Podcast Episode 56 Transcript – Ken Billington
Ken D: Hey, everybody, Ken Davenport here. Time for another episode of the Producer’s Perspective Podcast and we’re celebrating another first today on the podcast. We’ve have set designers on this podcast, like David Rockwell, we’ve had costume designers on this podcast, like Rick Barnes, but we’ve actually never had a lighting designer – until now, today. Ladies and listeners, please welcome to the podcast Tony award-winning lighting designer, Ken Billington. Welcome, Ken!
Ken B: Hey, thanks a lot, Ken.
Ken D: So if you’ve listened to this podcast before, whenever I have a real Broadway luminary on I often joke about how I can’t read all their credits because there’s like 97 shows on their Playbill Vault page, some big exaggeration. Well, in Ken’s case, there’s literally like 97 shows on his Playbill Vault page. He has been designing Broadway shows for decades now and there are literally over 90 credits there, including the original Sweeney Todd, a couple of productions of Fiddler, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Hugh Jackman Show, the revival of Candide, where we met, Scottsboro Boys and a lot more and a lot more to come, I am sure. Including, full disclosure, Ken is doing the lights for my upcoming Broadway production of Getting the Band Back Together. He has done a ton of off-Broadway shows, worked in opera, at Disneyland, was the principle lighting designer for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular for 25 years, is that correct?
Ken B: 27.
Ken D: 27 years! Oh, and he’s also in the Theater Hall of Fame, so there’s that. So, 90 shows – how did this begin for you? Tell me about the first one.
Ken B: It was all I ever wanted to be, so this is the fun part – all I ever wanted to be was a lighting designer. I turned the lights on and off for the fourth grade play, thought it was cool, I got applause for a blackout – a big deal from the other fifth and sixth graders – and decided I wanted to do lighting. My parents were always appalled to see me with a straight ladder in the backyard, aiming the floodlights into another tree, never down where people were always making the backyard look pretty, in day, and then I would refocus. So it was all I ever wanted to do and I started with a community play. I grew up just outside the city in Harrison, New York, and I was a member of the Harrison Players, went to Harrison High School, and loved lighting and did the community players, wanted to go to college but I couldn’t get in, I guess I wasn’t smart enough, so what that failed I decided I would just go work in New York, so here I was at 18 working around town and I became an assistant on Broadway when I was 19, for the great Tharon Musser, arguably the greatest lighting designer who’s ever lived, and learned a lot, worked on a lot of shows with her, about 25 with her, and then worked for other people and then just sort of struck out on my own. When everybody else was getting out of college I was ready to design a Broadway show. It just sort of happened. It was exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t get the university part, which I wanted to do, but SATs I wasn’t good enough at so I couldn’t get into Carnegie Mellon – or Carnegie Tech in those days – so I just did it by doing it on Broadway.
Ken D: So no formal lighting design training?
Ken B: I did take a course on Saturday mornings at the Lester Polakov Studio in stage design, which was in a brownstone on 91st Street, which was fancy designers doing a three hour basic seminar, which I took for a year, a season, with lighting artist Peggy Clark, Tom Skelton, Chuck Levy, these were great people of their day, teaching. You would do a project and then you would go watch shows load in and hang out at the theater and see how it was happening and finally, after I had done that for a year, I was watching the load-in of Mame, the musical, at the Winter Garden and I was there for three days – the trucks pulled up, I was there. I wanted to see how this happened. I was young, I was a kid, and at the end of that I went to Tharon Musser and said, “I want to work for you”, totally unqualified to be anybody’s assistant, and she said, “Okay, Stratford, Connecticut”, so the Stratford Connecticut Shakespeare Festival did five shows in rotating rep so that season I went off and was the assistant lighting designer at Stratford, Connecticut, then left that because she lost her New York assistant and I came to be her assistant in New York. We started with the national company of Mame and did the regional production of The Birthday Party and all these shows and then I stayed with her for three years assisting, doing lots of things. I remember one season we did three musicals in two months – and that’s back when musicals did two out-of-town cities before they came in. Here’s the trivia – it was Maggie Flynn, The Fig Leaves Are Falling and A Mother’s Kisses, all of which opened and closed by December. They were out of town in September and we made it into town by November and they were all gone by Christmas. But it was good training and working with George Abbott and Mark DeCosta and Gene Saks, working with great people, it was a fabulous learning experience. I think the first season I worked on Broadway was the one William Goldman wrote the book The Season about, so I read that and said “Oh, I worked on all of these shows”, so it was a good learning experience for me.
