Lighting "The End of the Rainbow"

in Inside Theatre

Lighting helped transform the hotel room into a nightclub...Broadway musicals lean towards spectacle — flashy lighting, dynamic choreography, show-stopping numbers to rouse the masses. But sometimes subtle is better, especially when it comes to a tragicomic play like End of the Rainbow, which is interspersed with musical numbers by famed singer Judy Garland, portrayed with pizzazz by Tony Award nominee Tracie Bennett.

The story focuses on Garland and two men who endure her shenanigans and emotional disintegration throughout a five-week run of gigs in London that she has undertaken to help revive her career in December 1968. (She died six months later.) When not fighting with her fiancé /manager Mickey Deans and her accompanist Anthony over her rehearsal schedule and her addictions, or embarrassing herself at a radio station, Judy (often awkwardly) performs numbers during which the Ritz Hotel room set is transformed through Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design into a darkened nightclub, with her backing band appearing from behind a sliding wall at upstage center.

A Different Look

The literal light and shadow that comprise this version of the show are different from what was done in the U.K., according to Akerlind. Although it originally premiered in Australia in 2005, this Rainbow began life in Northampton, England followed by London’s West End in 2010, then went on a U.K. tour before coming over for a warm-up run in Minneapolis for its five-month, Tony-nominated run at the snug Belasco Theatre in Manhattan. Akerlind came onboard for the American rendition, and his initial concern in the U.K. to U.S. translation was the change in the approach to the nightclub scenes.

“One of the tricky things in lighting the room is that the trims are so high, because you need the height for the club,” Akerlind explained to PLSN. “If it was just a hotel room, the masking would’ve been lower, so as you get upstage and try to get through those translucent ceiling pieces and the chandelier. It was very hard to get good light. I like the performers to be articulated in a clean, recognizable way, and I had a very difficult time upstage because architecturally, geometrically it is not easy.” simply hiding the room and its furnishings.Hiding the Room

The veteran LD added that the simple solution that he brought to the primary transformation into the club differed from the U.K. version. “I was determined to dodge the furniture and the walls of the room, and the director very much liked that idea,” he recalled. “The night I went to Bath [in England] to see this preview, they were all shocked by this idea that I thought I could actually do the club without hitting the furniture and the room. Part of the problem with the design in England was the room was always present in a very direct way. It was confusing and not particularly well composed, so it didn’t work. I decided to hang six moving lights and just do it with a followspot and articulate pools on the floor that she [Tracie] could connect to. Then there was a whole system of things for the piano. I was determined to dodge everything and still give it a richness and still be able to push buttons and change the mood when she moved from one number to another. Put the band in the background and try not to bring the hotel room into it.”

The six-person orchestra never comes forward from behind the scrim wall where they are located. Akerlind used SeaChangers to light the musicians. “There were about 15 or 20 downlights on them and maybe a gobo circuit or two,” he said. “The SeaChangers could color change and morph. The great thing about them is their silence, and they morph and mix color inside the unit as opposed outside. There are a bunch in Porgy and Bess too. Hudson Scenic bought a bunch for me years and years ago to do a play on Broadway called Superior Donuts, and they still have them, so I made use of them.”

Not a Typical Musical

For Akerlind, the operative principle was to keep the color, keep the sense of the club and keep the sense of theater in the nightclub scenes, but keep the hotel room out of them. He said that had he had the chance to be part of the original design team in England, he might have suggested that the walls could have been light boxes that bled through an image of the audience all around Bennett. “But the thing just sat there,” he said. “To my eye, I just wanted not to see it. In that, I think I was successful. I think the balance that was struck in terms of the spectacle of it was good, because I think that you didn’t want have this perspective, psychologically, that a musical has. You wanted to stay in her head in a way and not get too fleshed out.”

