Barry Manilow Concert Lighting

So, It was my intention to follow-up the last post on DMX 512 with additional examination of  DMX512 networks and devices.   However,  serendipity, in the form of the opportunity to attend a Barry Manilow concert last Thursday (April 12) interfered with that plan.  Apart from the opportunity to revisit the songs that were playing on pop radio in my youth, it was a great chance to see if I could observe some of the things that I have been studying over the past several weeks in action.

You may recall that on my sabbatical leave I am investigating 21st-century lighting technology.  In addition to attending USITT in Long Beach a couple of weeks ago where I got to examine a lot of this gear up-close and attend workshops on the topic, I have been reading some related books.  I picked up Brad Schiller’s The Automated Lighting Programmer’s Handbook: second edition while at the conference and have been reading it the past week.

The concert set consisted of a fairly flat forestage, with a slight upstage elevation for the several musicians in the band.  At least 3 moving lights sat on the floor in the band area.  2 curving towers arched asymmetrically from the stage.  The SR tower was fitted with 8 moving lights and was both the taller of the two and was placed further upstage.  The SL tower was shorter, placed further downstage and carried 3 or 4 (it was hard to see from my house-right seating position) moving lights.  A large rear-projection screen hovered about 9 or 10 feet above the stage at the back of the band area.  Overhead, there appeared to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 fixtures (some movers, the rest standard fixtures with color changers or LED fixtures).  ladders  each carrying 4 moving lights hung from overhead down stage L and R.  At least one followspot from overhead followed Barry around the stage providing a bright top or high back light to him.  You can see the effect in the photo above in the bright pool of light in which he stands.  Frontlight was provided by conventional followspots from a high front balcony position.  2 were always on Barry when he was on stage.  Another 2 were used to light his backup singers when they were featured.

During each song, the content on the large overhead screen changed.  For “Old Songs”  this image (or a variation of it) provided a simple dynamic image.  The upstage area is bathed in a luscious purple-blue while the downstage featured a bright pink-red and vivid yellow-orange splash of color.  The towers are lit in a red wash.  The movers on both towers have circle gobos and slowly meandered around the stage in a languid “Ballyhoo”.  Other moving light effects that I observed in this concert included “Kicks” (all movers in a bank pointing down with shutters close and then, flashing on and panning up to overhead and blanking out, one at a time in a chase sequence) and “Stabs” (all movers blacked out and irised very tightly and strobing momentarily in a chase sequence).

The photo above from the cues for “Brooklyn Blues” clearly reveals the projection screen with an overall image of  the faces of buildings (presumably representative of Brooklyn).  You can also see the grand piano in its onstage placement that Barry played for many of his songs.

In the photo above, Barry sings the Ballad “This One’s For You”.  The 8 movers on the SR tower assume a configuration that was frequently repeated on this ballad-heavy concert where the Singer was often exhibiting his piano virtuosity.  All 8 focus on Barry’s back right.  Notice that the lowest couple actually light the floor to the SR of his feet and under the piano.  In this case, a couple of pale top-backlights light Barry, but also, unfortunately seem to accidentally glance across the top of the SR curved tower.  One of the most impressive moments of the began with a video projection of a young Barry Manilow projected on the large screen (broadcast-quality footage probably taken from one of his ABC specials).  After the first chorus, Barry joined in singing and playing the baby grand along with the archival video clip.

The concert ended with lavish projections of psychedelic tropical animations on the screen and vividly colored light from the rest of the rig for the show-stopping “Copacabana”

The photo at left captures the last moment of “Copacabana” and illustrates the range of color effects achieved by the lighting rig.

At one point in the concert Barry announced that he was going to perform the song “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” a song that he claimed not to have performed publicly for some time and that he and the band had just worked up during the afternoon.  I was dubious owing to the slick production values of the concert up until that point, and assumed that it was either just part of the performance, or perhaps that they were recycling some segment from the recently closed Vegas long-run production.

As the song began with a the moving video projection seen at left, I originally thought that my suspicions were confirmed since my reading  suggested that the process of creating an effective series of cues such as I expected to see is a much more complicated task than the implied time-frame would have permitted.  However, I did notice that what appears in the still at left to be the movers an the SR arch tower pointing toward the audience was those same movers moving in some pseudo-random Ballyhoo, but no light was coming out of them.  I suspect that this was a consequence as Brad Schiller warned of  a cue sequence having been recorded in tracking mode and then being run following a cue block that is tracking different values for the shutter or iris than the cue in memory when it was created.                  

Almost instantly, the cue changed to the even less aesthetic cue at right.  In this cue, the washes that light the arch towers also illuminate the screen.  Without content, the screen is very present and not at all interesting or attractive.  All of the overhead movers are frozen, whilet the movers on the arch towers continue to writhe and twitch, appearing to be trying to do something but having the shutters firmly preventing light from projecting onto the stage.

I feel fortunate to have witnessed what I perceive as this error and am pleased to have experienced this confirmation of Brad Schiller’s cautions about the unexpected consequences of badly planned tracking cues.

I regret not having seized an opportunity to examine the light board before the concert.  Considering the complexity of the rig, it probably was.   By the time the concert was over and the audience on the floor of the arena were streaming out, the crew had already begun breaking down the console so I had missed my chance.  The opinion of most lighting programers whom I have asked is that a mover-heavy concert rig is best driven by a GrandMA or a Hog. From where I sat, the console resembled a GrandMA to me (though I am hardly an expert at identifying consoles by sight).

For those of my readers who are dubious over the value to the students and administration of  the sabbatical system for professors, let me point out that the concert conflicted with the final dress rehearsal of the play that Theatre Simpson (the theatre department for which I am TD & Faculty Designer when I am not on sabbatical) produced this past weekend (April 13-15).  For that matter, the USITT conference itself conflicted with the work call for the same production.  These two facts serve to illustrate how the leave is an essential tool for the Design/Tech faculty member in a small liberal arts undergraduate program.  Unless the department has very generous financial resources and/or is situated in a location with  ample theatrical resources and without the flexibility that a sabbatical leave offers, it is impractical for a Design/Tech faculty member to engage in meaningful exploration outside of teaching and production duties.

That’s it for now! Have fun!  Be safe!



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