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‘August Rush: The Musical’

Randi Minetor • Focus on TheaterJune 2019 • June 16, 2019

Huxley Westemeier plays August Rush/Evan Taylor and Leenya Rideout plays Hope in Paramount Theatre’s world premiere of August Rush: The Musical. Tony Award-winner John Doyle directs. Performances ran from April 24-June 2, 2019 at Paramount Theatre in Aurora, IL. Photos by Liz Lauren

Behind the Scenes at a Pre-Broadway Premiere…

Magical realism has long been theater’s specialty, portraying a modern world while adding elements that cross over into the mystical, surreal, or even impossible. Titles like Brigadoon, Angels in America, and Prelude to a Kiss all originated on stage and straddled the line between grounded reality and fantastical imaginings, with characters reaching a level of personal change that, presumably, will stay with them forever.

Such a work is August Rush, a new musical that saw its world premiere in Aurora, IL, at the Paramount Theatre this spring. Based on the 2007 movie of the same name, the story follows 11-year-old Evan Taylor, an orphan who wants nothing more than to find his birth parents and reunite the family. Evan believes that if he can translate the music he hears in his head to instruments, his parents will hear it and come to find him. He runs away from foster care, hitches a ride to Manhattan, changes his name, and discovers that he is a musical prodigy with a Mozart-like gift.

Meanwhile, Evan’s parents — concert cellist Lyla and Irish rock musician Lewis — do not know that Evan exists. Their discovery that their one-night encounter eleven years earlier produced a son, that the son did not die in childbirth as Lyla’s father told her, and that he is somewhere in New York becomes the backbone of the play, with Evan’s flights of musical fancy the tissue and sinew that bind the characters together.

John Doyle, the Tony Award-winning director of the innovative 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd, took on the challenge of bringing this sentimental story to the stage, working with the book by Glen Berger (Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark) and music by the film’s composer, Mark Mancina. Doyle assembled an artistic staff including three-time Tony-winning set designer Scott Pask (The Pillowman, The Coast of Utopia, The Book of Mormon), lighting designer Paul Toben, who has served as associate designer on many Broadway productions and national tours, and Chicago-based projections designer Joe Burke.

Moving panels create the scene behind Huxley Westemeier and the cast of August Rush.

‡‡         White Panels, Saturated Light

A city skyline created entirely of strips of white oak provides plenty of opportunity for lighting and projections to enhance the sense of place. As the play begins, the white set suggests the open space of a concert hall.

“In a story about someone searching for their parents, the idea is of a clear space that we present to the audience from the very beginning, and then has challenges introduced to it,” said Pask by phone from New York.

The challenges arrive as many separate, moving pieces. “Things move around in a labyrinth of sorts, shifting planes that can represent a level of challenge and obstacles,” said Pask. “There’s simplicity, and then a level of complexity to shift the space when we need it. We use it to highlight certain actors and obscure others.”

Translucent white panels moving in front of dimensional skyscraper imagery come to represent Evan’s own journey through Manhattan’s tall buildings and kinetic street traffic. As Evan rises to become the musician he is destined to be, the stage clears once again, returning to a spacious concert hall.

“John Doyle is one of the clearest directors, a very visual director,” said Pask. “He started very clearly with the idea of an open space and abstracted pages of music as panels within it, with the grand piano being center stage, and the world transforming around them. As the space developed, I began to concentrate on the character of ever-present upstage wall more and more. When I consider some of the best auditorium spaces that are being done by contemporary architects today, there’s usually a common goal of perfecting the acoustical environment, and that ultimately becomes part of the architectural expression within the space. I used strips of white oak throughout the set for our ‘concert hall,’ and used this acoustical material approach to fashion a space that could be infused with light from behind them, and created an upstage wall that was an abstracted cityscape.”

In addition to creating the sense of place for the show’s many locations, the set provides the ultimate vehicle for lighting filled with saturated color. “In my experience in working on other shows with white sets, I’ve always found that they look best with as much color as you can throw at them,” said lighting designer Toben. “When I sat down to make a light plot, that was the direction I was headed in. I knew I needed lots of color and texture to transform that space.”

This provided special challenges for Toben, whose “native design language,” as he put it, “tends to be between realistic and brutal.” This production, however, required a more lyrical approach. “It was a fun experiment to push myself in a different direction,” he said. “John and I talked about it being almost operatic.”

Much like Doyle’s famous production of Sweeney Todd, in which all of the characters played musical instruments onstage, the cast of August Rush also plays more than 50 different instruments through the course of the narrative. “The play is almost entirely underscored,” said Toben. “The higher world is the music; the company is always onstage playing, creating the music live. With the exception of the first look of the play and the last look, when we’re in that base concert hall, there’s not a lot of room for realism. As soon as we left that realistic world, I felt that color was the right tool.”

Toben began with the house inventory at the Paramount, which he called “pretty conventional,” including plenty of ETC Source 4 ellipsoidals and PARs and Altman Focusing Cyc lights, controlled by an ETC EOS processor and an Ion lighting console. To accomplish the effects Toben intended to create, Paramount rented a lighting package from Christie Lites in New York. “I knew the lights had to fit several criteria,” he said. “First, they had to be silent. It’s not enough just to be quiet on this one — it’s an entirely acoustic score. I knew that if the fan noise became an issue, John would say, ‘Just unplug them.’ I’d rather have fewer lights that were silent.”

