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42nd Street – Exclusive Interview with Peter Mumford

shapeimage_2Considered by many to be one of the biggest Broadway musicals of all time, 42nd Street has now arrived in London where it has received rave reviews from audiences and critics alike. Starring Grammy Award winner Sheena Easton, this all singing, high-kicking spectacle is currently playing at Theatre Royal Drury Lane – London’s biggest stage.  The show tells the story of young Peggy Sawyer who is fresh off the bus from small-town America and just another face in the chorus line on Broadway’s newest show. Yet when the leading lady gets injured, Peggy might just have the shot at stardom which she’s always dreamed off… The lighting design is by Olivier Award winner Peter Mumford and White Light has supplied the equipment. We sat down with Peter who told us about his approach to the show and how he achieved his design:

42nd-Street-1188042nd Street is obviously an iconic show. Have you lit it before? If not, how do you approach a show as renowned as this?

No, I’ve not lit 42nd Street previously or indeed seen it. You’re right – it is an iconic show with a long history since the early eighties. In this instance, I’d say that not having seen it was probably an advantage as I didn’t have too many preconceptions. There are some images that date right back to the original Gower Champion concept that ‘travel’ with the show, such as the dressing room scene at the start of Act Two which are unchangeable so just there to be reconstructed rather that re-imagined. Having said that, that particular scene is quite brilliant so one wouldn’t want to change it but rather reproduce it as beautifully as possible. Those instances aside,  there are plenty of opportunities to reinvent the look of much of the rest of the piece and I relished that opportunity and hopefully was able to bring new looks to lots of the show.

 42nd-street-04What was your brief when working on the production?

As I said above, some parts are sacrosanct – Gower Champion died concurrent with the opening production on Broadway so these scenes remain as a tribute to his genius but much of the work has (in this production) been updated with more recent technology and there was plenty of space for invention as well. I’m pleased to say that Doug Schmidt, the designer, said that he’d never seen it sharper or more detailed in terms of both the lighting and the way his scenery looked. So, although the piece has a history which had to be respected, and I was working alongside much of the original creative team, it never felt too restricted creatively.

 42nd-Street-Clare-Halse-Stuart-Neal-Company-cBrinkhoff-MoegenburgHow much preparation did you do? What did this entail?

Obviously a good look at early pictures of the scenic designs which are quite complex – there’s a lot of scenery in this show. There is also a huge number of beautifully painted cloths and structures (all repainted brilliantly by Andrew Greenfield). These cloths are painted in a variety of ways and on different material surfaces, so some are painted to be back lit and some front whereas some could be lit from both front and back. It was important to understand this and also get a clear idea of the rapid fire order of scenes. Studying the ground plans was pretty crucial as the grid is absolutely packed. This also meant that onstage lighting positions were very much defined by the hanging and order of scenery. My spot bar one was forced to be further upstage than I would normally have liked; hung under the large dressing room structure because that was the only place it would fit!

There are also around five thousand light bulbs built into the design which feature heavily in some of the numbers – here we kept to the original design but updated the technology of the realisation.It was important not to lose the period feel of the piece which, of course, is set in the 1930’s.

I had quite a bit of pre-communication with set designer Doug Schmidt and the writer and director Mark Bramble. Pre-production meetings involved quite a lot of conference calls between London, New York and the West Coast. It was quite a relief when we finally all got on the same stage at Drury Lane.


42nd-street-stuart-neal-company-cbrinkhoff-moegenburg_67842789What kit did you draw on to achieve your design?

In the end I went for a pretty much automated overhead rig comprised of Martin MAC Vipers, ETC Source 4 Lustr 2 Profiles and GLP Impression X4 Bar 20s. Out front, there were a lot of regular ETC Source Fours alogn with Philips Vari*Lite VL3500Qs  on the distant truss.

 Did any fixture prove particularly useful for this production?

I was very impressed with the GLP Bars which we pixel mapped, meaning that each individual cell was available. I used complete bars of them on almost each onstage bar and they were very useful to both light cloths and, because of the tilt and flood facility, create a good punchy backlight wash too.

The Vipers proved to be a versatile and constantly useful workhorse and created great flexibility in the many big numbers. It was a great combination.

 42nd-Street-Bruce-Montague-Sheena-Easton-cBrinkhoff-MoegenburgWhere there any obstacles with the show?

I suppose the trickiest thing was the downstage lighting bar being quite a bit further upstage than I would have chosen. This is because there is simply so much scenery downstage there wasn’t room. Using an advance truss downstage of the proscenium did prove to be a way around this and, in the end, it worked well. We had to make quite a busy ‘track’ for some of the side booms which have to be frequently moved out of place during the show to allow scenery to get on stage. As a result, I was quite often asking ‘is bay 2 in position?’ and looking for ways to light a scene if it wasn’t. Ultimately, we created quite a complex system of pathways for scenery and all was resolved, but all credit to the onstage LX crew for managing this so well.

 Any other comments?

Generally speaking I’m not a huge user of follow spots but my team at Drury Lane are the best you could wish for. That also goes for the entire in-house crew under the leadership of Steve McAndrew – great support and work throughout the five weeks of production. Special thanks too to my team: Declan Randall, my Associate, John Tapster, Production LX and Vic Brennan, my Programmer – all of them are just brilliant!

Photos courtesy of Brinkhoff/Moegenburg.