More than 40 years ago, when A Chorus Line first came to Broadway, it brought with it a revolutionary approach to lighting design. The show used a computer, affectionately nicknamed Sam, to program and run the display each night.
And because it was automatic, the lighting was far more dynamic than any manually-run Broadway show had been before. Without Sam, the show’s producers said, half of the light movements would have been cut—simply because humans couldn’t change the lights so quickly. “This is a quantum jump,” Gershen Shevett, who ran the lights at the Shubert Theater, told The New York Times in 1975, “from the Bronze Age to a moon shot.”
People noticed the leap. Among the nine Tony awards that A Chorus Line eventually won, one was the accolade for Best Lighting Design. Broadway shows have been building on Sam’s success ever since.
But what happens to those light shows when a production finishes its run?
That’s been a question tugging at lighting designers and theater historians for some time now. Machine-programmed lighting isn’t documented the way the lighting schemes from earlier theater productions are sketched or otherwise described in stage records. “How can we make sure that all of that information is preserved in the same way as the lighting design for something like Oklahoma on Broadway [in 1943] or even something like The Black Crook in 1866?” said Doug Reside, the theater curator for the New York Public Library.