City lights LD Richard Pilbrow brings back the seedy side of 42nd Street in "The Life"


Ironically, "The Life" has arrived on Broadway just as the neighborhood it evokes has been revitalized. The XXX-rated movies and practitioners of the world's oldest profession have been moved out as 42nd Street has been cleaned up. "It's a wonderful irony," says LD Richard Pilbrow, who collaborated with set designer Robin Wagner and director Michael Blakemore to bring back the seamy world of pimps and prostitutes. "We opened just three weeks before the reopening of the New Amsterdam Theatre, where I was a consultant, and brought back the 42nd Street it has replaced," Pilbrow points out.

The atmosphere of this Cy Coleman-Ira Gasman musical is one of entrapment, a punishing environment where young women arriving in New York get off the bus at Port Authority only to discover the harsh realities of life around 42nd Street. "We tried to encompass the 8th Avenue scene of the 1980s, and all the buildings that were torn down in anticipation," says Wagner, whose sets recreate empty, debris-strewn lots between high brick walls and the interiors of sad bars and seedy hotel rooms. The heroine of "The Life" is Queen, a dreamer who hopes to make enough money to escape and buy a little house back home. It is only as she flirts dangerously with the richer elements on the street that the decor opens up to penthouses and rooftops where there is air and light. "There is also a release at the end of the show," Wagner notes. "The action is on a pier where you can look across the Hudson River to New Jersey, and there is a softer, mist-like atmosphere with breakup gobos in this scene."

For much of the production the 40' (12m) brick walls offer no escape. "They are a force that surrounds these people," he says. "What is projected on them is what brings the walls to life. The projections are like shadows of the city where light penetrates into this nest." Custom templates (made by Rosco) with New York City's archetypal architectural elements, including images of water towers and fire escapes, are projected with ETC Source Fours. The harshness of neon signs works as "a high-energy electric field that brings a cold light into this nameless, faceless world," says Wagner.

"The musical is an emotional rollercoaster ride from harsh and horrible to funny and heartwarming, bright and colorful," says Pilbrow. His lighting echoes these emotions, moving from a Brechtian white light to the garish colors of the neon signs. "I used a wide and diverse palette, from cold to fruity," he says, describing "The Life" as "sometimes more like Chekhov than a musical. Certain moments are very atmospheric and sad." He found the set somewhat of a challenge, as the tall brick walls offer few positions to get light on stage. As a result, the light plot calls for quite a bit of overhead backlight and high sidelight, while it was impossible for Pilbrow to use any shinbusters or low sidelight. He also used a total of 38 Vari*Lite(R) automated luminaires--16 1kW VL5Bs(TM), 20 standard lens 400W VL6s(TM), and two 400W medium lens VL6s--distributed among front-of-house truss, side box booms, side ladders, and some overhead positions.

The rig also includes 288 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and three Source Four PARs, and a small complement of fresnels and PAR-64s, as well as 17 Reich & Vogel 500W beamlights, L&E 75W MR-16 Mini-Strips and MR-16 250W birdies. To help sculpt the actors Pilbrow added both front and side followspots using two Lycian 1290 XLT 2kW xenons in the control booth and two Starklite 1.2kW HMIs in the box booms. Accessories include 49 Wybron Coloram scrollers used on the Source Four ellipsoidals and PARs and the PAR-64s. Rotating red and yellow police beacons and two Rosco 1500 fog machines add to the seaminess of the street scenes. The equipment is supplied by Four Star Lighting, except the automated luminaires, which are supplied by Vari-Lite.

As a result of Pilbrow's "great experiment" with moving lights as performed at PLASA and LDI in 1996, he turned to a WYSIWYG system with the Auto-Focus feature and two Wholehog II consoles from Flying Pig Systems to program the show. "An obsession of mine for years has been the slow process of programming moving lights," says Pilbrow. "I have been interested in the Wholehog and its automatic effects generator, but never used one before." To speed up the pre-focus process for "The Life," Pilbrow and his associate designer Dawn Chiang worked with moving lights programmer David Arch, assistant designer Michael Gottlieb, and supervising electrician Steve Cochrane on a pair of Wholehogs: one for moving lights and one for fixed instruments. Once the programming was completed, the two sets of cues were merged so that the entire show can be run by one board operator, in this case production electrician Steve Clem. Robert Bell of CAST Lighting provided technical support to ensure that the WYSIWYG system was accurate.

"The combination of WYSIWYG and the Wholehog works incredibly well," says Pilbrow, who enjoys the ability to instantly focus the moving lights. "WYSIWYG gives you a visual representation and the Wholehog screen gives you a written description of where all the lights are. You constantly know both visually and on a spreadsheet where everything is." The most exciting thing for the designers was the ability to use WYSIWYG to pre-focus the whole show in a dark theatre on a company day off. "There were no stage lights on," confirms Pilbrow. "We did the whole preset focus in less than an hour. Of course we had to fiddle around some afterward when the lights came on and we fine-tuned for about two hours, but we saved a huge amount of time. This is how lighting control should happen," he says, predicting a paradigm for the future.

