House lights go down for the second act of VINCENT, but the stage lights remain dark. Then Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night fades on the two picture sheets that are upstage of the set. Music fades in, Don McLean’s recording of his song, Vincent, aka Starry, Starry Night. The song continues as a montage of Vincent’s paintings appear on the screens.
In the ambient light from slides you can make out the silhouette of Leonard Nimoy. He stands off to one side, his back to the audience, looking at and enjoying the art along with the audience.
The music fades out. Starry Night reappears for a moment and then fades out also. Backlights fill the stage and Nimoy turns as the front lights fade in and he resumes as Theo Van Gogh telling us about his brother, Vincent.
Selecting the Van Gogh paintings was hard because of the volume of great works and the little time allotted to show them. Selecting the music for the interlude was harder.
Leonard wanted Don McLean singing Vincent from the very start; however he had a friend he relied on for advice who thought the song was Pop, unfit to be part of ‘serious’ art. The friend, an artistic director of a regional theater, was pretentious to say the least. He never said Shakespeare, but always said ‘The Bard’. Theater was always spelled theatre and ‘Arts’ should never be coupled with ‘Crafts’. He backed off somewhat when it was pointed out that the very same recording was played hourly at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and a copy of the sheet music was buried in the museum’s time capsule.
Don McLean, singer/songwriter, troubadour/poet, is an American treasure, but not exactly a household name. He is mostly indentified with his American Pie aka The Day The Music Died, known for it’s mysterious lyrics and it’s extraordinary length. ‘Drove my Chevy to the levee and the levee was dry.’ His second most famous work is Vincent, his ode to Van Gogh. ‘And now I understand what you tried to say to me”.
American Pie represented a sad time in McLean’s life, the death of an idol, Buddy Holly. Vincent reflected the sadness of his early life especially after the death of his father when Don was only 15. It was written on a brown paper bag during a period of marital problems. McLean had always identified with Van Gogh, who was never appreciated during his lifetime, and is reflected the lyrics ‘They would not listen, they’re not listening still Perhaps they never will’.
Outside of an excellent rendition by Madonna, American Pie is left by other recording artists for McLean. His recording of it was voted #5 of the 365 Songs of the Century by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Vincent, on the other hand, is covered by many other artists, like Julie Andrews, Julio Ingesias, Chet Atkins, and my favorite cover, Jane Olivor.
His song, And I Love You So has been covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Shirley Bassey, Glen Campbell, Howard Keel, a cover by Perry Como reached #1in the Easy Listening genre. His song, Wonderful Baby, was dedicated to and recorded by Fred Astaire.
In his recordings and his concerts, his repertoire includes his own compositions as well as songs identified with singers like Sinatra, Buddy Holly, his mentor, Pete Seeger, Gordon Lightfoot, and Marty Robbins.
When Ray Orbison released his song Crying, it was received just so-so. McLean cut a cover of it that hit #1 in the international market. Orbison made a rerecording of it, using some of the innovations of McLean, and it is now a classic. Orbison said McLean had the best cover of any of Orbison’s songs and said McLean had ‘the voice of the century’.
Don McLean was also responsible, indirectly, for another classic, Killing Me Softly With His Song. Lori Lieberman, singer/songwriter, said that she was so touched by Don McLean in concert, singing his song, Empty Chairs, inspired by McLean looking at Van Gogh’s painting of The Chair, that she wrote a poem as soon as she got home. The poem was set to music and Roberta Flack’s version was 1973’s Record Of The Year.
Dennis Babcock, Guthrie’s Special Events Producer, and the man who put the production and tour of VINCENT together, booked in Don McLean in concert during our VINCENT rehearsal period. Great concert! First time I ever worked McLean. First time Nimoy ever saw him in person and met him. McLean saved Vincent/Starry, Starry Night for the encore and dedicated it to Leonard and the upcoming tour of VINCENT.
As usual, I was house electrician for the concert. When I asked McLean about his lighting preferences, he just smiled and told me to do as I wanted. I did. Used various gels for mood, slow color transitions, sometimes just back light to silhouette him.
When we were knocking down the concert equipment, Eric, Nimoy’s dresser and the self appointed major domo for the tour, came on stage.
‘Don,’ he said, in his dramatic basso voice, ‘I know that your lighting of VINCENT is in the tradition of the stage; but frankly, it is vanilla pudding. Now your lighting of the concert tonight reflected Van Gogh and his paintings. You should incorporate that into VINCENT. Be bold! Spice it up!’
‘Well,’ I confessed, ‘I have often thought about doing just that, but I don’t know if Leonard go for it.’
‘Who do you think brought up the idea? And I agree with him. Leonard had to go out to dinner with Mr. McLean and asked me to mention it to you so you could perhaps have some of it in tomorrow’s rehearsal.’
I didn’t need much time at all. I had it pretty much finalized by the time rehearsals started the next day. The key was my use of colored backlights. In his last years, his most ambitious period, in and around Arles in southern France, he used a preponderance of cobalt blue and amber yellow In one of his letters to his brother, Theo, Vincent defended his use of new colors and bolder brush strokes talking of
“vast fields of wheat under troubled skies”.
The play’s set had two picture sheets a backdrop. The backlights hung downstage of them, in such a way as to avoid spilling any light on the sheets. There were three distinct parts of the set.
Stage Right was Theo’s office, a desk and chair. The backlight for this section was the cold heavy blue of Vincent’s midnight sky on cloudless nights.
“Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue”
Stage Left was Vincent’s studio. A rough built table with a paint smeared smock on it. A palette and brushes. A stool. An easel. This backlight was the yellow amber of Vincent’s home and sparse furnishing at Arles. His sunflowers.
