Billington strikes again

Ken Billington provides Broadway with an end-of-season triple play By any standard, Ken Billington is a busy man. The very model of a modern LD, his list of projects at any given time will include Broadway and Off Broadway shows, restaurant interiors, theme park rides, ice shows, and such one-of-a-kind events as The Radio City Christmas Spectacular and the Disneyland nighttime extravaganza "Fantasmic!" On Broadway, however, this is Billington's big year, as he won both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for his chiaroscuro, film-noir-in-color design of the 1975 musical "Chicago" (see Lighting Dimensions, November 1996); amazingly, these are the first New York awards for the LD of such Broadway shows as "Sweeney Todd," "On the Twentieth Century," and "Tru."

But even by his own standards of activity, Billington may have outdone himself at the end of this theatre season, when he opened three Broadway shows in just over a month. It all started with the 20th anniversary revival of "Annie," which opened at the Martin Beck Theatre March 26, continued with "Dream," a revue of Johnny Mercer songs, which opened at the Royale Theatre April 3, and concluded with a production of the Leonard Bernstein operetta "Candide," which opened at the Gershwin Theatre April 29.

Billington points out that he didn't originally plan on such a hectic schedule. "'Candide' was signed a year in advance," he says, "so I knew those dates. With 'Dream,' after we came back from Nashville [where the show played a tryout engagement last fall] nobody knew when it was coming into New York. There were no theatres available. And with 'Annie,' [the producers] didn't have a New York theatre when we went out of town.

"Then, all of a sudden, everything all came together at the same time. In the meantime, I had taken another musical, 'Jeanne la Pucelle,' which was done in Montreal. So, it was four musicals in two and a half months. Then in the middle of all this, we had to do the Easter show at Radio City and the ice show 'The Discover Card Canadian Tour,' which becomes 'Chrysler Stars on Ice.' We also had to do the national tour of 'Chicago,' too." To quote one of the songs in "Dream," something's gotta give.

One thing that gave Billington an edge was that going into New York he had experience with all three productions. "Dream" was staged last fall at Tennessee Repertory Theatre in Nashville, while "Annie" had been on tour for six months. "Candide" was based on a production the LD had done with director Harold Prince and the same design team (scenic designer Clarke Dunham and costume designer Judith Dolan) for New York City Opera in 1982.

Still, Billington's triple play is a remarkable achievement made even more interesting by the fact that the three productions, all of them musicals, represent sharply different styles. Annie is an old-fashioned book musical, which moves in more or less naturalistic fashion from one specific location to another. "Dream" is a revue, dedicated to music and mood rather than story. "Candide" is satire on an epic scale, with a globe-trotting plot that spoofs the conventions of operetta to articulate the cynical, worldly-wise anti-philosophy of its original author, Voltaire. It's hard to imagine three more diverse works.

In some ways, "Dream" is the most spectacular of Billington's three designs. Although technically plotless, the show has a distinct structure that is meant to evoke the many aspects of Mercer's creative personality. The show is divided into five sections; in each of them director/choreographer Wayne Cilento moves the singers and dancers through the play list in a manner calculated to create a sense of implied relationships. Scene One, titled "Savannah--The Age of Innocence," looks at Mercer's southern origins and features star Lesley Anne Warren vamping the men in the cast as they perform such honey-and-magnolia numbers as "Pardon My Southern Accent," "Skylark," and "The Dixieland Band." Scene Two, "Magnificent Obsession--The Age of Decadence," is set in a late-night club setting; broken hearts and missed opportunities are on tap here, as the sequence culminates in Margaret Whiting's stunning rendition of "One For My Baby." The first act concludes with Scene Three, "The Rainbow Room," a dreamily romantic sequence featuring socialites, debutantes, and cigarette girls, all set in Manhattan's most famous night spot, with such velvety ballads as "You Were Never Lovelier," "I'm Old-Fashioned," and "Dearly Beloved."

Act II begins with "Hollywood Canteen," an energetic tribute to our boys in World War II, which includes revved-up renditions of "G.I. Jive," "Tangerine," and "Jeepers Creepers." The final section, "Academy Awards," could have come from an actual Oscar broadcast, with his giant statuettes spinning around the stage and its hit parade of songs such as "Hooray for Hollywood," "The Days of Wine and Roses," and "Moon River."

Billington's approach to "Dream" came out of conversations with the director/choreographer. "Having worked with Wayne a number of times, I knew exactly what he was looking for. It was going to be very heavy with dance, so we needed to do a lot of dance lighting. There needed to be movement in the lighting as well as the choreography--and by that I mean cues as opposed to lights moving physically, which we do some of. A lot of it is lit more like a dance concert than a revue."

