered in Chicago last spring, with five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman in the director’s seat. “Both scenery and lighting were designed to fit within the overall footprint of the Neil Simon Theatre,” says Holder, who expected that the front-of-house rig would change considerably, while the onstage lighting would remain virtually the same. “The Chicago tryout was the complete production. We felt it was crucial to have all of our ideas in place out of town so we could see the piece in its entirety and make informed decisions about what needed to be changed or improved for Broadway,” Holder explains.
“We consolidated the box boom positions from three per side in Chicago to two in New York, added a few additional moving lights, and re-lensed a lot of the equipment because of substantially reduced throw distances,” says Holder. “The Chicago rig included Clay Paky Alpha 700 profiles mounted in a low sidelight or ‘head-high’ position in each of the three onstage wings. In New York, we extended this idea downstage of the plasterline to the proscenium boom positions. This gave us better coverage and allowed us to shape the sidelight more specifically moment-by-moment.”
In researching the project, Holder saw the film a few times, but notes, “I was really inspired by the world of Southern Gothic as evoked in the novel by Daniel Wallace. I also drew some of my inspiration from the work of Walker Evans, whose photography brilliantly portrays the people and communities of the Depression-era American South.
“Developing a clear and consistent visual vocabulary between fantasy and reality was one of the challenges in designing Big Fish,” notes Holder. “Fantasy, in both lighting and projection, is often quite abstract, with a rich and multilayered Technicolor landscape. ‘Real’ scenes, both in the past and present, have a more natural quality, with a fairly monochromatic palette and motivated by ‘real’ sources. Neither projection nor lighting is used exclusively as a conceptual device to evoke fantasy or reality. Ben and I always tried to work in concert to create a unified, three-dimensional stage picture that uses consistent language to help the audience navigate the story.”
A mermaid is prominent in the fantasy sequences and appears several times, both onstage and in the river. “It was important that we reveal her in a magical way that clearly separates her from the rest of the stage picture,” says Holder, whose lighting for Big Fish is angular, highly textured, and very detailed. “She is lit so her ‘human’ skin always has a surreal, very rich pink glow. Her introduction in the opening includes a swirling multicolored watery effect that directly references the brilliant colors that emanate from the Witch’s crystal ball.”
Big Fish features several splashy production numbers that Holder loved lighting, including “The Witch” in Act One and the Act Two opener “Red, White, and True.” “The Witch number takes place in a Southern Gothic Alabama swamp, inhabited by magical creatures who transform from tree trunks into dancing sprites in front of our eyes,” he explains. “The role of the lighting in this number is to provide the connective tissue to make it complete and carefully reveal the world, while allowing the projections to create the magic.”
For the USO number, “Red, White, and True,” the lighting is “bright, sparkling, and inspired by the Technicolor spectaculars I’ve seen in Busby Berkeley choreographed films, like Call Me Mister or Romance On The High Seas,” Holder says. “It features a patriotic red, white, and blue palette, and lots of movement, not only following Susan Stroman’s elaborate choreography, but ballyhooing star patterns and color chases to raise the energy quotient.” Holder equally enjoys the simplicity of one of the show’s most beautiful songs, “I Don’t Need A Roof,” lit with just a few color-corrected tungsten sources and only two internal cues.
Holder’s rig, which was provided by PRG, includes Philips Vari-Lite VL3500Q Spots, VL3500 Wash units, and VL2000 Wash fixtures; Clay Paky Alpha Profile 700s; Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlaze units (72s, TRX 72s, and TRX 24s); ETC Source Four ellipsoidals of various degrees and Source Four PARs; Wybron Coloram II 4" and 7.5" scrollers; and Lycian 1293 followspots. Control is via an ETC Eos and a PRG Virtuoso DX console. Effects include a City Theatrical Tubular Ripple Projector, Martin Professional Atomic Strobes, High End Systems Dataflash AF1000s, MDG Atmosphere Hazers, and a Martin Jem fan. Wireless DMX is via City Theatrical SHoW DMX and used for three practical lamps, a star drop, an LED window wall, a confetti cannon, and a leaf cannon.