The American magazine merrily rolls back the years, chatting with US-born Broadway and West End lighting design legend
There were periods in the ’80s and ’90s when every big show in London or New York enjoyed David’s inspirational lighting design — Evita, Cats, Oliver, Starlight Express, Les Miserables, Chess, Miss Saigon, Equus — netting him three Tony Awards, and an Olivier. His first encounter with Merrily We Roll Along was not a success, however. Its 1981 debut at the Alvin Theatre, New York was a critical disaster, confusing audiences... actors infamously wore character names on their sweatshirts. I ask him the difference between Merrily in 1981 and the critically lauded production now transferring from the Menier to the Pinter Theatre, London.
“One of the big differences is the casting. In the New York production, they wanted to do a show for the kids, so they cast it with 21 people mostly in their late teens, early twenties — 19 of them were Broadway debuts and I think that was possibly a mistake because they didn’t have the gravitas to carry the mature side of it [Merrily requires actors to play young and older versions of their characters]. Maria [Friedman] has cast it with grown ups who can get younger without it being a problem at all.
“Hal [Prince] had asked the set designer to stage the opening number in a high school gymnasium with pullout bleachers. That was cut for later productions, when the book was worked on, and in fact, Hal had only wanted that image for the first three minutes or however long it was, didn’t ever want to see it again, and Eugene [Lee, Set Designer] had gone off to do a film, so I had to try to cobble something together with projections on a set that wasn’t designed to be projected on. It wasn’t an approach to lighting, it was just a matter of survival. Guerrilla warfare really!”
How was the role of Lighting Designer received by Chief Electricians when you were first starting out? “With substantial suspicion in many quarters. It was very common for Chief Electricians to do the lighting of shows, especially in the regional theatres.
“When I came to England, I was trying to get work as a director, I went for an interview in Dundee, as an Assistant Director, but I concluded that I really had done that sort of thing already, so I didn’t accept that job. I got involved in Theatre Projects with Richard Pilbrow Group, and that meant making a conscious choice to specialize in lighting for a year or two, because I worked in The National Theatre almost immediately.”
I ask how things have changed over his career in terms of lighting. “In the ‘old days’, if I can use an expression like that, you had a blank canvas, but there were a lot of built in limitations, because you were doing a lot of your plotting in the middle of the night, and waiting several minutes while the electrician wrote down painstakingly the settings of all the dimmers. It was a long, slow process, and then when you came back to doing the show you’d argue whether you had done the cues correctly, because human error was possible. Nowadays you’re plotting in milliseconds, just push a button and it’s there. You can light on top of rehearsal in a way you could never do — you used to have two ASMs trying to impersonate 50 people.”
What makes really good lighting design, and who the exemplars are of good design among the new generation? “When you do your best work is when you’re invisible. Lighting should never call attention to itself. Were helping tell the story, so everything we do should be subservient to that. Neil Austin [Olivier award winner for the National Theatre’s The White Guard and a Tony for Red at the John Golden Theatre, Broadway] is doing extreme well — his work is very good at the moment, he’s now pretty established, so whether it’s fair to call him new I don’t know”.
Have big budget rock tours influenced stage designers? Have they raised audience expectations? “Everything’s raised expectations, cinema, rock shows... whether that’s always a positive thing, I don’t know. It’s about telling a story.”
Does David get to enjoy his shows without always having a critical eye? “When we get an opening night, I actually sit back and try to forget about everything else and enjoy the production. Sometimes you go back and see something months later and things that are wrong are things that were wrong when you left it last time and you think ‘Why did I do that?’, and rush in and try to change it.”
Does it help being an American when transferring shows to Broadway?
“I’m a man without a country in that respect. The thing about Broadway is it’s every man for himself. In England it’s much more of a collaborative process, more organic. My rigs in New York are often half or two-thirds the size of other people’s rigs, because they have to put up with what you call a ‘curve of your ass rig’, which means if there’s a gap anywhere you put a light in it in case you might need it, because the system means that you can put a 1000 lights up and nobody will complain — let’s do it! But if you want to move one of them afterwards you’re in deep trouble.”
Is it true that Broadway is more restrictive in terms of unions? “It used to be that the truck would come up to the theatre and there used to be a sidewalk between where you could park and where the stage door was, and you had to have a separate union crew to take the stuff from the truck to the door, which was often only four or five feet. I think that may have all gone away now, I don’t know.”
Has David ever dug his heels in with a director, or wished he had?
“Rule One. Never fall in love with a cue, because it will change. I did have a situation once — I don’t know why the lighting guy didn’t come with us but I was asked to do it — at the Phoenix Theatre some years ago. There was this scaffold structure and a moment when they were dancing all over this, and doing the chicken shake. I had a bunch of lights flashing exactly in time with the choreography — in those days a new thing to be able to do. The director said ‘this is self-conscious, cut it’. When I went to the closing night, the electrician, without telling anybody, had saved the cues and put them back in. The company all erupted and it was an amazing performance and I felt totally exonerated.”
In his spare time, David enjoys time on his yacht. “When you spend your life locked up in a dark theater on your own, getting out on a yacht is pretty good. I’ve probably done ten or eleven [Atlantic] crossings and probably another this autumn. I’ve been to Antarctica, landed at Cape Horn, and up the Chilean canals which are just astonishing...” [a wry pause] ...“Its all research for lighting, because the light is extraordinary.”
Is there anything he’d still like to be offered? “I feel pretty complete to be honest. There’s always the idea that there’s one more musical, but it would have to be the right show.”
When somebody came to him and said ‘We’re doing Merrily, and it’s at the Menier’ (180 seats) did he think ‘Thats quite small’?
“Yeah, but I didn’t mind, I’ve done things at the King’s Head. There’s quite a discipline to getting in there and working with a limited resource. Actually it’s quite healthy.”
After rave reviews, Maria Friedman’s production of Merrily We Roll Along has just transferred to the West End’s much larger Pinter Theatre.
“Maria’s done a wonderful job,” says David, “Maybe because she’s a performer herself, she’s got things out of the other actors which I don’t think anybody else would have done. And it’s very well cast and that makes a huge difference.”
Catch our review of Merrily We Roll Along here.