Ken D: I would normally save this question for the end when I would ask, “What’s your advice for younger folks just starting out in this business?”, but I’m going to ask it now – you didn’t have formal design training but you got incredible training on the job. A young designer comes to you and says “I’m thinking about going to school to study your trade or I’m thinking about just working”, what would you tell them to do today?
Ken B: Today it’s a little different. When I wanted to be a lighting designer it was a very young profession. There were two places you could go to school to study this – you could go to Carnegie, you could go to Yale but that was graduate, NorthWestern. That was it for teaching lighting. Now, every university has some lighting course. So there weren’t so many people banging on doors, also the cost of producing a Broadway musical wasn’t $18 million – a big musical was $350,000 in those days – so there was a little more give on a play to give somebody new a chance. So a different time, everybody knew me, people gave me a chance, I proved myself and I continued to work. Today I think you need to do university training of some sort, maybe not graduate school – if you go to a good undergrad school and you’re smart and you have the drive you will probably learn enough to then come and do whatever you want to do. Besides Broadway – I love Broadway but there’s also a bigger world out there – there’s television, concert lighting, architectural lighting, opera, ballet – by the way, I do all of them but I started out wanting to do Broadway and then moved myself over. But there are lots of other things to do and lighting is now a respected profession. When I started it wasn’t that, it was unrespected, but our union had only recognized lighting designers for four years when I joined it. So, yes, I think you need some sort of undergraduate training. The other thing is you have to keep working – you have to light – I don’t care if it is a school production, a community theater production, a dance in a gym – whatever it is, you have to light it and you have to learn from it and what you can learn is if you take the job lighting the community players’ production of Damn Yankees and you took the job and they own 40 lights, then you’re going to light Damn Yankees with 40 lights. Hopefully the 40 work, but they may only have 25 working so you’re going to glue together as many as you can, but the secret is to light Damn Yankees with the 40 lights that you’re committed to, and make it look as good as you can make it look. You can’t sit there and complain and say, “Well if I had 60 lights we could have anything. If I had 100 lights, if the guy knew how to run the console.” All these complaints – stop it. You took the job, now your job is to do the job and make it look as good as you can make it look and when the director says, “Make it red for the devil”, you say “I can’t do red because we don’t have enough lights. Now, let’s think about this, do we really need the moonlight? Can we change the moonlight to red?” and the director might say, “Yes, let’s get rid of the moonlight, the red’s more important”, but have the discussion. So work and just keep lighting and remember what you did wrong and remember what you did right. I tell students that light their school productions that, come opening night of whatever the school production is that’s going to run for two weeks, everyone tells you you’re a genius, your parents think you are probably the greatest lighting designer that ever lived, the director slaps you on the back, the set designer hugs you, all your classmates tell you “This is the best lighting I’ve ever seen”, that’s opening night and that’s what opening night should be. Now what you need to do is rest on those laurels, nap the next day, and at the end of the run, the last performance, go get a seat down in the fifth row with no friends and sit there and watch what you did and see if you did a good job and look at it and say, “Oh, yeah, this light is really too bright. If it had been red instead of green…” whatever, critique yourself and say “Okay, I now know where I screwed up”, because if you don’t do that you’re just going to think “I’m the greatest in the world.” That’s Ken’s advice.
Ken D: And it’s this Ken’s advice too – it’s being objective about your work and it’s one of the hardest things that I have to do as a producer but it certainly makes my work better when I sit back and be like “Oh, that show, or that scene or that person that I hired wasn’t quite right. What did I do wrong?” There’s no question that, over the years of your career and my career, theater has changed a lot since you started designing lights, but I’m always so impressed by lighting designers and sound designers because if you’re a writer, or even if you’re a producer, the act of optioning and putting people together is the same. If you’re a writer, you’re putting pen to paper. For a lighting designer, what you were lighting with when you started…
Ken B: It’s changed.