However, it was clear from the start that David Mitchell's elaborate scenic design (which features, among other things, recreations of the Rainbow Room, two onstage trains, a moving bandstand, and those Oscar statues), would take up the lion's share of the available backstage space. "I couldn't get any traditional dance lighting positions, like shinbusters and low lights, because of scenery," says Billington.

For "Dream"'s initial engagement in Nashville, Billington brought his own lighting package--including an ETC Obsession ML board--which he augmented with the theatre's existing front-of-house equipment, plus 10 High End Systems Cyberlight(R) automated luminaires. As the LD notes, the Nashville engagement provided some notable challenges.

"We never did the last scene--the Hollywood section--because there never was enough time to rehearse it, so when we opened the show down there, we didn't do it. We put the intermission someplace else and ended after the 1940s section. Unfortunately, the only songs the theatre had advertised were from the Hollywood section--'Moon River' and all that--and the audience was complaining.

"We had the set for it. I could easily light it and the company knew the songs, but we had never staged a thing. And it was a busy show that we attempted to do in seven days down there. So we barely got to our performances, then the producer said, 'You need to put in the Hollywood section.' I said, 'Okay, let's pretend we're at Carnegie Hall doing a benefit. At 1 we get the company, at 5 we go to dinner, and the show is at 7.' It was fast and furious."

When "Dream" found a New York booking, Billington continues, "the only theatre available was the Royale, which is not big enough, probably by 12' in depth, so the whole show got squashed; the dance space had to be the same, so we lost room backstage. I lost more lighting positions, so I have less equipment in New York than I had in Nashville."

Because the space directly over the stage is taken up with projection equipment (the images, designed by Howard Werner, are shot into a mirror, which bounces the image onto the rear cyc), Billington had very little in the way of overhead positions. "So," he says, "we added a few more moving lights." The final total for moving lights on the project is seven Vari*Lite(R) VL5(TM) wash luminaires, eight VL6(TM) spot luminaires, and six High End Systems Cyberlight SV(R) automated luminaires. With this equipment, as well as a considerable number of conventional units (see equipment list, pp. 46-47) the designer went to work. "There were problems in the opening scenes," he says. For the second scene, "we loved what we had done in Nashville, so I just put the cues on the board, as well as the third scene. It wasn't just that we transposed everything--there were new cues added. Then Act II we pretty much made up again, starting from scratch."

With his diverse rig and few natural positions, Billington put his units wherever he could find available space. Two VL6 spot luminaires are located on opposite sides of the proscenium, about 7' (2m) high. A VL5 wash luminaire is placed downstage on the floor. "Then I had lamps hanging in odd positions underneath the theatre boxes. Because the show came out about 3' (1m) in front of the proscenium, it covers the whole orchestra pit. On Broadway, that space was never meant to be used. It's difficult to light, so we had to go to places where you don't normally put units." Speaking of the automated luminaires, he says, "I used the Cyberlights because I needed rotating gobos; I also need color changing and to put split dichroic templates in it. I used the Vari*Lites because they're small and fit nicely into the positions that I have."

In a way, "Dream" is designed as five mini-musicals, each with its own look. Throughout each sequence, the lighting acts cinematically, using changes in color and direction to provide shifts in mood and tempo the way that fades, wipes, and closeups work on the motion picture screen. The Savannah section features gorgeous, hot, saturated colors, including a fiery sunset. "We start out with dawn, then it goes into a hot day, then from sunset to night--then there are moments when it just breaks away to become an MGM musical. There's not a lot of scenery onstage there, but there is hanging moss with lots of templates. I had two ETC Source Fours on every ladder--there are three on each side, so there were six template lights on each side with [Wybron Coloram] color changers.

The nightclub sequence has a moodier look. "It's all about shafts of light," says Billington, describing the architectural use of beams to create a specific environment. This is seen clearly in the scene's closer, "One For My Baby," in which Margaret Whiting is viewed in a warm shaft of white light, while the actor playing the mute bartender to whom she sings is seen upstage in a much colder beam of white light. The effect is minimal and gripping. "What's going on backstage is the bandstand for the next scene is being flown in," says the LD, "so we figured how to make it right and then turned off all the other lights. It looked great, so we stopped there."

The Rainbow Room sequence features a ceiling with recessed lighting, an effect created, says Billington, by "some very inexpensive rope lights. Then, from the balcony rail, there are some [Source Fours] focused on the middle of the ceiling, with Morpheus ColorFaders on them. A ColorFader gives you every color in the rainbow on the front of a leko. It's a wonderful product."

