With a career spanning 30 years of lighting for theater, rock ‘n’ roll shows, television, film and almost any other medium you can imagine, Mike Baldassari possesses an inexhaustible enthusiasm for the diversity of his work. A Tony Awards® – and Emmy Award – nominated lighting designer, Mike easily shifts from concerts, like Phish’s Madison Square Garden New Year’s Eve show, and Neil Young and Alice in Chains tours, to high-profile Broadway shows, like “Cabaret” and “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” to national tours, such as Monty Python’s “Spam-A-Lot,” to television design work for “Saturday Night Live,” “Mary J. Blige Live from Club Nokia” and many more. For Mike, variety is a big part of the fuel that keeps the work fresh and fun.
I recently had an opportunity to speak with Mike from his home in Hoboken, New Jersey, where his family has ancestral roots going back 100 years. He was prepping for a revival of “The Secret Garden,” readying a new musical called “Beatsville,” which is set among the beatniks of Greenwich Village, and planning for the annual CBS Upfront at Carnegie Hall, in which the network rolls out its new shows for Madison Avenue advertisers.
[MM] You have worked in an extraordinary number of lighting disciplines. What was the initial inroad to your career?
[Mike] First and foremost, I’m a theatrical lighting designer, and that’s my home base. Everything else has expanded from there. One of the things I like to bring to the table is the cross-pollination that can happen across all those disciplines. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to move from one to the other, but that has been a goal of mine from the get-go.
[MM] Tell me about the cross-pollination. What are some of the underlying factors that unify lighting across various disciplines?
[Mike] Ultimately, the connective tissue is good lighting, but there are a lot of things that can be learned in one discipline and applied to another. It can be something like starting a rock show in a way that is more theatrical. In a Broadway musical, the most important number is the opening; you’re telling a big story to the audience at the front of the show. The same can happen at a concert. Instead of a band just walking out onstage, finding a way to reveal them with lighting enhances the audience experience.
For example, during my last Alice in Chains tour, the audience walked into the theater and saw a screen at the front, a piece of fabric on which we rear projected a heart that was part of the logo of the band’s latest album. The heart was beating the whole time they entered. As the houselights went down, the heart started beating faster, so you had a layer of excitement building. Next, there was a silhouette of the guitarist playing live next to the heart. That ratcheted it up another level. Then, the heart faded out, and it went to silhouettes of all four members, and again, there was a new level of excitement. We still hadn’t revealed the band, but were building and building. Finally, the fabric, which was rigged as a kabuki drop, fell away to reveal the band in the middle of the first verse. It was a great build of four or five steps to create an opening in a way that was much more theatrical than just having the band walk out onstage.
Conversely, there are plenty of rock ’n’ roll ideas I’ve used in Broadway shows. One of the best compliments I’ve received was from set designer, Dave Gallo. We did the Broadway musical “First Date” together, and there was a rock number in it. Dave Gallo came up and said, “It is so great to see a musical number in a Broadway show lit like a rock song, not like a Broadway version of a rock song.” It had some sense of authenticity that he responded to.
[MM] What do you think gave it that authenticity?
[Mike] I think it was that the number was cued like a rock song; we hit all the accents. When the verses or chorus repeated, so did the lighting. It was also probably the restraint of color. In rock ‘n’ roll and on Broadway, I like each number to have its own look, and a lot of that comes from the restraint of color. It’s best to think of one, two or three colors that work best for each song. My one little rule is that you can only have one super multicolored song in a concert or a show. Otherwise, if you can go to any color, anytime, it becomes a jumble and the songs all start to look the same.
[MM] You mentioned that your inroad to lighting design was through theater. Is that your core passion or do you have do you have an across-the-board affection for the craft?
[Mike] I think I would get really bored if I only stayed in one lane. I always look forward to being in different lanes and moving from one to the other. I didn’t want to take the road that was just rock ‘n’ roll, because I enjoyed Broadway and vice versa. I also find that with film, there’s a different kind of payoff than with a Broadway show.
[MM] What kind of payoff?
[Mike] The best way I can describe it is by referring to a book called “Changing Stages” by the British director Richard Eyre and actor/playwright Nicholas Wright. In the foreword, as a metaphor for theater, they cite the story of a freak snowstorm in Renaissance Italy and the Medici family summoning Michelangelo to create a sculpture—essentially, to build a snowman. They said it was the greatest sculpture he ever created, but because it was made of snow, it melted away, never to be seen again. That was their metaphor for live theater.
Theater exists that one night, one time only, with that one audience. No two performances are ever exactly the same, and that’s part of what is so exciting about seeing a Broadway show or theater in general. It’s always a little different every night. For me, after spending a lot of time building snowmen, I wanted something that was a little more permanent, and that’s one of the great things about film; it’s there forever. It puts different kinds of constraints on you, because it has to be right on the day; the day it’s being filmed. There might be a second or third take, but it has to be right on the day. It’s essentially etched in stone, and that makes it completely different than theater.
It also poses different challenges. With a Broadway show, you might have three weeks of previews, where you’re making adjustments, and the director and writers come in and change things. But, on a film, once the cameras roll, that’s it. There’s no tomorrow.
[MM] What is it about lighting that keeps you engaged?
