Michael Bennett's ground-breaking musical is back on Broadway: A Chorus Line reopened on October 5 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, which was previously called The Plymouth when the original production was playing to sold-out houses a block or so away at The Shubert Theatre. Thirty-one years have passed since the 1975 Broadway premiere of A Chorus Line, and while the trials and tribulations of gypsies — dancers in the chorus of a Broadway musical — remain the same, the technology on the Great White Way has changed dramatically and more so in lighting than in any other design discipline in this show.

While the technology has been updated, the musical is still set in 1975. In the words of its scenic designer (now and then), Robin Wagner, this makes it a period piece. “It is the same but different,” he says, noting that the intent was to recreate Bennett's original production, which he conceived, choreographed, and directed. The revival is directed by Bob Avian, co-choreographer for the original production, which ran through 1990, and at one time held the record for the longest-running musical on Broadway. “It's still about the choreography; it's still about the dance,” adds Wagner.

This means that A Chorus Line is performed on a primarily open stage with a white line where the dancers stand, and the lighting is based more on a dance plot than a typical Broadway musical. Wagner's scenery includes a row of periaktoi across the back of the stage, one side of which has the mirrors that make up the back wall of the rehearsal room. For “The Music and the Mirror,” the central dance number (currently performed with panache by Charlotte D'Amboise), additional mirrors fly in. There are now six more than in the original production, three on each side of the stage, which replace black curtains.

The two biggest changes in the design of the periaktoi include the fact that they now pivot thanks to computerized scenic automation provided by Hudson Scenic; previously, they were turned by stagehands cranking bicycle chains around the bases of the scenic units. The other change is for the big, flashy finale, when the dancers have taken off their practice clothes and return dressed in sparkly gold costumes with top hats. For this scene, one side of the periaktoi now has TPR fiber-optic lighting built into the “fan” design, rather than the Mylar that was stapled on in the original production. Hudson Scenic built the fiber into the scenery (with kudos to David Rosenfeld).

But most changes come in the lighting department, as Tharon Musser's 1975 design was adapted to a modern rig. LD Natasha Katz turned to Marilyn Rennagel, Musser's partner and associate, who provided the original plot, focus charts, followspot sheets, and tracking sheets for levels. “The issue was how to contemporize a show like this,” Katz explains. “I spent a year of soul-searching, during which I realized that this is an iconic light plot and that Tharon is a genius.” As a result, a modern version of the original light plot is now hanging at the Schoenfeld. “I took her ideas and gave myself flexibility,” says Katz, who added moving lights in the form of Vari-Lite VL1000 incandescent luminaries and echoed the 55° followspot angle that was carefully worked out for the original production. “Even though the backdrop is closer in this theatre, which is smaller than The Schubert, the angle still works,” Katz adds.

The remainder of the light plot is primarily ETC Source Fours. For the modern twist on the original plot, the VL1000s are used to fill in the dark corners of the stage as well as to recreate Musser's 2' multicolored, Mondrian-like squares around the dancers, an effect originally achieved with just 96 dimmers.

Katz also added Wybron Coloram II color scrollers to some of the fixtures, another technology that did not exist three decades ago. “The Source Fours alone contemporize the look of the show,” says Katz. “But it's amazing how Tharon's light plot withstands today's judgment bar.”

In terms of the color palette, Katz changed some of the choices (for instance, adding blue in the sidelights), but Musser's choice of deep lavender (Roscolux R56 Gypsy Lavender) for the dancers' faces remains the same. Katz's palette includes a mix of Lee 202 (Half C.T. Blue), R25 (Orange/Red), double Lee 141 (Bright Blue), and no color. The sidelight is used in the dance scenes, and the frontlight/backlight combo per person is used when the dancers are talking on the white line. Katz refers to this as the “line” light.

“Each dancer has a frontlight and backlight, all Source Fours at 60%,” she says. “The frontlight is from the first electric and not very flattering. Michael Bennett wanted you to see them sweat and see how hard they were working. These were strong choices for a director and designer to make. These ‘thought’ lights are in deep purple from the front, which looks like something you never saw before. Who would do that?

“Tharon's original choices included a wonderful mix of red and green in the sidelight, with so many variations,” notes Katz. “She wasn't afraid to use green from one side and red from the other. It was interesting to see how colors were mixed before the advent of scrollers and moving lights. It was all Roscolene back then. Tharon mixed three different colors to get white light, which created more interesting colored shadows and more complexity. It was true that less was more.”

Of course, the biggest news in the lighting back then was the breakthrough of using a memory board on Broadway, replacing the age-old resistance dimmers. The Newman Theatre, where the show started out at The Public Theatre, had a small memory board, which is how the show was programmed. “Having a memory board meant Tharon could do so many things she couldn't have done before,” reflects Katz. “It's all just one push of a button today, but it was a revolution then. That was the first time you saw a show with such fast cues, and the followspot work was amazing, with fast pickups of dancers in the dark. Now people think it's done by moving lights. The followspot work is almost like crosscutting in the movies. We're used to it now, but with the old dimmers, it was amazing.”

The console used on Broadway in 1975 was a prototype for the modern console: Gordon Pearlman's LS-8 computerized system built for Electronics Diversified (EDI) and provided by Four Star. The current control system includes an ETC Obsession II console for the conventionals (programmed by head electrician Eric Norris) and a PRG Virtuoso (programmed by Matt Hudson) for the moving lights, with the gear provided by PRG Lighting. The production electrician is Jimmy Fedigan, with Yael Lubetzky as associate LD and Aaron Spivey as assistant LD.

“In the scenes with the mirrors, you see a double version of the dancers and sense their exuberance,” says Katz. “You don't see that too often on Broadway, but the depth and sparkle of the lights is incredible. Our version is probably brighter than what Tharon ultimately achieved.”

Katz feels that there must have been an incredible relationship between Bennett and Musser, as well as with Wagner and costume designer Theoni V. Aldrege, allowing for such a tight collaboration, which seems so hand-in-glove. The lighting in A Chorus Line is like a character itself, moving the musical from thought to thought as the dancers bare their souls to a director whose voice booms like a god from the back of the theatre. Katz also admires Musser's incredible boldness in color choices and crisp, clean, fast cues. “This was a life-altering experience for me,” she says. “I am in awe of that light plot.”

A Chorus Line Fixture List
35 Vari-Lite VL1000
20 ETC Source Four 10° 575W
91 ETC Source Four 19° 575W
10 ETC Source Four 19° 750W
150 ETC Source Four 26° 575W
20 ETC Source Four 26° w/HD Lens Tube 750W
32 ETC Source Four 36° 575W
6 ETC Source Four 50° 575W
9 ETC Source Four PAR MFL 575W
100 4.5 Wybron Coloram II
8 Altman Lighting 6' R40 Borderlight 300W F
4 Altman Lighting 7'6" R40 Borderlight 300W F
6 Altman Lighting Q-Lite 300W
6 Altman Lighting Q-Lite 1kW
3 Lycian Stark Lite 1272 1200W