David Gallo Goes Phishing

Tony Award-winning Broadway scenic and projection designer David Gallo spread his net a little wider last year and caught Phish, a band that creates its own special brand of midnight madness every New Year’s Eve. This year, as the countdown began for the rollover from 2010 to 2011, Phish was in the middle of a four-hour concert at Madison Square Garden when they launched into a special version of “The Meatstick” song, produced, directed, and designed by Gallo.

“I love live music,” says Gallo from his Manhattan studio. “When I met with the band, Phish was a natural fit. They aren’t looking for anything specific, they are looking for an idea, total conceptualization, but it has to come from the world of Phish—an incredible anything-goes kind of world–so I had to get into the heads of the band and the fans.”

In his first Phish outing, for New Year’s Eve 2009 at the American Airlines Arena in Miami. “We lowered a giant mirror ball and strapped the drummer from the band inside, and shot it out of a cannon,” explains Gallo. “He was shot toward a net but it looks like the mirror ball goes through the ceiling. We had a moving light up there to simulate a police helicopter with its lighting sweeping the audience. People really thought we shot him out of the arena.”

To keep the gag going, a replacement drummer (Gallo’s manager Sarah) was pulled out of the audience, but the real drummer reappears on stage in a dress, so it looks as if Sarah was drumming for the rest of the show. To top it all off, when the audience left at the end, the mirror ball was on top of a fictitious car (that Gallo says ran on maple syrup) and the car was on fire, fueling rumors that the drummer was dead. Ah the insanity of it all.

This year, Gallo put hotdogs in a starring role, by retrieving a giant foam-covered steel-framed hotdog that is part of Phish lore, dating from a 1996 concert in Boston and reappearing in a 2000 millennium show in Florida. “It had been hanging in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland,” explains Gallo. “And although everyone on the project was sworn to secrecy—even the dancers didn’t know what they were hired for in the beginning—once a fan noticed the hotdog gone from the Hall of Fame, there was speculation on the Internet that we were using it. So we concocted a whole cover story about why it was gone.”

Before the Madison Square Garden performance, Daedalus Design & Production in Brooklyn refurbished the giant hotdog so that the CO2 tanks and lights inside, as well as the seatbelts, all worked. “The idea was to take this funny little song, The Meatstick, and make it into a massive production number,” says Gallo. Dancers appeared in costumes representing many different nationalities, from Mexican Mariachi musicians and orthodox rabbis to Swedish snow bunnies. Cynthia Nordstrom designed the costumes while Chris Kuroda, Phish’s veteran LD designed the lighting for the entire New Year’s Eve show, of which “The Meatstick” was an 18-minute interlude at midnight.

“In keeping with this concept, we even redesigned the Phish logo to look like the Nathan’s hotdog logo,” says Gallo, who explains that the band gets onto the hotdog which then moves 220’ horizontally on a traveler track lifted from a ‘vom’ and out 35’ over the audience.” With 50 dancers on stage in outlandish costumes, not to mention a hotdog vendor with a cart, the audience may not have even noticed the band was missing until they reappear atop the hotdog, tossing foam hotdogs into the crowd and red hotdog-like balloons fill the air (check out the video). Phish made it back on stage for the midnight rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

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