Ken D: Has changed so much. Obviously we know that technology has changed but tell me a little bit about you think the biggest change has been or what you’ve had to adapt to the most.
Ken B: The computer changed a lot – we got lighting computers to control the lighting. Tharon Musser put the first one on A Chorus Line, I put the second one on a show called Side by Side by Sondheim and, within a year, every show was on automated control. The difference was, when I learned to design, I had to learn to design for a man to operate it so I had to think about, when I was designing a show and laying a show out and cuing a show, “Can this be operated? Can this man with two arms take his 28 dimmers and put them all in different places in three counts?” No, he can’t, so then you had to choreograph the operation of the lighting, because we went from manual to computers. Manual – not presets, not electronic dimmers, guys standing between resistant dimmer boards, sweating, running lights. On a musical you would have three men running the lights but you had to choreograph and it was as simple as, even if you don’t know anything about lighting, if you wanted to blink the lights between blue and red, so we have blue and then we’re going to go blink, blink, blink, blink, red, blue, red, blue, red, blue – I had to think of that up front so I would put the red in his left hand and I would put the blue in his right hand so that he could blink the red and the blue because if you didn’t think about it and the director said “Well, we need to blink the red and the blue”, okay… Also, in that era directors knew that lighting was a manual operation and that it took time and many times you would do a show and they were writing down things backstage where they would annually do this but you would get a phone call from the stage manager on the second week of rehearsals saying, “Listen, the director has Mary entering and standing in the doorway, up-center, delivering her first line. He said you’ll probably need a special there.” This came from the director. Okay, so I add a light to light the doorway up-center and that’s a morning scene so it’s going to be a morning color. Then, a week later, the stage manager calls and says “By the way, he has Mary entering in the same doorway in the night scene. You’re going to need a night special up there”, so I have to put two lights up – but the director was anticipating the needs of the lighting designer and communicating via the stage manager all the time during rehearsals. I would go to rehearsals all the time because if you saw something like they’re standing someplace I didn’t think anybody was going to stand you’d have to put a light up. Where that has changed is then we got to electronics and we got computerized lighting. Blinking lights was writing two cues and the guy hit a button and it blinked red, blue, red blue. We then added automated lighting and I put the first automated fixtures on Broadway in 1984 on a musical called ‘Grind’ but automated lights didn’t come onto Broadway really until the ’90s, but now a newer director, directors that came up in the ’80s but started in the ’90s, don’t know about having to wait for the lighting designer because we’re trying to figure out how to run the lights, they also can say “I need a special over on the door”, and we have an automated fixture and we can put the fixture on the door, so I’m not getting the feedback from directors earlier because they haven’t really thought about it. It’s not that they’re bad at directing, they were never raised that way, so that’s where the difference has come that I see – the electronic control was the biggest difference and then automated lighting was maybe the second biggest change.
Ken D: What’s next?
Ken B: Well LEDs have sort of shown up but LEDs are expensive, there are lots of things that go wrong with them, they don’t necessarily fade out all the way, you get more out of a single fixture – you can get multicolor or not – you can go and buy a spotlight – own in your home a theatrical lighting fixture, Source 4, which is what everybody uses now, for probably $350 and then you put a piece of gel, which costs pennies, in front of it and you can have it whatever color you want it. Now we can do an LED version of that light that costs $2,200, so you then have to do tradeoffs – do we want to spend all the money to get this one light that will do all of these things or do I just hang two lights that are cheaper and put two colors in them? But LEDs are the big change at the moment and that will continue to change. I often here it’s about saving electricity, we’re going green, we’re saving electricity – we don’t use much electricity in the theater. Yes, there are piles of electricity going into the building, which is all necessary for the curtain call, but when the guy is sitting down left at a camp fire with one light at 30% on him, it’s not using much electricity. Probably your bathroom is using more electricity than we are on stage at that moment – and theaters are only lit two hours, two and a half hours, so we’re not energy hogs. We have a lot of electricity but we’re not hogs.
