May 25, 2006

JBB EXCLUSIVE: Interview With Jersey Boys Tony Award Nominee Lighting Designer Howell Binkley

May 25th, 2006

Jersey Boys Blog is honored to present a recent interview with Jersey Boys’ Tony-nominated Lighting Designer Howell Binkley, who talks about the creative process of lighting design, his remarkable career, and his phenomenal experience with Jersey Boys.

JBB: Congratulations on your Tony nomination for Best Lighting Design of a Musical for Jersey Boys! How did you find out, and what did you do right after hearing the big news?

HB: Thank you so much. Actually I was in La Jolla, once again working with Des on a new musical called Zhivago, and in the middle of rehearsal, I received the news via mobile from Boneau/Bryan-Brown, and obviously I was thrilled for everyone involved. After that, all of my friends and family began calling. I adore this show and all of its creative team, I must say, however, that it broke my heart not to see our wonderful choreographer, Sergio Trujillo nominated… he is a star and I cannot wait to see what he is going to bring next.

JBB: Thus far, you have received a Tony Award nomination for Kiss of the Spider Woman, and won the Sir Laurence Olivier Award in 1993 for the same show, and now, your Outer Critics Circle Award & your Tony nomination for Jersey Boys! What do these awards mean to you?

HB: I have been very lucky. Of course it is an honor to be given such awards, but in the end, I love what I do. I just love to wake up in the morning and have a theatre to go to which becomes my blank canvas for a while. That is a dream come true. I have such high regard for the artists with whom I work, they make this all possible for me.

JBB: How did it all begin for you? How did you become interested in becoming a lighting designer and who influenced you?

HB: I attended East Carolina University in North Carolina and in school we had to do workshops with the student choreographers where I learned a great deal. I took a two-year break from school to work as a technician at Opryland before returning and working with LD Dennis Parichy when John Houseman’s Acting Company did a residency at ECU. Dennis hired me for my first out-of-school job, as lighting supervisor for the company. I worked with them for two and a half years and got to tour the world! We didn’t carry our own equipment; we had a rep plot and used the house gear. It taught me a lot about the road, about lighting and dealing with crews, with people, and with problems. Later, I worked for four and a half years as lighting supervisor for the Paul Taylor Dance Company, working under LD Jennifer Tipton who taught me more than I can ever say. It was there that I met choreographer David Parsons. Jennifer told me I needed what she had with Paul Taylor, a company of my own to design for. David and I became great friends. We took our few little pennies and started the dance company in 1986. Thankfully, it is still going strong. It all began there.

JBB: What exactly is involved in the lighting designer’s job? When do you become involved in the production and when does the actual lighting process begin?

HB: You must begin with the director’s vision. You start with the script, the text and learn your foundation, you’ve got to know the show, you’ve got to know how it moves, where it is going to, and what it has to move through to get there. It’s really learning the show first, going through the text, taking whatever time you can with the director, getting the feedback there, going to the model, working with the set designer. Then plotting it out, claiming your real estate and figuring out how to fit what you need in. Jack O’Brien said to me when we were working on The Full Monty: “I always want to see the text.”

JBB: As lighting designer, is the job finished when the production begins, or do you continue to work with the crew on the lighting process throughout the entire production?

HB: Well, a designer’s job is definitely not finished when the production is open. It does become a bit less taxing after previews begin, but I am never comfortable until the director locks down the show and that might not come until just before the official opening. But that also doesn’t mean that things never change and I am always there if I need to be. Everyone involved in a show, for as long as it is performed, be it twenty weeks or twenty years, receive daily rehearsal reports which contain specific detailed information about the state of the show for each of its eight shows per week. If something stops working, it needs to be fixed. If something breaks down again and again, it was not the right choice and it needs to be altered. We have to keep on top of things to keep the shows as thrilling as they were on day one. It’s like a baby, you have to keep an eye on it at all times to keep it safe and make it grow.

JBB: You have done lighting design for Broadway and Off-Broadway, as well as for dance companies. How do these venues differ for the lighting design process?

