Gotta dance: Ken Billington finds himself Footloose on Broadway

The Broadway season got off to a dancing start with Footloose, a new musical based on the 1984 Herbert Ross film, which made a star out of Kevin Bacon and spawned its own hit parade of pop tunes. The book, by Walter Bobbie (who also directed) and Dean Pitchford (who wrote the original screenplay) follows the film closely: Ren McCormack is a teenager uprooted from Chicago to the one-horse town of Bomont (state unspecified) after his father takes off for good. Ren's nervy, street-smart attitude doesn't go down too well in Bomont, where bridge and churchgoing are the main social activities, and where dancing is banned outright. His plan to stage a school dance puts him in direct conflict with the Rev. Shaw Moore, who is tormented by the death of his son a few years before.

Footloose is a frankly populist work, which didn't exactly cause the critics to dance in the street. However, the show's producer, Dodger Endemol Theatricals, has a unique marketing plan, targeting suburban family audiences that don't necessarily go to the theatre on a regular basis. Not for nothing was the show originally intended for Madison Square Garden, where productions of A Christmas Carol and The Wizard of Oz are annual events. Furthermore, by the time you read this, a national tour will already be sending Footloose on its way through the American heartland.

Footloose reunites LD Ken Billington with Bobbie and scenic designer John Lee Beatty, his colleagues from the smash hit revival of the musical Chicago. Perhaps because of Chicago's highly presentational style, critics were quick to notice the more overt aspects of Billington's work--the exposed moving lights and strong use of color. Certainly those things are there to be seen, but in other respects Footloose has an intensively detailed and rather subtle lighting design. In fact, what'smost interesting about Footloose is the intimacy of Billington's collaboration with Beatty, whose metallic blue box set occasionally opens up to reveal Van Gogh-like abstractions of rural landscapes. Beatty's design works as a canvas for the lighting, but also as a frame for it--lighting is built into virtually every aspect of the scenery.

Billington says that the workshop version of Footloose, staged by Bobbie in July 1997, helped clarify what its design should be. "I saw the workshop three times. It was like a gift; I watched a fully staged show, except for a couple of dance numbers. I took Walter aside and said, 'I think it's a big moving light show.' " And so it is, but not entirely: "We use moving lights during the opening number, which is set in a club in Chicago, and for the closing number, which is set in a gym--you can imagine they had lighting put in for the dance. Then, during previews, the number 'Holding Out for a Hero' was changed to make it a fantasy, so we added moving lights to that. But otherwise, we don't move them except during transitions between scenes."

Footloose puts its flashiest foot forward in the opening number, which introduces us to Ren and moves him from Chicago to Bomont. The Footloose show curtain is removed to reveal two pipes bearing three kinds of Morpheus moving lights--575W FaderBeams, 600W Power Spots, and 600W Power Softs. These pipes rise up but remain in view, strutting their stuff throughout the number. In addition, six dozen Thomas PAR-36 units (13V 100W) placed in the deck percolate throughout the song, giving the set the look of a dance club in full throttle (the stage floor has grille areas, which permit the light to come through). The total effect is kinetic, transforming the stage into a light box with as much energy as the dancing chorus.

Billington--who when called upon can provide subtle, understated work for plays such as Tru or Moon Over Buffalo, but who also designs for Ann-Margret and the Radio City Christmas and Easter Spectaculars--says the opening number runs counter to traditional Broadway practice. "In the concert world, this is simple stuff. But on Broadway, you never see moving lights aimed at the audience. Look at something like Ragtime, which makes brilliant use of moving lights. I know there are moving lights in it, but the audience never does."

Billington's choice of Morpheus moving lights is interesting, as the company is not over-represented on Broadway. However, the LD says that they were uniquely suited to his needs on this production. "The FaderBeam is an incandescent, full color-mixing, full-spectrum, spot and flood, moving-yoke unit. The [Vari*Lite(R)] VL5(TM), the Clay Paky Stage Line, the [High End] Studio Colors(R)--all of them frost, but none of them spot and flood. Because of the full color-mixing, I can have saturated and pale colors--and it's DMX-able.