Ken D: Do lighting designers like projections?
Ken B: Enjoy them or…?
Ken D: This isn’t even on my list of questions.
Ken B: I do a lot of projection shows.
Ken D: So projections have come into the market a lot, some people use them to replace scenery to help put you in a place, but of course there’s light coming off of them. There isn’t light coming off a drop or a building, so how does that affect your work?
Ken B: It affects the projection designer. Back when it used to be scenic projectors I used to do all the projections with the set designer, now that it’s become video somebody else needs to deal with it, it’s become a fulltime occupation. You need a collaboration with the projection designer in two ways – if I put too much light on stage you don’t see the projections but, that said, the projection designer needs to give me enough light on stage so that I can make it look like a sunny day. When we were doing Sunday in the Park with George, the revival a few years ago, that had a lot of projections in it. I said, “Sunday – day is the key word here, everybody. I can’t make it Sundark so we can see the projections”, everybody was totally onboard and it worked out brilliantly. So you have to make sure the content is in keeping with what you’re doing, and content is whatever it is but if you talk about it all being a bluish lavender event so I light it and it’s bluish lavender and then the projection designer says “Oh, we should add more orange to it”, and then he or she puts more orange into it and then my lighting doesn’t make any sense in front of it. So we all need to talk about this – just because you can change it doesn’t necessarily mean you should and you need powerful projectors, powerful projectors are noisy, but content is crucial. A fallacy is “Oh, if we do projections we don’t have to build scenery.” Well, I have done musicals where the content, that is what was projected, cost over $1 million, plus they build a set, then you rent the projectors, which usually cost more than the lighting rental. So it’s not a savings, what it is is a new tool for design and helping create maybe more fluid changes, going to many locations instead of lumbering scenery. You also don’t want to make it look like we’re going to a drive-in movie with people in front of the screen. It’s an art form and it’s actually getting pretty good.
Ken D: So, to get specific, John Rando, the director of Getting the Band Back Together, and I are sitting around and we’re talking designers and he’s like “Ken Billington,” and I was like “I love Ken Billington!” so we call you up and say, “You want to do this?” and you say “Yeah, I’d love to work with you guys”, and we give you the script. Then what? Take me through your process.
Ken B: The script is usually before I say yes, but when it’s friends you just say, “Yeah, sure, whatever it is we’ll go party and play and maybe put out a good show.” The one thing I never do is I never take on a project that I hate or with a director that I don’t see eye to eye with because then we’re sabotaging the production, because then I’m not going to give me all, although I always give my all, but if the director and I are not seeing eye to eye, it’s really the director, he’s the visionary here, I help complete his vision – and, by the way, that’s only happened to me once in a lot of shows. So I take the script and I read the script, if there’s a demo I listen to the demo. I don’t write any notes, I just listen, I sit at home and I say “Oh, this is sort of interesting, this is fun, that’s nice, it actually needs to be rewritten”, but whatever it is, I then, the next day, re-read it and take my pencil and I underline things in the script like you see the playwright’s written “Lightning”, okay, lightning, so we’re going to have lightning, and I underline things that are very crucial – what time of year is it? What time of day is it? Where are we? A sunny summer day in the Hamptons, that tells you one thing, or a winter day in Minnesota, that tells you something else, or a foggy day in London. All of those things are important. So I do all of that and then, the ideal scenario is I’ve done all of that and if I don’t know the director we have a meeting and we talk, and we rarely talk about the play, we talk about lunch and what show they saw last night and then you get to the play. It’s about seeing if you’re going to work together well. After that, then I want to meet with the set designer and I love being in the first meeting with the set designer and the costume designer – get all of the designers in the room at once to come up with ideas or to talk about the play and then, after we have that talk I sort of have to step back because I can do nothing until the scenic designer gives me the environment that we’re going to work in. Scenic designers usually call me during the process of them creating that, saying “I was thinking of doing blacks”, or whatever version of scenery, but then, once the scenery is rough planned in section I can then work on it and then I have to call the set designer and say, “Boy, I need a little more room here. Can that drop be made out of filled scrim instead of muslin?” We talk about materials, and then I draw a light plot. What most people don’t know is I design the lighting long before the show goes into rehearsal, so I am there at my drawing board, drafting a light plot, a mechanical drawing. The set goes to bids and the light goes to bids and then we all show up in the theater and create it. That process, I like being in from the beginning and those early meetings with the other designers and then I have to step back because I’m not going to tell the set designer how to design it – that’s his job. There are sometimes just practical things that mean I need room for lights, I need 28 inches here, even though all the drops are there I still need 28 inches or you’re not going to see the actors or those drops, so let’s talk about those drops – do we really need three drops or can we do it with whatever the answer might be?