For End of the Rainbow, Akerlind and his team used six Vari*Lite VL 3500s overhead; three on the first, two mid-stage and one all the way up center, so he could get a triangle of hot top lights on her. There were no fixed units used in the club scenes, except a few color changing lamps on Anthony at the piano. “For his lamps, I use a lot of SeaChangers because there was very little position to really nail him in a club-like sense,” clarified Akerlind. “There was one downlight on the bench, there was a downlight that included the whole piano and a followspot on his face, all of which could be any color due to the fact that we had hung SeaChangers. So no fixed stuff there at all.”

Overall, moving lights were used to fill in bits and pieces in the hotel room and to refine the radio studio scene, and they were used heavily for a backstage dressing room scene. The pools of light that Bennett walked through were all generated by the VLs. “I respected [scenic designer] Bill Dudley’s notion that this shouldn’t turn into a contemporary spectacle with a sense of moving lights,” remarked Akerlind. “I think if they panned or ballyhooed, we would’ve been in dangerous territory with the verisimilitude of it. I used the 3500s for heat, for color changeability and for iris. They had different presets, but they weren’t actually moving in space. There were one or two live irises that were very subtle.” The console was an EOS, and there were 200 conventional lights utilized in the tight space of the Belasco.

No Room for Daylight

Another big challenge with the hotel room set was the photorealistic backing of a London cityscape viewed through sheer curtains and which was only two inches behind the window. “The sad thing for me was, even though there is talk in the play of it being a beautiful, sunny day, there was no way to push light through that window,” lamented Akerlind. “I couldn’t make the room ever feel quite real to me — except the evening scenes were fine — but because of the shallowness of the Belasco [Theatre], the drummer basically had his back against the back wall of the theater. There might’ve been a few inches, but it was very tight, therefore we couldn’t get any light through the window. It was just that lightbox.”

“To me, it felt a little fake, and therefore your sense of how to build the visual story of a room is driven by sources,” he continued. “For the daytime scenes, when the source was outside as opposed to interior lights being lit, it was very hard to grab onto. Where was the light? There was no light. I would’ve made the hotel room a little bit more shallow to give us a little bit more space. Literally that backing across the street, as it were, was just downstage of the kneecap of the saxophone player. It was very, very tight up there. There were trade-offs in making the show work given the small space that I think particularly mitigated the quality of what we did in the realistic scenes.”

Despite these spatial issues, Akerlind is happy with how End of the Rainbow turned out in New York (and a U.S. tour is forthcoming). He believes that the show worked without the audience having a “huge awareness of the light.” He noted that the show was not meant to be a spectacular like other musicals. “The more you add spectacle you focus on the subject of the theater event, which in this case is Judy Garland in a club. I think that there’s a trade-off there. It has always been a philosophy of mine that less is more when it comes to the essential reason we go to the theater, which is to commune with other human beings who are telling us a story. The club scenes had the potential to get glitzier, so I like the balance that I struck.”

Theater vs. Archaeology

The veteran LD said that scenic designer William Dudley was opposed to the idea of pools of light during the Garland musical numbers, which he surmised is why the hotel room was brightly lit during those scenes in the U.K. incarnation. “He was determined in an archaeological and anthropological way that the club scenes be lit in the way they would’ve been lit in the 1950s,” stated Akerlind. “I respect that, but this is theater, not archaeology, and I obviously persuaded [director] Terry Johnson that nobody in the audience was going to say, ‘A-ha! That’s probably how she was lit 50 years ago.’ The trade-off in terms of composition — not being able to use overheads, having it all coming in from the front and washing the hotel room set — wasn’t working [in England]. I made the case persuasively, so I was allowed to revamp how those scenes were handled.”

Akerlind felt a kinship with director Johnson, who is also a writer. “We have a shared sense of what the theater is for. It’s not for the witness of spectacle, it’s about human beings. We have all this digital technology for entertainment. Why not keep the theater human? I’m not arguing against spectacle, I’m just arguing for useful proportions of it vis-à-vis the human aspect of the experience.”

Photos by Carol Rosegg