Lights, Curtain, Action: Backstage with the Man Who Illuminates “Hamilton”
“It’s like the sun-comin’-up-in-the-morning kind of thing,” Brian (Rizzo) Frankel, a Broadway lighting technician, says about stage lighting, in a new six-minute short produced by The New Yorker’s video team. “It brings everything to life. Sets the mood for the day. It’s sunny or cloudy—same thing with lighting onstage.” The video gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Frankel’s particular celestial realm: “Hamilton.” Frankel, a veteran of both the Air Force and Broadway—he’s been in the business since 1980—is long-haired and goateed, with necklaces, bracelets, a wildly patterned shirt, and a genial, easygoing manner. Since 1994, he’s worked at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, on West Forty-sixth Street, “Hamilton” ’s home for the past four years. He’s in charge of the show’s spotlight, and also all of its electricity. “I’m an electrician first, spotlight second,” he says.
As the film begins, we journey with Frankel as he drives into Manhattan and then the theatre district, where he busts the chops of a police officer. His Broadway neighborhood has a busy and friendly air, and, he says, he knows all the cops, the firefighters, the diner workers, the hot-dog guys. Frankel arrives at work at the stage door, by the imposing “Hamilton” marquee (“THE MOST EXCITING MUSICAL OF THE DECADE”), on a street festooned with ads for “Manilow Broadway,” “Tootsie,” and something the Washington Post called “electrifying.” Inside, Frankel gets to work on the set of “Hamilton,” with its hanging ropes, wooden beams, and revolving center stage, testing the lights and electricity. He goes backstage, into the lighting booth, into the house, checking details all around the theatre. “Lampposts are good!” he calls out.
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The video short offers perspective on theatre lighting’s past, via archival Broadway footage (a marquee featuring Jerry Orbach in “Chicago”; Annie embracing her dog, Sandy) and Frankel’s memories—in the eighties, he says, he worked at the Hudson Theatre, which was still using gas footlights—and it appreciates the present creative moment, too. “Hamilton” is a “special thing,” Frankel says. “Having a standing ovation every night? For four years straight? You know, they’re seeing history.” The film illuminates Frankel’s place in that history, in a way that we feel viscerally at the end: at a performance of “Hamilton,” wearing a headset in the lighting booth, hand on the console, he happily mouths along with the end of one memorable song. (“I am not throwing away my shot! ”) As it ends—bam!—he triumphantly hits the lights.