Transformations: Beverly Emmons experiments with lighting on Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical


When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, he didn't just unleash another criminal mastermind on an unsuspecting London; he created a shocking new archetype of good and evil struggling for dominance in one man. A century later, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde still haunt our collective unconscious. The names have passed into the language--"Jekyll and Hyde" are proverbial shorthand for Manichean duality--while adaptations have run riot. There were innumerable early-20th-century stage versions of the tale, several silent films, and Hollywood settings with Fredric March and later, Spencer Tracy in the title role. There have been a few real twists along the way, none weirder, perhaps, than the 1972 Hammer film Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. If only Stevenson knew what he had wrought.

The dynamic duo sprang to life again this spring, now as the cynosure of a Broadway musical, the only form they had yet to visit. Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical opened to mixed reviews at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre on April 28. With book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and score by Frank Wildhorn, the show is directed by Robin Phillips, previously associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Canada's Stratford Festival Theatre. Robert Cuccioli plays the challenging dual role, while Linda Eder (who is married to Wildhorn) and Christiane Noll play the women in Jekyll/Hyde's life.

It has been a long road to the Rialto. Bricusse and Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde had its premiere at Houston's Alley Theatre in 1990, reportedly breaking box office records. A subsequent production at Houston's Theatre Under the Stars was also successful. A recording yielded the breakout hit songs "Someone Like You" and "This Is the Moment" and sold 150,000 copies. Atlantic Records issued the complete score, which sold 100,000 double CDs. "This Is the Moment" became inevitable at the Olympics, Miss America pageants, and the Super Bowl. Certainly Bricusse's lyrics match the peak of creativity of his other recent Broadway vehicle, Victor/Victoria. Besides a fan club, the show spawned the followers known as Jekkies, who accompanied the show on its 1996 national tour. Meanwhile, various directors tried their hands at the material; a workshop was mounted; actors emoted and sang; designers sketched and created.

You'd think, with all the lead time, that the design team for the Broadway production had been in place for a long while. You'd be wrong. Lighting designer Beverly Emmons came into the show while it was being loaded into the Plymouth Theatre, after the production's original LD, Howell Binkley, departed. Similarly, Phillips now shares his previously solo scenic design credit with veteran designer James Noone, who was enlisted late in the process. The challenge of working under close time constraints must not have fazed Emmons; she was nominated for her seventh Tony Award for her lighting. Other design credits include costumes by Ann Curtis (also Tony-nominated), properties and set dressing by Christina Poddubiuk, and special effects by Gregory Meeh.

To hear the eminently practical, supremely modest Emmons tell it, working on Jekyll & Hyde was smooth sailing--even a big musical with lighting that was already half-hung, pyro effects, shiny Plexiglas sets, movable steel towers, Vari*Lite(R) automated luminaires, and all the rest. It sounds like there were many constraints for Emmons on this project. "Not any more than usual," she says. "I didn't have time to think about every moment, because Howell had done a lot; everyone loved his work. But at the point at which I took over there was still a lot to be done.

"Since I came in at the last minute and the show was already being hung," Emmons continues, "there was no way I could start from scratch. At that time, the overheads were in debate, stuff was taken out for financial reasons, and some Vari*Lites were cut but then came back. The first thing I did was to cut a lot of ultraviolet equipment that had been in the original production, because the costumes had no ultraviolet treatment. The sidelight was extremely complicated because the set was extremely complicated, with towers moving in and out. There was very little room to hang things, so I completely redid the side hang. On the most practical level, there was no other way to get light on the set. You have to deal with the reality of the Plexiglas; you couldn't come in at oblique angles, so you either come in straight-side or straight-front. There was no other way in."

Yet Emmons' design solution wasn't just practical. The show's theme traffics in darkness and light, and much of Emmons' lighting picks individual figures out of surrounding gloom, carving solitary, three-dimensional forms in space much in the way that her dance lighting does. Emmons has lit the works of Lucinda Childs, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham, among others, and worked for 13 years with director Robert Wilson, for whom lighting often is the set. While Emmons makes her design solutions for Jekyll & Hyde sound purely practical, aesthetics were much in mind. "Of course that's an artistic choice," she says of the extremely precise lighting. "The set has been designed to look a certain way, so the fact that there are only certain ways into it is part of the artistic choice. I don't regard that as a limiting factor. That's the way the set wants to be treated."