“Morning fields of amber grain”
Center stage was the neutral zone where the two colors combined. I controlled the intensity of the two backlight colors, in all three sections depending upon where Leonard was and the mood at the time,
“Colors changing hue”
Leonard liked the new lighting. Erik liked the new lighting. Sandy, Leonard’s wife at the time, liked it.
I knew I had aced it when, on opening night, Alvin Epstein, the Guthrie’s Artistic Director, told me that my lighting was like bringing a Van Gogh painting to life.
But naturally there was a voice of dissent. The Pretentious Pal felt my lighting was vulgar, unfit to be part of serious art. He suggested that Leonard get a ‘real’ Lighting Designer. And naturally he knew the names of several of who he had used in his theater. Leonard said thanks but no thanks. When Leonard was approached by Babcock about a Guthrie production of the skeleton version Leonard first brought to town, Leonard agree and wanted me to be involved and to light it.
At the risk of bragging, theatrical reviewers seldom mention the lighting, and yet in almost all the reviews we got around the country my lights were not only mentioned but also praised. When we played a benefit for The Pretentious Pal’s theater, he really cut loose on me. After all I was a stagehand and lighting was art and the two should be kept separate. And I was not only a stagehand, I was a union stagehand!
I didn’t bother to tell him that this was not the first time this union stagehand designed lights at the Guthrie, and had crossed into his sacred world of ‘Art’ in another way. A few years before I won a prize in a national One-Act playwriting contest, and my play had been published and produced.
In respect of Leonard and Mrs. Nimoy, I listened his criticism and then silently walked away. After I left though. the Nimoys had quite a few words to say to him about his rudeness.
(Hey, Mr. Pretentious Pal, VARIETY ‘The Bible of Show Business’ said in their review of VINCENT, “Donald Ostertag’s lighting was Excellent”. And they also liked the use Don McLean’s recording of Vincent, in the play.)
The entire of tour of VINCENT consisted of three separate legs. The first was produced by the Guthrie. The second was a month in Boston, Leonard’s home town, and was under Leonard’s production. Once again, The Pretentious Pal came and offered suggestions during the rehearsal. And once again, tried to get Leonard to drop Don McLean’s song and Don Ostertag’s lighting. Again, the answer was thanks but no thanks. The next year the third leg went back on the road to other cities. The third leg was produced by Leonard and another producer.
Neither Dennis Babcock nor myself took the show out on the third leg. Since it was no longer affiliated with the Guthrie, Dennis felt he should concentrate on his ‘day job’ at the theater. He found a Tour Manager to replace him.
My life had changed drastically. I had left the Guthrie and had been elected as Business Agent/Call Steward for the local as well as working off the Union Call List. My three oldest sons were working as stagehands and also going to college. In a few years, they would be joined by the two younger sons. I had missed so much of their growing up; but once I went on the Extra Board, I got something that few fathers get, a chance to work shoulder to shoulder with my sons. And over the years, I also worked with four nephews, a young cousin, and a future daughter-in-law. My days on the road were over as well as my days as a lighting designer.
When Leonard found out that I was not going out with him, he said he wanted two stagehands to replace me. I sent two out with him. Dennis and I were involved with the rehearsals, which took place in Minneapolis followed by a week of shows at the Guthrie. Then it was off to Atlanta with Dennis and I going along to help with the first real stop.
Oh, of course, The Pretentious Pal had come to Minneapolis town for the rehearsals, and again with the his suggestions to change both the lighting and the music. Again, Leonard stood firm on my lighting, but he did cave on the music. Don McLean was replaced by a classical piece of largely unknown music by a largely unknown composer.
The music had two things going for it. The composer had lived in Arles at the same time as Van Gogh, although they probably never met nor even knew of one other. The second thing in the music’s favor was the album cover was a Van Gogh painting of ‘A Bridge Near Arles’.
That leg of the tour ended with a filming of the production for VCR distribution and also to be shown some 50 times on the A&E network. That was also the end of Leonard Nimoy in the stage production of VINCENT.
I stayed away from the filming and left it to the two hands. I did however sit in with Leonard and a few others for the showing of the finished product.
I had been forewarned by the hands that although the credit read that the lighting was based on a concept of Donald Ostertag, don’t believe it. It was basically, all the white lights available are turned on, then off.
As soon as the film started, Leonard wanted to know why my lighting wasn’t used. Julie, Leonard’s daughter, who was around during the filming and had worked with the camera crew on locations of IN SEARCH OF, explained that the director said the colors and cues wouldn’t work in the film. Leonard didn’t like it that my lights were left out and said so.
I didn’t argue although I knew the excuse was bogus. Basically this was a case of go to town, film it as quick as possible, and go back to L.A.. Surf’s up! Besides, what was important was the play and especially Leonard’s acting. Nobody would ever buy a copy because of my lighting.
Leonard’s second comment was at the top of the second act. ‘Never should have replaced Don McLean with this music,’ he muttered. I guess you could say that The Pretentious Pal finally got his way, even if Leonard did not like it.
Thirty plus years later:
The VCR was upgraded to DVD with some added commentary and stories by Leonard for which he received a small fee. Now he could have used it to buy photography equipment for his new profession or other things; but true to his nature, he divided up the money and sent checks to those of us who had worked on the VINCENT tour.
What a compliment to know your work was still appreciated some thirty years later.
And just recently, Don McLean’s past work was appreciated in a very big way. The notebook that he used to work out the lyrics of American Pie recently was bought at auction for $1,200,000, the third highest money ever paid for an American literary manuscript. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer, more talented artist. Just too bad he didn’t save that paper bag he used to write out the lyrics of his Vincent.
And that’s a wrap – for today.