"The Power Soft is brighter than anything else I've seen, and it too does full color mixing, plus it spots and floods. The Power Spot is also very bright--plus, these are small units. The other thing Morpheus has which nobody else does is the SP6 bar. It's a bar that hooks onto the pipe, with six fixtures attached to it. When you change a fixture out, it just snaps off the SP6 bar; you can put up a new unit and you don't have to refocus. We've never had to refocus the show--just a little bit, when we came into New York [after the Washington, DC, tryout]. When the show goes on tour, the bar with the lights attached comes off the pipe and hangs on a rolling meat rack."

Billington adds that the first number, which involves 100 light cues, was plotted out in his office using A.C. Lighting's WYSIWYG software. "Instead of spending four days in the theatre lighting the scene, we did it in a day and a half."

The opening sequence also sets up the dual natures of the show's design. The title number doesn't come to a big finish; instead it segues into the song "On Any Sunday," which establishes the placid pace of life in Bomont. Here, Billington dispenses with moving lights and brash colors for a restrained palette, and touches like arbor breakups on the walls, which soften the look of the scenery. A number of light boxes built into the set walls are used, in some scenes, to create a Bomont streetscape defined by a series of lit windows (the same effect is used to create a Chicago skyline in the opening number and for windows in the school gym). Also, Beatty's countryside drops have such a radiant quality because, says Billington, "They are translucent, with a bounce drop behind them. They're frontlit from the balcony rail, with striplights overhead, and backlit with a groundrow and overhead pipe consisting of 66 Source Four PARs. Sometimes the DHA Light Curtains, which are used mostly for backlight, refocus and frontlight the drops."

In other scenes, some of Beatty's most notable scenic effects are the result of close collaboration with Billington. Two scenes take place at the Burger Blast restaurant, the local teen hangout, where Ren works as a waiter (on roller skates). The main scenic piece is a giant electric Burger Blast sign, which performs a series of sizzle and chase sequences during the number "Holding Out for a Hero," which is sung by Ariel, the girl of Ren's dreams. "John Lee designed the Burger Blast sign," says the LD, adding, "we talked about it at length, about sizzling and non-sizzling letters. He did the layout and together we figured out the bulbs."

Also, Act II begins with a scene set at the Bar-B-Que Country and Western Bar, a roadhouse outside of Bomont where Ren takes his friends dancing (it's here that Stacy, Ariel's best friend, sings, "Let's Hear It for the Boy"). The Bar-B-Que set is dominated by dozens of hanging lightbulbs (a collection of A19s, PAR-20s, and S11s). Again, says Billington, "John Lee figured out where he wanted the bulbs, then I had to figure out which types to use." He adds, laughing, "You know, people don't realize the lighting designer has to worry about these things."

There are other instances of overhead lighting in Beatty's sets as well. The Burger Blast has four rows of fluorescent units that span a yellow-to-orange spectrum. Billington specified dimmable fluorescents from Lighting & Electronics. Later, when Ren asks the city council to overturn the ban on dancing, the overhead lighting unit consists of Altman MR-11 striplights.

Two other scenes have very distinct looks. In the Act I number "Somebody's Eyes," Stacy and her friends instruct Ren in the destructive ways of small-town gossip. The number is staged with members of the chorus prowling the stage, eyeing each other suspiciously while a series of saturated side washes adds to the tension onstage. (For the record, the bulk of Billington's plot is made up of ETC Source Fours and Source Four PARs, with Wybron Coloram scrollers providing the color.) The Act II ballad "Almost Paradise" features Ren and Ariel pledging their love on top of a railroad bridge. More Thomas PARs are built into the bottom of the bridge, to create a vivid passing-train effect. Behind the young lovers is a lovely starry sky created not by a fiber-optic curtain but a series of small bulbs placed against a dark backdrop. "I've always found, quite honestly, that lightbulbs are better," says the LD. "The secret is to have them on more than one circuit--with low intensity for some, and a higher intensity for others. There are four circuits each on the back wall and the two side walls." The final touch in this scene is a water effect--for the river below the bridge--created by two GAM Products TwinSpins, 10 DHA Gobo Rotators, and two White Light WaveFXs.

