Rite of passage: LD Donald Holder's luminous journey through Broadway's The Lion King


Director Julie Taymor has inherited the legacy of The Lion King admirably, adapting one of Disney's most popular animated classics into an equally popular and critically acclaimed version for the Broadway stage. Along with her design team, lighting designer Donald Holder and scenic designer Richard Hudson, Taymor honors the popular Disney film while shifting the vocabulary of the piece to her own richly theatrical vernacular.

Puppets and actors, in Taymor's imaginatively conceived costumes, inhabit Hudson's minimal yet evocative sets and convincingly become the flora and fauna of Africa. Holder's well-crafted lighting makes the world come alive, not by hiding how it's all done, but by revealing the theatrics and reveling in what is seen. From the opening number on, the wonderful world of Disney's The Lion King has been remade at the New Amsterdam Theatre.

"It's a challenge to work with a popular film script, meet audience expectations, and preserve the essence of the original material while providing a fresh approach," says Holder, whose previous work with Taymor includes Titus Andronicus, Juan Darien, The Green Bird, and the Kirov Opera's Salome. "I think we all had a lot of respect for what they accomplished in the film, but it was very clear that we couldn't compete with it on its terms, partially because it was so good. We had to give it a completely new life."

Much of that new life was inspired by lighting and how Holder's work could provide a framework to reveal the costumes, puppets, and scenic elements that make up Taymor's world. "Julie is very sensitive to the power of light," says the LD. "Given that she is a designer, she is very conscious of composition, choice of color, and angle. She relies on lighting as a major scu lptural element to reveal her masks and make her shadow puppets work in a certain way."

For The Lion King, Holder and Taymor agreed early on that lighting would play a very different role than it had in their previous collaboration, Juan Darien, a fable about an enchanted leopard cub who becomes a boy. "Juan Darien took place in a black void and everything was selectively revealed," says Holder. "The Lion King is exactly the opposite. It takes place in a luminescent box, where part of the joy of the experience is seeing how everything is done."

Revealing everything in terms of design even meant discarding standard black masking in the wings for four sets of Plexiglas light boxes engineered and built by Edge & Co. (now called Westsun Scenic Edge). "Originally the surround was going to be white but not luminous, just large portals and legs painted white," Holder explains. "But Julie wanted the vistas to be unending and so it evolved into this, which I think is very successful."

To determine this success and justify the costly expense, the light boxes had to be tested. Producer Walt Disney Theatrical Productions was very supportive of the research and development, according to Holder. "Disney was willing to build one full-size version which was delivered to SUNY/Purchase, where we set it up with a cyc and lighting conditions to see how it looked in relation to the backdrop," explains the LD.

While working with the light box mock-up, Holder discovered that part of Taymor and Hudson's intent was to have the cyc and the light boxes look virtually the same. To create the similarity in color and gradation from cyc to light box, Holder was able to adjust equipment choices and positions. He also had the opportunity to carefully match his lighting to Taymor's palette of "off-colors." As he explains, "Julie did not want primary or secondary colors, but a mixture of both, influenced by what would be found in nature as well as African fabrics. Her favorite colors were saffron, off-greens, browns, and ochres."

Taymor also asked that the palette move effortlessly from one off-color to the next, which meant Holder could not pre-select a palette and use color changers on the lights. Instead the LD had to devise a color-mixing system to deliver the director's vision. "We came up with this idea that there should be a five- or six-color palette that we could then mix to create an infinite variety of all the colors she was thinking about," he says. "First, we came up with a group of colors we thought Julie was interested in plus alternates, and we set up a small mock-up version of one of the light box legs in a dark room. Then we got Richard and Julie together with myself and my assistants and went through a huge range of color selections."

After several meetings to narrow the color field, the designers decided on a palette of six colors that could stand alone and be mixed with satisfactory results. Special FX Lighting in Utah developed glass chip samples based on standard gel swatches. The glass chips were then tested over several months in a light box set up at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, where Lion King head electrician James Maloney was working at the time. "It was a long process, but I thought it was crucial because Julie and Richard had a specific vision of what the palette should be," says Holder. "And they all had to be glass filters because we were considering a long run, so we really didn't have the option of changing it out. It really had to be right the first time."