Ken D: An old producer once said to me that when you hire designers you hire a set designer first, a lighting designer second and a costume designer first, like they were that order in the hierarchy – do you think that’s true?
Ken B: No, there are many shows in my career where I’ve been the first person hired and the producer has said to me, “Here are the three set designers I was thinking of. Who do you like? Or who do you think will be right for this show?” and I won’t tell you the number of shows I’ve done in the last ten years where I’ve been the first person hired. It’s a total collaboration – you want the right people to work together to come up with that, so it’s what is a good team going to be? And, by the way, there are many set designers who say “I want Ken”, and there’s probably a few that say, “I don’t want Ken.” There are some producers that love me and maybe there’s a few that dislike me so I think if you can get everybody in the room to start then you can come along. If you go back with the old producer, once upon a time the scenic designers lit the shows, so Jo Mielziner and Howard Bay and Robert Edmond Jones, they did the lighting, so the lighting designer, that was part of their job, and then when lighting designers started coming into the picture, which is after the second World War – the first musical that ever listed a lighting designer on a poster was Brigadoon with Peggy Clark – so we’re still a young profession and scenic designers were lighting their own shows probably up until the ’80s, late ’70s, and then the lighting designer took over. By the way, I have no idea how anybody could do scenery and lights, it’s such a complicated fulltime job – and it used to be they sometimes did sets, lights and costumes, so, okay, worry about the zippers, the red gel and the set falling over!
Ken D: You mentioned the bid process – I have a couple of questions about that. I have always thought of lighting designers like painters, you paint with light.
Ken B: Absolutely.
Ken D: And all great painters have their color palette, their board of all of their colors, and I used to think – so tell me if I’m right or wrong – that when it comes to doing a musical, it’s a musical comedy, “Give me Ken Billington, Musical Comedy B” because you have your palette so you know what you’re going to start with and then maybe you have some additional. Is that the case or is it really starting every time from scratch?
Ken B: Well I’ve been doing it so long I know how things work. Here’s a big secret about lighting – it’s about seeing people. If you can’t see them, it doesn’t work, so visibility is crucial to my profession. I can’t make the jokes funnier, though sometimes everyone thinks if it’s brighter they’ll laugh, sometimes they need to go rewrite it, but I can’t make a show a hit. I can make it 10% better – I can take it from 70% to 80%, maybe. I can’t take it from 50% to 60%, it’s still down there. But for color, it’s always dictated by what the play is – is it surreal, is it old fashioned, is it cartoon? Whatever that might be, it tells you a little bit about what is a color palette that you would use. Yes, if you’re doing My Fair Lady, now this is as general as you can get, it’s a pink and blue musical – you have the blue scenes for night, you have the pink scenes for the rest of the thing and you have some specials – and people are going to say ‘He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,’ but in fact it’s pink and blue. But I remember the first time I did Fiddler on the Roof, Boris Aronson scenic, in the Winter Garden Theater with Zero Mostel, it was a revival in the ’70s, and I thought I had lit it really well, and it’s Fiddler on the Roof which is not pink and blue but it’s nature and nature is beautiful so it it’s gloomy, it’s winter in Russia and it’s sunny summer in Russia and all of these fabulous backdrops by Boris Aronson and we’re in a scene and Boris came up to me and he said, “Ken, Ken, it’s too Walt Disney” and then walked away from him. Now, I knew exactly what he meant – there was too much green in the backdrop so I took it out and he said, “Thank you” from a row in front. Those are the notes I like – I had made Fiddler on the Roof too Walt Disney and it was all done because of color. The secret is color is the cheapest thing in the world you can change. You go get a gel, put another one in. I did a terrible flop musical called Perfectly Frank, it was a Frank Lesser revue and it ran