Second, the white set would reveal any inconsistency between the lights themselves. “Fringing, gobos, any artifacts would be a problem for us,” Toben noted. “And third, we have these scrim panels flying through the space all the time, so trying to control the lights off those panels was a requirement.”

Toben determined that the Martin MAC Encore fixtures were the choice that fulfilled all of his requirements. “They’re silent and they have really great color mixing — the best pastels I’ve seen in any CMY fixture,” he said. “There’s no color fringing, and they dim really beautifully.”

He also placed GLP’s impression X4 Bar lights vertically in each wing. “They’re LED, so I can get the saturated colors, and they can tilt and zoom,” he said. “So we can tilt and zoom them to be off the panels when we want them to be. They were the workhorses of this show, and now I want them on every show I do.”

The moon provides a mystical mood behind Huxley Westemeier and George Abud in August Rush..

‡‡         Projections and Motion Control

Doyle and Burke began moving forward in one direction with the projections that would help create locations throughout the play, but the style they originally envisioned seemed inappropriate once they got into the space. “We realized that the way in which the lighting fell on the set was much more interesting than the way the projections told us a location,” said Burke. “We had an idea early on in the workshopping phase of using musical instruments to build out the locations. The location imagery was around the Wizard,” a pivotal character who encourages Evan to develop his musical talent, but for the Wizard’s own gain. “We created these abstracted skyscrapers out of guitar necks. We let it go; it was not the right language. Creating this idea of a lair was too overpowering for the action that was onstage.”

Instead, Burke opted for a more supportive visual language. “We set up an idea of a location with the windows and skyscrapers of New York, and we also supported the idea of a moon and of Washington Square Park,” he said. “We sculpted it with a moon and a few street lamps to create the park. But overall it’s texture-based.”

One special moment receives an emotional boost from the projections: when Evan begins writing his own music, backed by animated handwritten musical notes moving across the set panels. “There’s a character named Hope, kind of an inspirational character, and she encourages him to let his voice be heard,” Burke said. “That’s the projection language, handwritten notes that follow the music, backed by an explosion of color. Evan as August Rush composes his rhapsody, and we hear it at the end of the show. We enhanced the storytelling with ‘Follow the Music’ and ‘The Rhapsody’ advertisements, giving the audience a feeling of this city-wide event.”

All of the imagery is projected on panels in motion, which presented some “unique challenges,” said Burke. Using the multi-display software Dataton Watchout 6.2.2 and four Epson 15k lumen Pro L1755UNL laser projectors with ELPM15 middle-throw #2 lenses, Burke and the house technical team broke new ground for the Paramount.

The New York skyline illuminates behind George Abud and Sydney Shepherd in August Rush.

“We were all kind of excited and nervous, and we ran into some obstacles, but the tracking worked really, really sweetly,” said Burke. “The software converged the four projectors. It was great to be integrated with automation and have the imagery track with the panels, and not have to worry about timing that and fading this. It made the workflow easier.”

Paramount staffer Alex Buholzer is the lighting, sound and media supervisor who sorted through the obstacles. “Software tracks in inches, but the Watchout can only take in positive values, and it tracks things in pixels,” he said. “So we had to do some algebra to get the pixel counts at various stages.”

Most of us could not reach back into our memories of 11th-grade math to accomplish this, but Buholzer had the tenacity to do it. “It took me a day and a half to figure out the formula,” he said. “We had what the pixels per inch should be from the early design calculations, but once you get into the space, it’s different. So I wrote out a formula, and then I Googled an algebra calculator and had it solve it. We figured out where home was, and we tracked the panel to its new location, and we solved the math.”

Once they completed the calculations, they could set the limits for each panel’s moves and synchronize this with the image to be projected on the panel. Moving panels with a total of fourteen motors presented a new level of challenge for Paramount technical director Jason Pikscher and his crew. “Not only did we have four projectors projecting on twelve different planes, they all need to be in focus and all work as one image — and nine of those surfaces moved,” he said.

Paramount’s crew had executed complicated moves before, but not on this scale. “This is three times what we normally do,” he said. “I can’t just put fourteen motors on stage and expect the actors to dance around them. Taking into account the safety of the actors and props — in this case, all musical instruments — I have to be sure they will be safe.” Creative Conners’ technicians came alongside Paramount’s team to rig and install fourteen automated effects.

Using Creative Conners equipment including six Pushstick zero-fleet deck winches and two Pushstick Mini winches, two Curtain Call traveler winches, a Revolver motor for the grand piano turntable, and three Spotline motors acting as point hoists, the Paramount staff learned to program and execute the complex movements using Creative Conners’ Spikemark automation software.

“The part that’s nice about automation is that if something goes wrong once, we can avoid having it happen again,” said Pikscher. “It’s a matter of changing the values to make it consistent. We were able to solve things pretty quickly. Everyone stepped up and expanded their skill sets.”

August Rush completed its run at the Paramount on June 2, and whether or not it eventually moves to New York, it stands as an important milestone for the theatre’s Broadway series. This production is the first major project for the young theatre’s New Works Development Program, an ambitious beginning that demonstrates the courage required to bring something completely new to the stage.

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