Jekyll & Hyde does not slavishly evoke Victorian London. Wildhorn's swooping pop-rock score and Bricusse's contemporary lyrics are very much of the moment; Jekyll & Hyde is the latest entry in the hybrid genre of "poperetta." "I don't go back to the original literature because I'm not lighting Robert Louis Stevenson," Emmons says. "I'm lighting this version. So that's a confusing idea as far as I'm concerned. By the time a playwright and a director have made an adaptation and the lighting designer is hired, the set is already rolling, if not completed in model form. There's no way you're doing an exact copy of a piece of literature. Any adaptation will have subtle differences from the original."

Phillips' and Noone's set features an enormous red rectangular frame in which most of the action takes place against a dark void. In this inner proscenium, Jekyll's lab, replete with flaring gas lamps, alembics, and retorts, rolls on; elements in the formal rooms of a grand city house float in; the sleazy denizens of the Red Rat, a combination nightclub/bordello, creep on. A prostitute's bed and some fancy chairs tell us where we are. Occasionally, Plexiglas panels with cityscape silhouettes provide a broader perspective, but the basic colors are black, tobacco, purple. The stage floor is red.

Emmons' palette was deliberately limited: Either white light, warm white, or cool white for most of the show, she says. Any other colors come and go; the bounce off the red floor gives a ghastly glow when needed.

One of Emmons' biggest effects was achieved with relatively simple means. In a big histrionic display, Jekyll and Hyde duke it out as Cuccioli alternates between neatly coiffed Jekyll and animal-maned Hyde with a flamboyant flip of the hair. Blink-of-an-eye lighting changes keep the focus tight. "It's a trio," Emmons explains. "It's the man singing, it's the stage manager saying 'go,' and it's the board operator's finger on the button. They have to work together closely. It's exactly the same light cue back and forth each time. Those were all Vari*Lites; they were all white light. There were about four or five instruments for each."

Emmons had not used Vari*Lites to this extent before, but she found them perfect for this project. "The beautiful color temperatures, the much more powerful shafting were the initial appeal. The thing that I found interesting about the lighting for this show, and one of the reasons that it feels right, is that you always have multiple shadows even from one light; you had the lines of the architecture and the space. The Vari*Lites were always shooting through the Plexiglas, through the steel work in the set. And with Vari*Lites it's very easy to carve an architectural statement. They're so precise. There's less stage equipment than normal because the Vari*Lites can do so many different things. Wally Lees, the Vari*Lite programmer, was wonderful. A lot of these guys come out of the rock and roll world and the more subtle way we use lights in the theatre is not necessarily their first take."

Some sequences were quite showy. At the top of Act II, Hyde goes on a murderous rampage, and Emmons pulls out all the stops: glaring lights, gobos, scary faces popping out of the dark, sharp daggers glinting. "I think it's a little stretched away from the text," Emmons admits, "but that was Robin's intention. Robin wanted to see patterns, flashing lights, and stuff like that."

Stuff like that might include the clouds of smoke that frequently cloak the stage. "First of all, the original production had lots of smoky, foggy effects," Emmons points out. "It's in the story, in the London of the period. We had three different kinds of smokes and fogs: cracked oil, cracked glycerin, and dry ice. Some came up from the bottom, some came in from the sides, some was just hanging in the air. It was ideal for lighting designers.

"I think one has to be careful that what one does is not vulgar and ostentatious in a way that detracts from the show. Robin always used to refer to the show's rock and roll music--not rock and roll in rhythm but in the sense that the score is comprised of pop ballads--and that we're stretching away from the naturalistic. We're not doing a play of Jekyll and Hyde; we're not trying to evoke the real period. So it was acceptable to that degree."

Other shows Emmons has done at the Plymouth Theatre were spare, even austere, yet emotionally and intellectually rich: Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Passion, Piaf, Nicholas Nickleby. Her work as a lighting designer covers a wide variety of projects, and she also works as artistic director of Lincoln Center Institute, which is the education department for Lincoln Center. What kind of design work does she prefer? "I prefer not having to make a choice, but to be able to do many different kinds of things. Because the different styles are interesting. The issue is that a lighting designer is a secondary artist. The primary artists are the playwright and the director. Whether we come in obliquelyor play it absolutely simple, all of the rest of us are there to service their vision. That's what the audience is paying money to see. That's the responsibility of a stage designer."

Robert Sandla is editor-in-chief of Stagebill.