Other logistics for Holder included making myriad equipment choices and working closely with Canada-based lighting supplier Westsun International from the beginning of production through previews in Minneapolis to the Broadway opening. "Not only did they provide all brand-new equipment and support the process all the way, but they had someone in the theatre in Minneapolis throughout the tech to make sure we had what we needed," says the LD. "They paid a lot of attention to us, and did great work."

Holder's lighting system includes equipment from Vari-Lite Inc., Electronic Theatre Controls, High End Systems, Strand, Lighting & Electronics, Altman, Lycian, Wybron, Robert Juliat, Diversitronics, TPR Enterprises, and Great American Market (see equipment list, page 53). Additional support was provided by New York-based manufacturer and veteran theatre supplier City Theatrical which furnished equipment Holder says "was crucial to the look of the show," from custom flippers for the L&E Mini-Strips to custom Vari-Lite accessories for controlling flare.

With all this technology at his command, part of Holder's mastery is in making the lighting look effortless, particularly when used to portray the natural world. Nowhere is lighting used to greater natural effect than in the opening scene when the animal kingdom congregates at Pride Rock to witness the presentation of the new king. As the opening progresses, it's as if a new world unfolds under Holder's watchful sky, which turns from twilight to sunrise to mid-morning. "The opening number was the most terrifying section of the show," he says. "It seems fairly effortless, but there is a tremendous amount going on to make it move fluidly from one look to the next and create a steady progression of time of day."

The technical challenge was to create a series of lighting looks that progress seamlessly with four layers of moving scenery. "The elements I was working with could potentially look quite bad," says the LD. "The clouds which rise in progression are really large pieces of scrim and muslin that are only stretched at the outside. Under the wrong lighting, they look like huge pieces of wrinkled fabric, but they have to look absolutely perfect, like lacy clouds."

To achieve the desired effect, Holder turned to automated lighting. "By focusing Vari*Lites on the layer that's upstage of the preceding one, we essentially used the scenery itself as a reflector so that what the audience sees is very soft bounce light," he explains.

While the opening is pivotal in preparing the audience for the experience and setting the visual vocabulary of the show, the stampede of the wildebeests, another key scene, advances the story dramatically through its visual framework. In this scene Simba, the young lion king, gets caught in the stampede and is ultimately rescued by his father Mufasa. "What Julie kept saying is that it has to be absolutely terrifying," says Holder. "You have to have empathy for Mufasa and Simba and be scared to death."

Through precise lighting and a progression of scale in Hudson's scenic elements, the effect is terrifying. Wildebeests appear minute in the distance as 5" paintings on a cloth scroll. The stampede seems to draw nearer as the scroll is replaced by two sets of rollers with 10" and 18" three-dimensional animals. Then Simba is engulfed by the herd, portrayed at the forestage by dancers costumed as wildebeests. The complex scenic layering relied on lighting almost as a film relies on good editing to shift the focus and propel the movement from place to place. "It was a long process trying to create the appropriate level of contrast and keep some surfaces dark and some highlighted so you got a sense of depth and perspective," Holder explains.

Following the stampede, the world changes dramatically with the death of Mufasa, which prompts a gray, almost post-apocalyptic sky, one of the LD's favorite moments in the show. "With Mufasa's death there is a new regime, and it's very bleak," says Holder, who lit the scene with high-output fluorescent fixtures controlled by a dimmable interface developed by Lutron. "I wanted to have a cool, fluorescent, wintry sky for that moment. It's not used many times in the show, but where it is used I feel its fade is smooth enough that you are not aware it is a fluorescent."

Holder also opted for fluorescents because they could produce a look he had seen in research about the Serengeti: "bright edges along the clouds and strong highlights along the horizon line." While Holder and his team recognized that this could be achieved with a row of neon that followed the outline of the ground row upstage of the rear projection surface, ultimately space and cost became an issue. To discuss the use of high-output fluorescents, Holder's associate lighting designer Jeanne Koenig Rubin brought in Lutron's Jim Yorgey who also worked with Maloney, the production electrician, to make the system work.

