“One of the evening’s notable heroes is the lighting designer, Bradley King, who here treats illumination not as a decorative accessory but as a pivotal narrative element,” writes The Washington Post’s Peter Marks of Broadway musical “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” “Glistening chandeliers and single light bulbs suspended on wires ascend to reinforce the illusion of constellations flickering in the night skies. Tulip-shaped lighting fixtures on bistro tables interspersed throughout the space pulsate on and off to the beat of [the] buoyant music.”
To Towson native King, 32, Marks’ commendation seems a bit out of the ordinary. Not because his work isn’t worthy—numerous nominations and awards prove that—but because lighting design rarely receives such special attention.
In fact, the humble designer jokes that the lack of limelight (so to speak) is what drove him to lighting in the first place.
“The story I tell is that when you’re the director, everyone looks to you for answers. And when you’re a designer, they don’t,” he says with a laugh. “Jennifer Tipton, who’s one of the godparents of lighting, once said that 1 percent of the audience recognizes lighting design, but 99 percent are affected by it. I actually find that very appealing.”
Tipton’s quote is a bit less optimistic, citing “ninety-nine and four hundredths of the audience” as design-ignorant. But as King points out, “The Great Comet” defies the odds in just about every way.
The show, a musical loosely based on a segment of War and Peace, is what King calls a “unicorn.” Born in tiny 87-seat Ars Nova Theater, it transitioned to a tent on a lot in the Meatpacking District before wending its way to Boston’s Broadway incubator A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater) and, eventually, to the Great White Way—with Josh Groban in the starring role, no less.
“Everyone’s still a little bit shell-shocked,” says King. “It’s an insane number of Broadway debuts [for the cast and crew]. It was a very young group, so we were all sort of doe-eyed. Many times, a show will move forward, but a lot of the team or the cast won’t because they want bigger or safer names. Our producers were incredible—they realized the team was what made it as good as it was.”
Now, the show is an undeniable hit, being compared to “Hamilton” and eying several Tony nominations (though King will barely speak about “the big night” for fear of jinxing something). And the Gilman grad is partly to thank—something that, even now, seems hard for him to grasp.
“I started at Gilman in sixth grade and always did the plays with Roland Park Country School and Bryn Mawr—actually, someone just posted a bunch of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ photos from 1997 that I could have done without seeing,” he says, laughing again. “And then in high school, we had this amazing new drama teacher come in—Michael Himelfarb—who completely upended the theater program. And I just fell head over heels with being onstage. But there was no tech staff, so a core group of us would do the set, the costumes, the lighting … I knew by 10th grade that I wanted to study theater in college. I went to NYU for acting and directing, found I liked the directing and tech side more, went back to graduate school for lighting design, and seven years later, here I am, making a living.”
Again, King’s charming humility belies his considerable accomplishments. After stepping away from “The Great Comet,” he worked on another successful show with director Rachel Chavkin called “The Royal Family,” followed by a pair of plays at San Diego’s Globe and an off-Broadway arm of NYC’s Roundabout Theatre. He’ll be lighting a new Tom Stoppard play at Lincoln Center this fall, and is incredibly excited about the upcoming Canadian premiere of “Hadestown,” a rock-folk opera by Anaïs Mitchell and another King-Chavkin collaboration.
In short, the Baltimore-born designer is certainly staying busy—something he considers a uniquely rewarding facet of his profession.
“If you’re a set designer, you can build a model of the set and show it to the director and, nine out of 10 times, the set ends up looking like it does in the model. If you’re a costume designer, you can do sketches and renderings, and then the shops build the clothes, and they look pretty much exactly like you drew them. With lighting design, there is no way to really know what it’s going to look like before you’re actually in the room with the actors and the costumes and the set—because light doesn’t exist unless it’s hitting something. There’s a great deal of improvisation … it’s basically like composing music, but with light. It has time, it has tempo, it has timbre—I find it absolutely wonderful. But it’s still sort of this mysterious art. It’s beautiful.”