for at least three or four weeks and we replaced the director coming into New York and the director said to me, “This should look like Ann-Margret’s nightclub act”, and I happen to like Ann-Margret so I thought I knew exactly what he meant but I thought that was totally the wrong concept for the lighting, but being the good kid I was I went and I put in all these saturated colors and we started techs on Perfectly Frank ‘ and it didn’t look good, the lighting was bad, it was just absolutely bad. I tried everything to make this show look good and the director, after the show, I’m sitting there, going “What did I do wrong here?”, looking at the show, all the saturated blues and purples and reds and greens and ambers, I knew how to use those colors but the show was not working and it didn’t look good. I called my best friend who’s a lighting designer and he came over and he didn’t know what to do. I went home one night and I said “Alright, tomorrow I’m going to go sit in the fifth room like an audience member, like they had hired Ken Billington to come and fix the lighting”, and so I went and I sat in the fifth row, we were in the middle of the first act, and I went “Oh, the colors suck. Who picked these colors?” I went out – I didn’t watch act two – and I saw the general manager and I said “I need a call tomorrow for re-gelling the show”, and he said “Oh, okay.” By the way, that wasn’t expensive, it was a crew call, which was already planned, we had to go buy $50 worth of gel, we cut it, we put it in, and the show, all of a sudden, looked terrific. I had made a blunder in color but it’s an easy thing to fix. But I recognized it – I tried to make it work and I couldn’t. So color is subjective. There are some designers that don’t like color, some that do. I happen to be very lucky in that I can go from no color to saturated color one show to the next, I work very well in both. I don’t know if this even answered your question, but it’s a good story.
Ken D: It certainly is. Okay, so part two of my big question. For those of you out there who don’t know the “bid” process, what happens is Ken will develop this light plot, we will send it to shops, they will come back to us with “Here’s how much it’s going to cost us to prep this stuff, here’s how much it’s going to cost you to rent it and the perishables and the whole bid”, and then this process happens – there’s the producer and the general manager negotiating with the lighting shop, we talk to you, we beat you up, like “Why do you need so many damn lights? What about these LEDs?”, it goes back and forth, the director gets involved and it’s a time-sucking mess, in my opinion.
Ken B: Right.
Ken D: Is there a way to make this better?
Ken B: Yes, here’s the way I do it – I ask what the budget is before I design the show. If I think – I’m making these numbers up – it’s a $10,000 a week rental and the producer says they have $5,000 – or the general manager, I don’t usually talk to the producer about that – then I will say it’s not enough. “Well that’s all we have the money for”, “well I can give you a $5,000 show but let’s get everybody in the room”, and this is before I put pencil to paper – I don’t design shows twice. Let’s get everybody in the room and tell the director that, for $5,000, we’re not going to have any automated lighting and we’re not going to have any color changes and make sure the producer is in the room too so that when we get to the first preview and they say, “I can’t see her up left”, we can say “Well, we couldn’t afford the light. Don’t stage anybody up there, put them down center.” So I try to get that out of the way upfront and get those numbers and I will also go and say “You need to get me more money”, and then they go and they look and they say “We can give you $6,000”, and I will design a $6,000 show. So rarely do I cut things or have to cut things. Is that being creative and doing the best I can do for the show? Well, the best I can do is $10,000, if you only have $6,000 I need to modify things. It’s still going to look great, it’s just maybe not going to be everything everyone thinks it should be but I would never let you down and not light the show up. So I want to know the numbers up front and the answer is not, “Design what you need and we’ll go from there.” No, I’m not going to design what I need – you tell me what we can afford.
Ken D: You’ve worked with a lot of producers over the years, for sure – what makes a good producer, to you?
