Ken Billington: A Performing Arts Legacy Project site

Phoenix Repertory Company

My life as a designer was moving forward with one Broadway show, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, that had multiple companies as well as one on Broadway, all sending weekly royalty checks and all was good.

In 1972 the Phoenix Repertory Company was resurrected as the New Phoenix Repertory Company with Harold Prince and Stephen Porter as artistic directors.  They produced a three-show Broadway season with my old boss Tharon Musser as the lighting designer.  It is now the second year of the Phoenix company and I get a phone call from Marilyn Miller the general manager asking me if I wanted to light the three-show repertory season which would be performed at the Barrymore Theatre.  I was not unknown to the company, the previous season I had lit three Off-Off-Broadway staged readings that they had produced.  I believe Tharon had told them she was not available for the new Broadway season and should hire me to do it.  The shows were The Visit directed by Hal Prince, Chemin De Fer directed by Stephen Porter and Holiday directed by Michael Montel.  I did not interview with any of them — I just got the job.

A production meeting for The Visit was called on a Sunday afternoon at Hal Prince’s home office in the east 80’s.  I had never met Hal Prince. I get to the meeting and in attendance were the set and costume designers, production stage manager, Hal and his associate Ruth Mitchell.  The meeting started and the set was talked though as were all the costumes, then the sound cues, and finally the schedule was figured out with the stage manager.  I was never asked anything and then had this sinking feeling that they did not know who I was.  The meeting ends and I go up to Hal and say we did not talk about the lighting, he said, “What do you want to talk about, Ken?”   This was a good sign he knew who I was.  I then said there are two ways to go about lighting the show, one is with shafts of light and the other with lots of shadows.  Before I could get the next part of out of my mouth Hal said, “I love shafts and shadows — do it that way.”   With that in mind I drew my light plot for three shows in rep on Broadway.

The Visit opened after an out of town tryout in Philadelphia and was a hit.  That spring I received my first Tony nomination for my work on The Visit.  That started a 44-year collaboration with Hal Prince that included five Plays and seven musicals on Broadway, six operas and one Off Broadway musical.  My meetings with Hal were always as easy as the first.  For example, when we did Sweeney Todd, Hal handed me a picture of Grand Central Station with light streaming through the windows.  From that, scenic designer Eugene Lee and I created the original Sweeney Todd, arguably one of the greatest musicals of the 20th Century.