Simon Hadley

West Side Story at Birmingham Hippodrome – A Lighting Designer’s Perspective

A few weeks ago, Birmingham Hippodrome raised the curtain on its first ever home-grown youth production with a dynamic re-imagining of West Side Story. Opening to a sell-out audience, the show was the centrepiece of the venue’s 120th birthday and featured forty local young performers. The show’s Lighting Designer David Howe takes us through his design for the show and the role it played within the overall production:


I had a very clear design brief for West Side Story: to ensure the piece remained

within the period it was written and stayed true to its Manhattan location. As

this was both a big celebration and the first time the venue had produced a youth

show in-house, we wanted to show off the entire stage house area to our

audience as it was a side of the theatre they’d probably never seen. The stage

was also kept as open as possible to allow for the 40 strong cast to inhabit

the space for some of the big ensemble dance numbers. 


I have worked with the Designer (and Production Manager) Al Parkinson before so it was nice to get the chance to revisit this working relationship. The set itself was a big gauze box into which trucks were moved around in order to create certain spaces. Those who have seen the show will know that it flows from small interior rooms to bigger spaces for some of the more famous songs and dance routines. One of the main roles of the lighting was to reflect the scale and fluidity of the music so I wanted big statements of light – shadows, shafts and colour.  Also, as we were celebrating the actual theatre, Al and I wanted to include its beautiful architecture as much as possible. As a result, with the last scene, we decided to open the space completely, tear down the masking and reveal the whole space which included the scene dock upstage and resulted in a very epic ending.  


Working with the local cast was fantastic as they all had such raw talent and it was thrilling to see them make a real ensemble for the piece. It was also great to work with director and choreographer Matt Hawksworth. That said (as often is the nature of projects like this), we had a very short amount of time to bring the show together. We also knew there were several aspects of the show which would continue evolving right up until the final dress rehearsal.


So how did all of this influence my lighting? Well due to the nature of the show and the rehearsal process, I made sure my lighting package was all about the ‘big statement’ looks. This largely consisted of 5kWs, GLP Bars and a rig of Aura Washes and Viper Profiles. The rig in particular gave me discharge white colours and we used 96 x Par 64 Aeros for brutal beams of light to reveal the theatre at the end of the show.  


One of my favourite moments was at the end of Act One, which is set ‘under the underpass’ and features a massive musical ‘rumble’. I really wanted to create a sense of disorientation so I had dollies made of car headlights (Par Heads) and pointed them onto the stage as if the whole fight was lit solely by the six cars. This deliberately brutal/dazzling light really worked alongside the sheer energy of the fight. A brutal open white Viper added a cold top light in the middle of the space as the action turns ugly and two characters die as the curtain falls. Often, at the end of both acts, there would be complete silence from the audience and you could literally hear a pin drop; such was the emotion on stage.  


The show was programmed by Ed Locke who I’ve worked with a lot. Ed’s short-hand expertise was essential as we had to make some big numbers work in very quick time. Additionally I was joined by Alex Musgrave who is this year’s ALD Lumière. The Lumière Scheme is a professional development programme that provides pathways into the industry for some of the most promising emerging designers by working as an assistant on larger scale shows. Alex watched rehearsals with me and we created a follow-spot plot together. He then liaised all this with the operators, freeing me up to concentrate on the looks and cueing.  


I also worked closely with the in-house team at the Hippodrome. Usually they deal with  incoming touring shows which have very set agendas and are obviously not idiosyncratic to the venue. With West Side Story, we wanted to use as much of the Hippodrome space as possible; with the show celebrating the venue’s birthday. As such, it was great to work with the in-house team who know the building so well and were able to be creative with the facilities they use on a day-to-day basis.  


Ultimately, it was a bold choice for the Hippodrome to stage a show like this but it certainly paid off. Using a group of local, young actors meant that the musical resonated with a new, much younger audience and it was a fantastic celebration of a brilliant venue.