Creating A Sensation: Amanda Zieve Lights The Who’s Tommy On Broadway

Released in 1969 as a concept album, Tommy debuted on Broadway as The Who’s Tommy in 1993. One of the first productions created by rock musicians, and certainly the first to address issues of abuse, the audience is taken on an emotional journey within a musical narrative featuring some of the most well-known songs of the rock era.

Lighting designer Amanda Zieve is no stranger to musicals, having worked across America on everything from Titanic and HAIR to Evita and Rock of Ages. She’s also a regular on Broadway, having contributed to 19 productions before getting her first solo lighting designer credit on Tommy. In addition to an in-demand design career, Zieve’s impact in the industry extends beyond the lighting desk, she is the co-founder of the Howell Binkley Fellowship Program which offers mentoring and assistance to early career designers.   

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Zieve talked to Live Design about her work on the Tony-nominated revival of The Who’s Tommy, which opened at the Nederlander Theatre this spring.

Live Design: First, even though you are really a Broadway veteran, congratulations on your Broadway design debut! After previously working for other designers on some of the biggest shows, including Hamilton, did you feel prepared or was it still a big deal?

Amada Zieve: Oh, it’s still a big deal! It’s my 20th Broadway show so the previous experience helped. It did feel like working with my own Broadway family with people I’ve worked with before dropping by the theatre, but there were moments when I would think, “How do I do this?” and other moments where I felt that this is the dream.

LD: How did you get involved with the project?

AZ:  Des [McAnuff, two-time Tony-winning director] called me about it doing it at the Goodman in Chicago. We had worked together a little bit but it was still out of the blue. As co-writer and director for the original Broadway production [in 1993] it's always been a passion project of his, so I was very honored that he asked me to do it.

LD: McAnuff has actually been behind several anniversary concerts and other versions, did that make it harder for you to put your own stamp on it or add to the pressure at all?

AZ: Not really. I think a version ten years ago was closer to the original. I never got to see the 1993 version, but I watched some YouTube videos of Pinball Wizard and Parry’s work [Chris Parry was the original lighting designer and won the Tony Award for Best Lighting Design for his work on this show] where he had eight followspots and a rock ‘n’ roll vibe. But so many industry professionals think of Tommy so fondly. My production electrician, Eric Norris, told me it was the first Broadway show he went to, so yes, that was an added pressure.

However, we were very intentional about the design with just a few nods to the original. Peter [Negrini, projection designer] worked on storyboards for months so we were able to collaborate extensively once we had this roadmap of the visual imagery, and I could give my opinions from very early on.

LD: Can you talk us through some of your fixture choices?

AZ: I started hunting early on for something unique and managed to get Minuit Une IVL Photons, we use five in the show and it’s the first time they’ve been used on Broadway. They were sub-rented at the Goodman but PRG purchased them when we moved to Broadway. I was able to do a massive shoot up at the Goodman before we started to see what I wanted and was able to get all my first choices.

The Martin Mac Ultras really cut through with a very bright light. I was super happy with that choice and also the VL3600s, we use the color animation wheel in Acid Queen which has very psychedelic feel and as soon as I saw them demo'd I thought we probably had a place for them.

Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

It was also my first time with the GLP X5s. I used the X4s quite a bit on Hamilton, but the X5 is the best LED wash light I have used, there's something just extremely soft and pleasing to the eye about them.

LD: Favorite part of the design?

AZ: I really also enjoyed Sensation, because we keep the color palette very controlled until then. We have assigned a color to Tommy's different traumatic experiences and Sensation is the first time we open up in a colorful world with movement and energy.

Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

LD: The songs and the script for Tommy probably haven’t changed that much since 1993, but society and the audience has, so there is more of an awareness and discussion of trauma. How did this influence the design?

AZ: Yes, Tommy witnesses a murder and family members abuse him. We chose to put those traumatic experiences in a monochromatic world, for example, Cousin Kevin is wearing a burnt orange jacket and the entire environment is filled with this rich orange color.

Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

There are no colorful distractions from what’s happening. Each scene in act one is a different color but still monochromatic until we get to Sensation, when the stage becomes a kaleidoscope as he's discovering pinball for the first time. His world opens up and that progression leads up to the big payoff of Pinball Wizard at the end of the act, which is intense. That’s the first time that you see a multicolored stage.  

LD: What was the most challenging part of the design?

AZ: Deciding what to highlight. It’s a rock opera, so you could put in way more cues for the music and make it a concert but I wanted to keep it focused on the storytelling. There are big choreography numbers I wanted to enhance but without distracting from the dancers. I put a lot of thought into deciding where the music should be enhanced, I didn’t want to over cue.

LD: How much did the show change when it moved from Chicago to New York? Is the Broadway house bigger and you have time to refresh?

AZ: No, actually, the footprint is a few feet smaller in depth at the Nederlander Theater, and while we refined and added details with the move the basic structure and ideas were all from the Goodman. In Chicago I had four days of dry tech and we got to experiment and really think about choices but when we moved to New York tech was cut down to about half a day. We were able to update focus for the slightly different footprint and add in even more detailed cueing. Pinball Reprise got a little more amped up. Pinball Wizard is a constant work in progress—we probably add a cue in there every day!

Click here to learn more about the Howell Binkley Fellowship Program.