"The Wholehogs allow names on all functions on the board, such as gobos, scrollers, and lights," explains Chiang. This is another time-saving feature which avoids the need to look up numbers. "This is the first Broadway show to use two Wholehogs to control all the lights," Chiang says. "Once the cue lists were merged, we linked the two consoles together so that cue one on the first board triggers cue one on the second board." In this way, both boards run the same sequence of cues at the same time, with the second board always available as a backup if needed. A MIDI link keeps the second board in sync. "It's a rough analogy, but working on a Wholehog is like moving from a typewriter to a word processor," says Chiang. "There was a lot more latitude in how Richard programmed the show, and you could refer to the WYSIWYG screen during the tech rehearsals to quickly see what the moving lights are doing."

Pilbrow took advantage of the diverse dichroic color palette of the Vari*Lite automated luminaires, especially in the Hooker's Ball scene, where splashy oranges, reds, yellows, and purples imitate a 1970s disco look. The lighting in the seedy neighborhood bar frequented by pimps and ladies of the night has a red tone set by the hard red of neon signs. MR-16s animate the bottles behind the bar, but the overall atmosphere is dusty and depressing. "There hasn't been any daylight in there for 100 years," says Pilbrow, who intentionally created a contrast between a sepia wash with a touch of straw and the harsher white light on the women. "It's like heightened realism," he explains, "with occasional moments of softness entering the ugliness of the environment." He also played with the contrast in color temperature between the colder VL6 lamps and the warmer VL5 incandescent light. "The VL6 cuts through conventional stage lighting wonderfully," he says.

One of the most haunting scenes is played against a towering chain link fence with razor-edge wire on top. The girls ply their trade in the light of oncoming cars--a stream of potential clients driving through the Lincoln Tunnel. Pilbrow hung PAR-64s gelled in steel blue on two frames upstage of the fence. These are moved side-to-side in opposite directions by a stagehand to give the effect of headlights oscillating as they approach in the darkness. As the cars speed by, the effect of sweeping headlights is achieved with two ETC 5-degree Source Fours hung on the balcony rail. "The light shoots sideways into a Vari*Lite VLM(TM) mirror which sweeps the light across the stage," explains Pilbrow.

"The set is like an anonymous container for the human emotion in 'The Life,'" he says. "This allows a sharper focus on the human beings and the costumes. The set is more retiring with well-modeled lighting on the bright costumes. The lighting allows the costumes to pull the characters out into the audience's lap." Designed by Martin Paklidenaz, the colorful costumes are a throwback to a bygone time in 42nd Street's history. Perhaps "The Life" has sensed a nostalgia for this seedier side of the street now that it only exists onstage at the Barrymore.

CONVENTIONAL FIXTURES (85) ETC Source Fours 19-degree 575W (186) ETC Source Fours 26-degree 575W (17) ETC Source Fours 36-degree 575W (3) ETC Source Four NSP 575W PARs (3) Strand 10" 5kW fresnels (3) Strand 8" 1kW fresnels (13) Altman 1kW VNSP PAR-64s (15) Altman NSP 1kW PAR-64s (4) Altman MFL 1kW PAR-64s (17) Reich & Vogel 500W/24V beamlights (3) L&E 6' 75W EYC MR-16 Mini-Strips (2) L&E 6' 75W EYF MR-16 Mini-Strips (8) 250W/110V EXX MR-16 Birdies (4) Altman 1kW Mini-10s (2) Lycian 1290 XLT 2kW xenon followspots (2) Lycian Starklite 1272 1.2kW HMI followspots

AUTOMATED LUMINAIRES (16) Vari*Lite VL5Bs (22) Vari*Lite VL6s (1) Vari*Lite VLM moving mirror unit Vari*Lite Smart Repeaters(TM)

ACCESSORIES (1) Wybron Coloram scroller for 2-5kW fresnels (23) Wybron Coloram scrollers for Source Four ellipsoidals (3) Wybron Coloram scrollers for Source Four PARs (22) Wybron Coloram scrollers for PAR-64s

MISCELLANEOUS (4) Rotating red police beacons (1) Rotating yellow police beacons (1) Police "Beacon Bar" with red, yellow, and white beacons (2) Rosco 1500 foggers

DIMMING AND CONTROL (4) ETC Sensor 96x2.4k dimmer racks (2) Strand CD80 12-packs (32) Strand 4k dimmers (1) ETC Sensor 6-pack Neon signs with dimmable neon controlled through Wholehog console (12) Logical Lighting radio frequency controlled transmitter/receivers (12) Logical Lighting radio frequency controlled 15A dimmers (2) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II control consoles (one as backup) (1) Flying Pig Systems WYSIWYG system with Auto-Focus