[Mike] I love the reaction it elicits and how you help to direct an audience’s attention, especially on a Broadway stage. One of the huge differences between film and television and theater lighting is that in film and television you have multiple viewing angles, zooms and cuts. You tell the audience where to look by where you point the camera. If you want a close-up on somebody’s face, you zoom in and manipulate what the audience sees. In theater, the manipulation is completely different; you can’t change the relationship of the audience to the stage. So, the lighting works like a camera by helping the audience know where to look, and by helping reveal the story with focus, color, angle and intensity.
I also still get a kick out of rock shows. There is nothing quite like the energy of when the lights go out, and the audience cheers. Being in a big building with a lot of people, that one artist, on that one stage, that one night, and it’s never ever going to be quite the same again. As a designer, that’s part of what you want to bring to a concert. I try and approach things as if I’m the guy buying the ticket and give them what I would like to see. The audience pays a lot of money to see a show, and it’s our job to deliver that experience. We’re in service to the artist, but we’re also in service to the audience.
[MM] It sounds like you really enjoy being a storyteller.
[Mike] Absolutely! When people ask what a lighting designer does, I say I’m the orchestrator. I have these different instruments, and sometimes the violins give you one emotion, and other times, the snare drum gives you a different emotion. I think of lighting that way. Just like someone orchestrates with the conventional instruments of the orchestra, I orchestrate with lighting. It’s definitely a form of storytelling.
[MM] What kind of lighting would a violin section equate to?
[Mike] Great question! It would depend on the kind of stage we’re on and what story we’re telling. Is it the violin section from a Barry White song, or is it the violin section from Mozart Concerto No. 25? In each piece, they’re still violins, but Barry White used violins in very different ways than Mozart. You can’t say a violin sound is pink, because it’s relative to the context.
[MM] Can you share your process of starting a new project?
[Mike] In 30 years, I have never put a show together the same way twice. Every project is different and has its own organic way of coming together. With Broadway productions, I like to get with the set designer and director as soon as possible for what I call a jam session. I love sitting around the table with a director and set designer, and just start riffing. You don’t even have to bring paper; we just talk about the journey of the characters and that kind of stuff.
With rock shows, one of the first things is learning about the constraints of the show or tour—the sizes of the buildings you’re playing, how many trucks are being used; those kinds of details dictate a lot of the creative approach.
Beyond that, I try and go to a few rehearsals. It doesn’t matter if it’s a concert, Broadway show or dance piece. Then, I sit with the script and, especially if it’s a musical, go through each song individually and think about where it’s moving the story. What separates musicals from other mediums is that the songs have to advance the storyline.
Once we are in the theater, it becomes a very collaborative sport. I sit there with the director and push off. Put one foot in front of the other and just go. I have a lot of really good programmers I work with and depend on them to manage data and keep the lighting program very clean, because one of the things–especially with a musical or new piece–is that you have to go back and do a lot of editing.
On a film, I need to collaborate with the director of photography, so it’s completely different than theater in that respect. There are also collaborations with the production designer and producers, particularly line producers, when it comes to the budget. You always need to work through it.
Process is a really big part of it, in the best way, because theater of every kind is a team sport. You work with all kinds of different people. When I was a kid, I played football and baseball. I didn’t do tennis, skiing and golf, I did things that were about the team. I really liked being on a team and still do.
[MM] How has Martin lighting supported your creative efforts?
[Mike] The great thing about Martin is that it keeps coming up with products we can use. Part of the DNA of the company is that it originally came out of discotheques, an environment where someone hung a light, nobody maintained it, and it had to work for months or years at a time. I think they still approach products with that DNA. Maintenance is a real issue with lighting, especially on Broadway shows, and Martin has a lot of really good products that are reliable.
I feel like Martin is always very responsive to the needs of the industry. Making products that don’t put out a lot of extraneous noise–especially on a Broadway show–is a big thing, and Martin responded to that need. They also responded to the need for terrific LED fixtures. The MAC Aura, for example, is a really great fixture and looks great on TV. I have done plenty of TV shows where we sprinkle MAC Auras around, on or within the band, or behind a stand-up comedian, and they look really great on camera. And, I’ve never had an issue with them flickering on camera.
When I think about a current project, like “The Secret Garden,” I have MAC Auras, MAC Quantum Profiles and MAC Viper Performances on it. I even have some MAC 2000 Performances, which are great when you have a budget you have to work within. I know they’re going to hold up and do what I need them to do.
The other good thing about Martin is that I can specify fixtures in America and have the exact same fixtures in Europe. They have enough distribution worldwide, and that’s a big plus.
[MM] Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
[Mike] I feel so, so fortunate to make a living and support a family doing this, but there’s no sugarcoating the fact that working in this industry entails having ups and downs, and the downtime can actually be harder than doing the work. I’ve been very lucky, but it is the life of a freelancer. Long ago, somebody said that this isn’t a job, but a way of life, and you have to sign onto it. It’s definitely not for everybody, but I love it. Having a supportive partner on the home front has definitely been a major contributing factor to the success I’ve had!
Many thanks to Mike for sharing his story. Are you a lighting designer who works in various mediums? Share your insights in the comments.