Monday, April 20, 2009

Tharon Musser


She was called the "Dean of American Lighting," and for over forty years, her lighting designs transformed Broadway stages. Six years after earning her MFA from Yale, she made her Broadway debut with the original production of a little play called Long Day's Journey Into Night. She quickly established herself as a versatile lighting designer, moving easily between straight plays and musicals, classical works and contemporary pieces. She was the designer of choice for Hal Prince, Michael Bennett, and Neil Simon, designing over 150 productions for those and other artists. Her first Tony came for her work on the landmark musical Follies, where her lights helped blur the past and present among the debris of a decrepit vaudeville theatre. Her design for A Chorus Line also won a Tony, and was the first use of a computerized lighting board, rendering the manual "piano board" obsolete. Her design for A Chorus Line was recreated for the recent Broadway revival. Her third Tony was awarded for the original production of Dreamgirls, in which she contributed to the non-stop, cinematic feel of the show.

Her expertise was on display in a wide variety of styles, including original productions written by Ionesco (The Chairs), Pinter (The Birthday Party). Albee (A Delicate Balance), and Coward (Tonight at 8:30). Her designs graced the original productions of the musicals Flora the Red Menace, Once Upon a Mattress, Applause, Mack and Mabel, The Wiz, 42nd Street, A Little Night Music, and Mame, as well as the first productions of such plays as The Lion in Winter, Same Time Next Year, Whose Life is it Anyway? and Children of a Lesser God. She was at home with revivals of classics such as Peer Gynt, A Touch of the Poet, The Imaginary Invalid, and Candide.

In the mid-1990s, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but continued to work for several more years, delivering her final Broadway design for The Lonesome West in 1999. Musser died this week at the age of 84.