HB: I spent many years working with many different dance companies. In fact, I toured with Paul Taylor for a while and through that I became friends with David Parsons with whom I co-founded Parsons Dance Company in 1986. I have designed over sixty pieces for that company and have loved doing it. There are only so many theatres in New York City, and I have had great experiences with theatres such as The Goodman, The Guthrie, The Alley, Seattle Rep, George Street and The La Jolla Playhouse. I work at the regionals many times each year. It is always a challenge when you design in different spaces, they each differ, but in the end, it is always about the piece I am lighting and my collaborators. If those are good, one can design almost anywhere. I love to design for a good piece of theatre or dance, no matter where they are produced. It has to be about the work, it cannot be about where it is or whether or not it is on Broadway or The West End. I have been told though, that I take dance lighting into my theatre work. It’s all about the focus: Where does the eye go? How are we training the audience’s eye to focus? Do we want it on this dancer here or do we want it on the cyc?

JBB: How did you become involved as lighting designer in Jersey Boys?

HB: I have a great history with our director Des: I had previously designed How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, High Society, Dracula, Eden Lane, Private Fittings, and Palm Beach for him. Each of these shows, as did Jersey Boys, had their roots at Des’s theatre in San Diego, The La Jolla Playhouse.

JBB: Where did the vision and inspiration for Jersey Boys’ lighting design come from?

HB: What you should know is that when we began this process in La Jolla, the script was still in process. My work was all about creating seamless transitions between the different scenes and times in the within the piece. The four seasons, the four boys, I needed to unite the story visually. Des also had a great many ideas for designing the time period, sepia tones in certain scenes for example.

JBB: For well over a decade, you have had an incredible career as a lighting designer, on productions such as Avenue Q, How to Succeed in Business, and Kiss of the Spider Woman–just to name a few. With such a variety of productions you have been associated with, what makes Jersey Boys unique from the others?

HB: I have to say, from building the show in La Jolla to re-working it in New York, the experience has been terrific, so collaborative and truly a challenge. My greatest experiences designing are always with wonderful directors, directors who pose questions and problems for me to answer and solve. People like Des McAnuff and Hal Prince truly make me think about every shadow, each texture, every move and how it will change the story they are trying to tell.

JBB: Was there a certain mood, style, or feeling that you were trying to achieve in Jersey Boys, and how was it accomplished?

HB: One big element of the piece, one that was very important to Des, was the piece taking place over four seasons. The journey of these men, through the seasons of their lives shown in different colors and moods. It was a great notion to play with and sculpt.

JBB: In a recent Jersey Boys Blog poll, respondents named the backstage view of the Four Seasons singing “Dawn” as their favorite scene. How did this scene come about?

HB: The entire piece is the realization, by a great creative team, of a remarkable script and of an extraordinarily talented director’s vision. The “Dawn” scene which comes at the end of Act 1 began in La Jolla in a very simple way: We used a set of strip lights upstage, facing the crowd as footlights. For months after that, Des kept saying, “Howell, we need to make this a big event… How do we do that?” I worked with my assistants through the summer, in prepping the move of the show and it wasn’t until we actually moved the piece to Broadway that the scene became more fully realized. Here, we built a configuration of different fixtures and used special frames called doughnuts. The doughnut gel frames limit the size of the aperture of light after the lens. Once we coupled the placement of the PAR light fixtures with the holes in the doughnuts, each becoming increasingly smaller, we achieved our illusion of the lights being further away. I wanted to create a perspective stadium backdrop with light. We also had star strobes and data-flashes, which mimicked flashbulbs going off in the crowd. I love that scene as well. To turn a stage 180 degrees allows for an entirely new perspective, you become one of the boys. You feel their excitement.

JBB: From a lighting perspective, do you have a scene that stands out as one of the most dramatic in Jersey Boys?

HB: That is the kind of question that I almost cannot answer. This show sits in my mind as something totally remarkable, something which occupied my thoughts for over a year, I love the entire thing. I do, however. agree with your polltakers who loved the “Dawn” sequence.

For its musical aspects, I love “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.”

JBB: How does the lighting enhance the story & the music to draw the audience into Jersey Boys, and how has it helped to make it such a blockbuster hit?

HB: I always believe my job is to sculpt around what a show has to say. An audience should not see the lights, they should see lives. I never want my work to overpower the music or the performances. I just want to enhance them as much as possible. I wanted to be accurate regarding the time period, but also make the show look interesting to a modern audience. I was very lucky in that the music and the actors already shone brightly, I just got to play with that light and try to make them look even better.

JBB: Besides Jersey Boys, you have been involved in Bridge and Tunnel this year. Are you currently working on other productions or projects? What’s next for you?

