I started as assistant to Miss Musser (which is what my billing was for the years I worked for her) at the American Shakespeare Festival at Stratford Connecticut. I had not gone to college since those pesky SAT scores were not good enough, and I had no training in what an assistant was supposed to do. In fact, there were hardly any lighting assistants in 1968. The United Scenic Artists did not recognize assistants and had just recognized lighting designers a few years earlier. I arrived at Stratford at my $65 per week job, and my education began.
Tharon always said she was not a teacher, but I can tell you she was the greatest teacher. Here I was, 19 and working on five shows in repertory and after a few months, I was pretty good at the assistant thing, when Tharon asked me to be her New York assistant. David F. Segal had been with her, but he was on his way to the Seattle Rep, and I got his job. The first show was the national tour of Mame, and it was non-stop for three years.
If I am any good as a lighting designer today, it is because of the incredible education that I received from Tharon, both as a lighting designer and as a professional in the theatre.
Life is strange. When I could not get into college, who would have thought that I would get a one-on-one education working on Broadway with Tharon Musser. I will eternally be grateful that I went to Musser University.
—Ken Billington, lighting designer
In all our shows together, we only had one minor point of contention, and that was during the fit up for A Chorus Line in London at Drury Lane Theatre, and it was about the cluster position compared to the followspot position. I insisted that, according to the laws of physics, sound has to be in a certain place for the right coverage, to which Tharon replied, “As do lights!”
Well, let me tell you, all the laws of physics go out the window when Tharon is lighting the show. We moved the cluster rather quickly.
As Tharon remembered: “Abe came and said, ‘I'm going back to the hotel, and I’m going to stay there until that’s moved.’ I said, ‘You’d better book it for a long time.’”
I don’t think Tharon ever lost a discussion with anyone.
—Abe Jacob, sound designer
I remember the last time I saw Tharon. She came in from the country to give me the first TCI award. It was cold, rainy, and miserable. I had no idea she’d be there; it moved me so much. The first thing she said was that there was very little that got her to leave the country, but that presenting this award to me seemed worth it to her. That’s just who she was—straight-talking, no schmaltz. She just got the job done.
I remember the first time I met Tharon. I had no idea about anything, just that she was someone, a lighting designer who wanted to get some slides made. I met her at home on Cornelia Street; she took me into a little room and rolled out her light plot. I really had no idea what I was looking at, but she described what she was trying to do. Basically, she was inventing the color wheel. She thought she could test it with slide projectors pointing to the floor. I knew nothing about any of it except the color and the slide part, and then there was this captivating, smoking, energy—a magnetic force field of a woman—and I just wanted to give her whatever she asked for. I guess it worked out since, a few months later, I got the call from Doug Schmidt that changed my life. He began, “Tharon Musser told me to call…” Well, I got the gig—They're Playing Our Song—and I learned from Tharon what a lighting designer was: precise, thoughtful, dramaturgically engaged, opinionated, tough, funny, and, above all, generous. It wasn’t just the rounds of drinks she bought every night, but she created collaboration with her own insistence on taking the risks, trying it out, and going the distance until it was what she called “they play we came here to give.” I owe her everything; I never forget it. Her lessons are always in mind. I have and will invest a bit of Tharon in everything I ever touch. The bank of Tharon Musser pays fantastic dividends.
—Wendall K. Harrington, projection designer
I had just graduated from NYU when I was asked to design a less-than-professional production of A Chorus Line. At the first rehearsal, I was handed Tharon's paperwork, complete with everything from magic sheets to a calling script. Being a young designer at the time, I knew this paperwork should not be making the rounds, but I didn't know what to do. So I called John Gleason and he gave me Tharon’s number. I called her, shaking in my proverbial boots, and explained the situation. She said, “Kid, jobs are hard to find. Do the job, whatever it takes, and then send my paperwork back to me.” She wished me luck and hung up.
This was my one and only personal interaction with Tharon, unless of course, you call viewing her fabulous legacy of work as personal interaction, and I do. Tharon was a visionary designer, business woman, and mentor. She will be missed and honored for a long time to come.
-Rita K. Carver, BearFly Designs
Tharon was a great pioneer in lighting design, and she paved the way for more women to be successful and to be taken seriously in the field. Her master piece was A Chorus Line—so innovative and integral to the piece. She will be missed but not forgotten.
—Jill Nagle, lighting designer