Ken B: A good producer is a producer who’s involved. I want a producer who knows what I do for a living, knows what my budget is, knows what it takes to do this and can show up in the theater. I don’t see it much anymore but I remember when I was doing some play with Richard Barr, who producer things like Sweeney Todd, and he came in and he said “Are you going to be finished by dinner?” and I said “Yeah”, and he said “Yeah, finish by dinner, I’m not paying for the crew tonight”, but that was the producer coming in and telling me that, or the producer saying “This is the shop we’re going to use”, but the producer being very involved. Not usually in things like “Make it brighter, make it darker”, because that isn’t the producer’s job. If the producer thinks it’s too dark they’ve got to go to the director and say “It’s too dark, have him make it brighter”, and then the director will give it to me. Now, I know so many producers sometimes they come up to me and I say “Oh, that’s a good idea”, and we go on. So I want a producer that’s involved, that’s there, that knows what we’re doing, that comes to the theater, that is with us. When we are there at ten o’clock at night and we have to take the backdrop out and have it repainted, that the producer is there and he’ll turn to the general manager and say “Okay, the drop’s going to cost this. What’s the crew call going to cost? Okay, my total cost to fix this is that”, and then they make the decision – it’s their decision to make. “No, guys, we can’t afford to repaint the backdrop. How do we solve this another way?” That’s what I want them there to do, and to say “We need to work until midnight”, “Okay, you can work until midnight but you have to come in tomorrow morning”, but to know what the budgets are, to know what it takes to put on a show. They also need to be able to guide the director and the authors and be the boss because, you know, if it’s a flop or a hit everyone praises the director or says he should never work again, but if you have a producer, we all work for the producer, the producer is the one who signs the check and if the producer doesn’t want us there we’re not there, and they need to do that, they have to produce and they have to talk to people and they have to be involved and not just show up on opening night.
Ken D: Okay, my last question, which is my Genie Question that I ask all of my guests – I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to see you and says, “Ken, you’ve made such amazing contributions to the lighting and the Broadway community in general – you’re in the Hall of Fame, for God’s sake – I owe you something, which is I’m going to grant you one wish, just one wish.” What is the one thing that drives you crazy about Broadway, that makes you so angry, that keeps you up at night, that you would want to wish away for Broadway? But you can only choose one.
Ken B: I would get the critics back on opening night and have that adrenaline and that excitement that happens. Sometimes it happens once on opening night and I think shows suffer by having critical performances for five, six, seven days or whatever. “Okay, Wednesday matinee has to be good, the Times is here”, but we’re not opening until next Tuesday. I have been to shows, because back when I started that’s what it was, and I have seen such magic on opening night that the audience stood up – this is before they ever stood up, they never stood up every performance like they do now. So those are the things for the Broadway community, I want that excitement, and maybe a star is born and a hit is made and that can only happen if that electricity is in that performance. It’s hard to create a star now over five afternoons.
Ken D: That is such a simple and brilliant idea. I love it. Of course I’ll have to play this podcast for Ben Brantley, who did a podcast and actually explained why he loves to come early, which of course I understand.
Ken B: I was telling a story in my office earlier today – when I did Sweeney Todd originally, we opened on a Thursdays night after four weeks of previews and that was when critics came on opening night and Hal Prince was very concerned that Sweeney Todd was so important and so deep in its composition and the story we were telling that he didn’t think the critics could figure it out in one hour, to leave the theater at 9:30 and have a review in the paper at 11 o’clock at night, so he invited the critics, or had the producers invite the critics, actually, to either show on Wednesday – so I remember the critic for the Times, I don’t know if it was Clive Barnes or not, it may have been Richard Eder, I don’t remember, came Wednesday matinee and came back Thursday night. That was the first time it had ever been done, and for the right reason, I think. Then they started coming so far in advance. I think also the way critics write now, they’re not accustomed to writing a review in an hour. Of course they probably have the play sent to them before that so they’ve read it and they knew a little bit about it before they walked into the building.
Ken D: That’s a great answer. I want to thank you so much for spending the time with us today and I can’t wait to see your next 90 shows!
Ken B: Neither can I – I’m doing them!
Ken D: Thanks so much everybody for listening – we’ll see you next time!