Color helps define each scene. The second scene, the nightclub sequence, Billington says, is "more into magentas, ambers, and purples." But the Rainbow Room sequence is "blue and blue-green as well as a lot of clear, and then a touch of magenta. Then when you go into the 1940s section, that's all about hot yellows and bright magentas. Then the movie section is a lot of variations of blues."

Overall, says Billington, his design for Dream is "about space, space, space." At one point, during the 1940s section, a ground row is flown in. It works as a design element, but it's also there to provide coverage that doesn't conflict with the projection system overhead. The stage manager, the LD says, is located "stage right, 28' or 30' in the air, looking at a wall. She has a monitor of the conductor, a color monitor of the stage, an infrared monitor, and that's it."

For this and other reasons, Dream is an extremely complex machine. "The stagehands are more choreographed than the dancers," says Billington. There's no room for the performers, who have to wait in the hallways until their next cue. Speaking of lighting cues, Billington says, "I would say 70% of the show is bumps, counting from zero. There are so many cues that the stage managers count the bars of music to get all the bumps right. It's the most complex show in the number of bumps that have to happen on the music."

A lot of what made the experience work, Billington adds, is his collaboration with Cilento. "Wayne truly understands lighting," the LD says. "He has a good sense of timing and isn't a dictator at all. It was a great collaboration. Revues are all about making each scene, each song, look different, not doing repeats, taking a whole evening of, in this case, 44 different songs and making 44 different looks. That becomes very difficult. But Wayne was all for it, so we had a good time doing it." Lighting equipment for "Dream" was supplied by Four Star Lighting, with Vari-Lite providing its own automated fixtures. The large-format projection equipment was supplied by Production Arts, with Pani projection images processed by WACE and Chroma Copy and the Hollywood and Train projection sequences by Kaleidoscope/ Karen Joregenson.

"Dream," says Billington, "called on all my years of experience." With "Candide," on the other hand, the LD already had years of experience. "It's basically the production we had done in 1982 for New York City Opera. I have done it at City Opera on and off for many years, and it was rented to Houston Grand Opera at one point and then Chicago Lyric Opera about two years ago. So my knowledge of the show is great."

Billington says that he was satisfied with the look of "Candide" until the Chicago engagement. Then, "I looked at it and it needed to be rethought. It needed moving lights, color changers. It needed to be more 90s than 80s in the lighting. We needed a little more crispness, more variation to help transport you to all these different locations. This time the plot is considerably bigger than what I had before."

Prince's conception of "Candide" is a play-within-a-play, with the story being presented by the members of Dr. Voltaire's Freaks and Wonders Carnival. The scenery, which includes circus posters and draping, extends beyond both sides of the proscenium to special areas where audience members view the action. The stage, therefore, is very wide and very deep. Working off his memories of the older design, Billington started out. "When we did it the first time, moving lights were just beginning. I did it with six followspots--two in the booth, one in each box, left and right, and two upstage left and right. This time I cut the upstage ones and replaced them with moving lights. The frontlight rarely comes on. I think there's a whole position of front area lights which come on during the bow and that's the only time we use them. Otherwise, it's followspots and box booms. And my crosslight downstage, in front of the proscenium, is one 26-degree Source Four in clear and one 26-degree Source Four in blue from each side. There's very little; again, it was good economy of equipment."

In general, when Billington uses color in "Candide," "it is in very broad strokes." During the auto-da-fe sequence, when Candide and Dr. Pangloss watch poor innocents tortured as heretics, there are bold slashes of red. Later when the action moves to Cartegena, in the New World, the look is golden amber and yellow. "When we go to El Dorado," the mythical Eden-like land, "it's primary green with yellow sidelights. All the color statements are very clear and bold. Also, in each position there is one circuit of no color and one circuit of blue (Lee 161)." The result is a design that uses white light to give a sharp definition to the action and then bold color washes to make specific statements--a perfectly appropriate technique for a series of boldly caricatured scenes that are roughly equivalent to the panels of a comic strip.

In fact, in a show rife with burlesque gags, lighting provides one of the funniest moments. During a scene at a ball, dancing couples are glimpsed in silhouette behind a scrim. As the waltz becomes faster and wilder, the dancing becomes more athletic--until it becomes clear that the women dancers actually are dummies, a fact not apparent until one sees their shadows literally flying across the stage as their partners hurl them around.

Atypically, "Candide" was supplied by Westsun Show Systems, a Toronto-based company which provides equipment for virtually everything done by Livent, the producer of "Candide." This was a new experience for Billington. "I called them and said, 'You know, when I'm doing a show and we find a mistake or a problem or a change, I can call the New York shops and I know how fast I can get something to the theatre if, say, I need a couple more units. For something as simple as that, if it really is crucial, the shops will put a guy in a car and I'll have the units in 45 minutes. How are we going to solve that?' So they sent a lot of spare equipment. I never once got caught. Every time I wanted something, it was in the theatre, so it wasn't a problem at all. They serviced the show perfectly."