HB: I was so lucky to have worked with Sarah Jones on Bridge and Tunnel, she is just remarkable. When she changed characters, I often forgot I was lighting the same woman. I just returned from San Diego where I was working with Des McAnuff on a new musical he directed at The La Jolla Playhouse called Zhivago. Now I am off to London to remount Avenue Q in The West End. I will make a quick trip home to support our show at The Tony Awards before spending some time in Gettysburg to design a new version of Frank Wildhorn’s musical The Civil War now called For The Glory. Then I will reunite with Des to work on his revival of The Wiz at La Jolla. After that comes Hal Prince’s latest piece, LoveMusik, a new musical about Kurt Weil and Lotte Lenya with a book by Alfred Uhry. I cannot wait for that. How wonderful for him to be receiving the honorary Tony Award this year!

Once again, Jersey Boys Blog would like to thank Howell Binkley for such an in-depth and exciting interview and to congratulate him for his Critics Circle Award and his Tony nomination for Best Lighting Design!


  1. Wow – what a great interview! I learned a lot about Howell and about lighting design. A peek into a very fascinating career. Congratulations Howell and best of luck!

    Comment by JC — May 26, 2006 @ 3:33 pm

  2. Congratulations, Howell, and thanks for giving a terrrific interview to this terrific blog. This is the best place for JB news! Cheers, Charles

    Comment by calexan — May 26, 2006 @ 4:36 pm

  3. Bink – Your story is incredible! Thinking back to the simpler times at RJR, who would have known you would have achieved so much. We are very proud of your past, current, and certain future success. Your passion for the craft and love for the art exemplify your results. Much love to you from your family in North and South Carolina. See you soon.

    Comment by Randy Lewter — May 26, 2006 @ 5:13 pm

  4. Dad–This is so cool! None of my friends get to read interviews of their Dad’s on the internet… fun to read too! Jersey Boys was awesome! Have fun with it. Mom thinks you’ll win the Tony! Love you,


    Comment by Zoe King — June 2, 2006 @ 10:11 pm

  5. Congratulations,Howell! What a terrific interview given by a dear person and great talent being honored for a splendid show. Look forward to seeing you in New York and in Carolina. Love and hugs, Phyllis

    Comment by Phyllis Dunning — June 5, 2006 @ 5:40 am

  6. Bink,
    You are such a treasure! Loved your interview and learned so much. Your co-workers will all appreciate the many compliments you shared. My very best wishes to you and all the crew/cast of the phenominal “Jersey Boys”. Love you

    Comment by Josie Phillips — June 5, 2006 @ 3:53 pm

  7. Hal, way to go! We’ll be watching you when you walk on stage to accept your award! We have many happy memories of the good old days in Winston. “Moon” ‘em, kid.
    Love, Mary Pat, Marley and Clint

    Comment by Marley and Mary Pat — June 6, 2006 @ 5:00 pm

  8. You’ve done it again !!! I’ll be watching the Tony Awards to see you accepting the Tony for Lighting Design !!We here in Winston-Salem are so proud of you and your accomplishments.I look forward to coming to NYC to see JERSEY BOYS..Lots of Hugs, Georgia West

    Comment by Georgia West — June 6, 2006 @ 6:54 pm

  9. Wow! A Tony! Guess we’ll never get the boy on the farm again. Congratulations Howell Bagby Binkley!

    Comment by Terry Richardson — June 20, 2006 @ 12:46 am

  10. CONGRATULATIONS!!!(You should have had the Tony for Kiss of the Spider Woman.) I hope it is the first of a many Tonys – to join your other well-deserved awards. I am so glad they said you name correctly!

    Comment by Lee Ellen Benjamin — June 20, 2006 @ 9:07 am

  11. Howell Binkley…you are awesome! All of us from Tar Landing at Atlantic Beach – Lisa B., Walter B., Walter W., Emily, Trey, and Abby – are so proud of you, all your accomplishments, and thrilled you won the Tony for Jersey Boys! Keep on using those purple lights! Love you!

    Comment by Scott Wells — July 8, 2006 @ 11:36 pm

  12. Way to go Bink! You are our RJR hero!! I’ve lost touch with you over the past few years…….gotta get back to NYC to see you and the Jersy Boys.

    Comment by Mandy Thrush Todd — September 18, 2007 @ 8:52 pm

  13. I saw Jersey Boys in Raleigh.Fantastic show! Noticed you did the lighting. Brought back so many memories of Winston Salem Little Theatre. So proud of you.
    Brenda Barnhill

    Comment by Brenda Barnhill — July 17, 2009 @ 11:27 am

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