As much effort was poured into the spiritual return of Mufasa's ghost in Act II. In this scene, Mufasa's mask is reconfigured monumentally in a black void. Taymor had created a similar effect to reveal the Queen of the Night in an Italian production of The Magic Flute. "Julie was looking for many sharply focused dots of light that overlapped and crossfaded, partially revealing Mufasa's mask floating in the void," says Holder. "We went through a series of ideas about using standard ellipsoidals focused into that black void, but we were never able to get the optics crisp enough to achieve an image that was in the right vocabulary with the rest of the show."

Holder found the technical solution in three Great American Market 2.5k HMI Scene Machines. Projection artist Caterina Bertolotto, who worked on Taymor's The Magic Flute, created slides and was instrumental in helping to perfect the effect. Geoff Puckett was the projection designer. High End Systems Studio Color(TM) automated luminaires were used to reveal and sculpt the mask. "It's a combination of the beam shape and the color temperature that comes out of an open white that makes the Studio Colors so dead-on for that moment," says Holder.

For some of the more festive numbers, like the vaudeville-inspired "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" and MTV-style "Be Prepared," Vari*Lite automated luminaires provided the looks. Taymor and company referred to the film's approach for "I Just Can't Wait To Be King," which involved a vivid change from fairly neutral tones to Technicolor. In the stage version, the costumes create the color and splash while the lighting stays more subdued for contrast. "We decided to create a black background because it makes the costumes look even more exciting and vibrant," the LD says, explaining that movement added glitz to the lighting. "I did feel that given how presentational the number was--it's almost a vaudeville piece--there needed to be moving lights. It's the first time where the Vari*Lites become Vari*Lites."

Moving lights also get a work out in "Be Prepared." While the film based this number on Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda films, Taymor and choreographer Garth Fagan opted for a more urban contemporary approach. "Julie actually said she wanted to see a lot of flashing lights," Holder remembers. "She thought it needed to have an MTV kind of look, so given all of the Vari*Lites we had we were perfectly obliged to do that. But even where the lighting 'cuts loose,' the palette is very controlled. It's all very much within the realm of the piece."

While Vari*Lites provided some flash, they also served many of the more subtle aims of the lighting design. "The Vari*Lites were great for lighting scenery, adding texture to the set and particularly for backlighting and frontlighting surfaces, because I just didn't have enough room for more conventionals," says Holder. "I probably could have figured out how to light the scenery using more conventional equipment, but I really didn't have the time to figure it all out or the space to squeeze all of that equipment in."

Aland Henderson was the automated lighting programmer whom Holder credits with moving the process along at an incredible rate. "He's faster at programming Vari*Lites than most people are at conventionals," Holder laughs. Production electrician Maloney and his crew also provided unwavering technical support, and Holder says the rest of his team--Rubin, assistant LD Martin Vreeland, lighting design assistant Karen Spahn, and automated lighting tracker Lara Bohon--were invaluable.

Their collective effort deserves much applause, particularly after the tour de force finale which completes the emotional and visual journey of the show. As Simba returns to the Pridelands to challenge Scar and regain his throne, lighting provides the redemptive poetic justice: Scar dies, just as Mufasa did, in a fusillade of strobes. "We wanted the two deaths to resonate, and for Scar to get his comeuppance," says Holder. "It's the idea of the circle of life, circular patterns in the set, the story coming full circle. We felt it was important visually to bookend the piece."

Completing the circular motif, the show ends as it opened--with a Holder sunrise, impressing both Disney fans and more cynical theatregoers alike. "I think a lot of people are affected the same way," he says. "Even some pretty jaded theatre professionals told me they were moved to tears."

Lighting Designer Donald Holder

Associate Lighting Designer Jeanne Koenig Rubin

Assistant Lighting Designer Martin Vreeland

Lighting Design Assistant Karen Spahn

Production Electrician James Maloney

Automated Lighting Programmer Aland Henderson

Automated Lighting Tracker Lara Bohon

Automated Lighting Technician Sean Strohmeyer

Lighting Supplier Westsun International

Lighting Accessories City Theatrical Inc.

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