Lighting designer Mike Baldassari likes to keep things interesting, lighting Broadway one week and Saturday Night Live the next. He moves from one genre—theatre, film, television, concert—to the next with the confidence and flexibility the entertainment design industry demands. While Baldassari claims he epitomizes the classic “jack of all trades, master of none,” his Tony and Emmy Award nominations suggest otherwise.
Beginning music lessons at a young age, Baldassari is a musician at heart, and a 1977 Kiss concert at Madison Square Garden proved particularly memorable. “I remember them hitting the lights and blinding 20,000 people, and they all stood up and cheered, and I said, ‘I think I want to be the guy who hits that button,’” recounts the designer.
While at Parsippany Hills High School in New Jersey, Baldassari became involved in its extensive theatre program, learning about gear and design. After attending University of Connecticut, he was selected to be in the USA 829 Lighting Design Internship Program, in the same class as fellow lighting designer Ken Posner. Since then, he has become a skilled lighting designer with experience across the media, and yet “to this day, I still think of myself really as a musician, and I use lighting to orchestrate the music or script,” he says.
Following his love for rock ‘n’ roll, Baldassari designed many concert tours, including Alice in Chains’ 2010 Black Gives Way To Blue Tour and Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams II Tour, which he co-designed with Peggy Eisenhauer. He was also nominated for an Emmy Award for the lighting direction of Garth Brooks Live From Central Park.
“I think what I’ve always brought to rock ‘n’ roll is a theatrical sensibility,” he says. Baldassari designs his lighting as if it were music, drawing the crowd in and adding to the emotion. “Starting with when the house lights go down, you go through these little things to make it elevate, elevate, elevate, so that when the band is finally revealed, the audience just goes crazy.”
Baldassari’s extensive theatre background includes Broadway productions such as First Date, Holler If Ya Hear Me, As Long As We Both Shall Laugh, and Cabaret, which he also co-designed with Eisenhauer. Since Baldassari and Eisenhauer were friends and held common interests in the lighting industry, they both easily decided when they began co-designing the production that the best idea wins. “It didn’t matter who came up with it, but whatever the best idea was, that’s what we were going forward with,” Baldassari explains. “Once you give into that, very soon thereafter, you forget who said it first anyway.” Collaboration is one of his favorite things about theatre, which Baldassari affirms is a team sport. “You’re part of the team that gets it together,” he says. The Baldassari and Eisenhauer partnership received Tony Award and Drama Desk Award nominations for their lighting design of Cabaret and took home an Entertainment Design Award.
The third-longest running revival in Broadway history, Cabaret ran from 1998 to 2004, garnering ten Tony Award nominations and reopening from April 2014 through March 2015. New gear was among the changes made for the latest production. “It had been ten years since it closed, so it wasn’t realistic to use some of that same equipment,” Baldassari says. The lighting designers carefully reviewed and updated the lighting plots from 1998. Since the show’s new home at Studio 54 was originally an opera house, built for optimal acoustics and to project sound, the designers chose the best fixtures that also made the least amount of noise.
“Originally, it was all Vari-Lite VL5s and VL6s, which don’t have fans in them,” Baldassari says. “Those fixtures are not really an option anymore, so this time around, instead of VL5s, we used Martin Professional MAC 700 Wash lights in studio mode, which are very quiet.” Also chosen for their low noise levels were PRG Best Boy 4000 Spots and Robert Juliat Victor followspots.
Choosing the most appropriate gear for the production is important to Baldassari because the technical side is meant to make it easier for the actors to do their jobs. “When technical doesn’t go well, it is like you’re building a wall between the actors and the audience,” he explains. “It’s imperative that we keep the wall as low as possible so that the actors don’t have to climb over it to get to the audience. It is our job to push that wall down into the floor at all costs.”
On The Screen
Co-director of Cabaret, Rob Marshall invited Baldassari to help light the 2009 film Nine. Marshall, Baldassari, and director of photography Dion Beebe built every cue together for the 14 musical numbers in the film. “Working with a precision director like Marshall was like no other experience,” Baldassari says. Since Marshall is a Broadway choreographer and director, all the musical numbers and rehearsals were done exactly in the manner of a Broadway show. With full preps for musical and technical rehearsals on the full-size, duplicate practice set next door and then at least a full day of tech for each musical number on the real set, Baldassari admits that “doing this film was like running a marathon every day.”
When Adam Shankman’s film Rock Of Ages came along, Baldassari knew he had to be the one to light it. “I was a real student of that kind of music and a real student of concerts of that era,” the designer says. “That music made me want to become a lighting designer. I said, ‘Adam, I have to do this movie. I have already lit these songs in my head a hundred times over.’”
While designing for Rock Of Ages, Baldassari decided that he could not just recreate the same lighting they had in the ‘80s. “It had to be a much more heightened version of ‘80s concert lighting because it had to be the way you remember it, which is always way cooler than the way it actually was,” he says. Baldassari manipulated modern lighting to emulate what we remember as the best of the ‘80s. He took aluminum six-lamp PAR bars with octagonal gel frames—“ubiquitous in the ‘80s,” he says—and made sure they were somewhere in the shot during big music scenes like in the club, arena, or stadium. The PAR bars were mostly down low, while the modern lighting was higher, out of the view of the camera. “I also disguised the modern lights by putting octagonal gel frames on the front of them,” Baldassari says.
For the arena and stadium sequences, he put the gel frames on scrollers, which were not available yet in the ‘80s, to be able to change the color on an entire back wall of PARs. Additionally, Baldassari found 12 of perhaps the last working Vari-Lite VL2Cs and placed them strategically onstage, around the drum riser and on top of the amplifiers, to be in as many camera shots as possible. “Being a student of that era, it was great to be able to pay tribute to some of the people who were my influences,” confesses Baldassari, “and I very lovingly paid homage to some of the lighting designs that I remember and saw in videos of the time.”
Right now, Baldassari is working on CBS Upfront, a combination of a corporate event and TV show to be held at Carnegie Hall in May. Bruce Rodgers has designed a very large set for the show, which blends lighting, projection, and scenery for the ultimate visual effect. “The challenge on a show like that is making something really great in the room but also great on camera,” Baldassari says. He has also recently designed lighting for a touring production of Beauty And The Beast, with set design by David Gallo, currently running in Moscow and beginning a Dutch tour in the fall, as well as a special with Bridget Everett for Comedy Central that is in the editing stage.
Baldassari will be speaking at the New York Master Classes: Lighting + Projection, June 2-4 at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and The Gallatin School, where he will share his advice on remaining versatile in the entertainment industry. “You have to be able to do great lighting,” he asserts, “but you also have to be able to adapt it for whatever the medium is that you’re trying to capture it in.” While he may be a jack of all genres, Baldassari is nevertheless a master of lighting.