Again, for "Candide," Billington used various Source Fours for the bulk of his conventional plot (see equipment list, pp. 46-47), many of which used Wybron Coloram color changers. His automated lighting list includes eight VL5B(TM) wash luminaires and eight VL6 spot luminaires from Vari*Lite; this time he used two High End Systems Cyberlight SVs, "again, because I wanted rotating templates and the punch of a 1,200W unit." Control is provided via the ETC Obsession ML board.

One other plus factor on "Candide" was its location--the Gershwin Theatre. "I've done more shows there than in any theatre in New York," says Billington. "There's plenty of power, lots of positions to hang lights, and you can do most anything in it. I've done so many shows there that, when I needed a special, I said to my electrician, 'Let's hang that on the pipe in front of the booth." Everyone said, 'There is no pipe in front of the booth.' I said, 'There's a pipe hidden up there, and there are six circuits running to it.' Nobody had ever seen this position, so they finally called the head electrician and he said, 'Oh, yes, but we haven't used it since Ken was here, years ago.' "

Compared to these productions, Billington says that the 20th anniversary revival of Annie required him to take a more self-effacing role. "'Annie,'" he says, "is a musical where the scenery is beautiful and you watch the play and probably don't notice the lighting. If somebody is in the business, they may notice it, but nobody else should really be aware of what I do there. 'Dream' is much showier--also 'Candide,' which is supposed to be a freak show and carnival."

The LD adds that he achieved "Annie"'s crisp, sharp look with very little sidelight. "The lowest lamp is 18' (5m) off the floor," he says, "because of all those big scenery units. For Broadway, I added a little bit more equipment, but not a lot." As for moving lights, "we're using four Martin PALs on the show, which never move. They're there for templates, motivation light coming through windows or across the set. Their shuttering ability made them work for me--also, it's a very bright fixture. You can line up the template and shutter it in and it's great. It was perfect on Annie; it saved having to hang two more pipes of lights, which is very good, because there aren't very many lights on Annie. There are four pipe units and then some striplights for the drops, and three followspots." Again, "Annie," which was supplied by Four Star Lighting, makes extensive use of Source Fours, many with Wybron Colorams, as well as three Lycian followspots, with control provided by an ETC Obsession.

Beyond the design of the three shows, of course, lay the logistics of getting them done. "I had Benjamin Pearcy with me on 'Dream' [also on "Candide," as lighting design associate] and Marcia Madeira came in to be my associate on 'Annie;' being a pretty good lighting designer herself, she did the focus of 'Annie.' I came in and lit it for the first preview. We loaded in the show on a Monday morning, then there was a Thursday preview, so we just got there. Then we had a lighting call the next week and it took four hours one morning to do Act I, and four hours another morning to do Act II. We cleaned it up and got it looking like a grown-up Broadway musical. It didn't look bad; we were doing the old cues, which looked fine. Then, when we had time, we sat down and really lit it--because we didn't, going into the previews. Then 'Dream' opened the day we focused 'Candide.'"

Such scheduling nightmares happen, the LD says, because "if you don't know when it's coming, do you want to turn down a Broadway musical you like, with people you enjoy working with, that doesn't have a Broadway date? It's that awful thing of everyone trying to get a show into New York the same week," a reference to the race to open Broadway shows just before the May 1 Tony Awards deadline, which this year caused a particularly hellish traffic jam of big shows opening one right after another. Again, he notes, "I had done all the shows before, so I knew where I was going, and I didn't get into trouble on any of them. They all looked good. I didn't make any blind blunders. If I had, it would have kept me in one theatre, when I should have been in another. It should be the problem everybody has, but it was exhausting."

There was, however, he adds, a bright spot in all this end-of-season madness: "The part was, at the same time I was doing all these shows, Beverly Emmons was next door at the Plymouth doing 'Jekyll and Hyd'e. Peter Kaczorowski was around the corner at the Richard Rodgers at 'Steel Pier'. Paul Gallo was on 'Titanic' at the Lunt-Fontanne. Jeff Davis was at the Brooks Atkinson doing 'Play On!' David Hersey was relighting 'Les Miz.' We'd all meet at the Edison [Hotel] coffee shop and it was like lighting designer heaven. It was fun because we could talk about our problems and everybody would understand what was going on. I actually wanted to get us all together for dinner one night and take a picture of us all--one afternoon on Broadway this month."


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Lighting Suppliers Westsun Show Systems; Vari-Lite, Inc.

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Lighting Supplier Four Star Lighting

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