Of course, in the final scene, love and music triumph, the school dance is held, and the lighting gets to rock out with a reprise of the title tune. Interestingly, says Billington, "It was originally a more sedate number lighting-wise. But we felt the audience wanted more. Then we decided the number was going that way, so we decided to go for it with the lighting." Control for the show is provided by an ETC Obsession 1500, for the conventional units, and a Wholehog II, from A.C. Lighting/ Flying Pig Systems, for the moving lights. Also used are six 96x2.4kW ETC Sensor dimmer racks with advanced features--"three racks for lights and three racks for the light-up scenery," the designer says.

Overall, Billington says, just as the show didn't change much during its out-of-town tryout, the lighting concept remained relatively unchanged as well. "It was one of the nicest experiences I've ever had," he says, citing the pleasant tone set by Bobbie. "We knew where we were going. We were well-prepared. We went out to dinner every night. We'd go out for a burger after the show, we'd be back in the morning, having a good time. There was never once a raised voice, a harsh word. We had fun. We did the show as well as we could and it was a joy to go to the theatre every day." In Broadway terms, you could call that almost paradise.

Designer Ken Billington

Producer Dodger Endemol Theatricals

General Manager David Strong Warner, Inc. Sherman Warner

Production Electrician Michael LoBue

Equipment List (3) Lycian 2kW xenon followspots (1) ETC Source Four 10-degree (95) ETC Source Four 19-degree (167) ETC Source Four 26-degree (66) ETC Source Four 36-degree (10) ETC Source Four 50-degree (14) ETC Source Four PAR NSP (85) ETC Source Four PAR MFL (2) ETC Source Four PAR VNSP cold mirror (2) ETC Source Four Zoom 25-50-degree (2) 2kW RDS machines with film loop OL-6 (2) 500W MFL PAR-56s (5) 500W mini-tens (6) 3" 150W fresnels (8) 3" 420W peppers (6) 8" 12-light 500W WFL PAR-56 striplights (20) Altman 5' MR-11 FTD 20W Micro-Strips (10) Altman 1'8" MR-11 FTD 20W Micro-Strips (13) 6' 30-light MR-16 75W EYC striplights (7) 6' 30-light MR-16 75W EYF striplights (3) 2' MR-16 20W ESX striplights (10) DHA 6' Digital Light Curtains with DMX control (36) Lighting & Electronics FLR-1 dimmable fluorescents (84) P36 13V ACLs (22) Morpheus FaderBeams (12) Morpheus Power Spots (8) Morpheus Power Softs (50) A-size template holders for Source Four (2) Iris for Source Four (2) GAM Products TwinSpins (10) DHA Gobo Rotators (10) Wybron Goborams for Source Four (88) Wybron Colorams for Source Four (21) Wybron Colorams for Source Four PAR (15) Morpheus ColorFaders for Source Four (2) White Light WaveFXs for use with Source Four PAR with DMX control (8) Wybron 24-channel Coloram power supplies (1) MDG Atmosphere hazer (1) Bowen Jet Stream wind machine (80) City Theatrical tophats for Source Four (30) City Theatrical half-hats for Source Four (12) City Theatrical half-hats for Source Four Coloram (25) Color Extenders for Source Four (6) ETC Sensor 96x2.4kw high-density dimmer racks (1) ETC Obsession 1500 console with A/B tower with MIDI capability (2) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II consoles with monitors (1) ETC Obsession Remote Focus Unit (2) UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) (5) DMX Opto Splitters (1) Obsession Remote Interface ETCNet cable and terminators Light Curtain software