Musser, Tharon (1925—)

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Musser, Tharon (1925—)

American lighting designer . Born Tharon Myrene Musser on January 8, 1925, in Roanoke, Virginia; daughter of George C. Musser (a cleric) and Hazel (Riddle) Musser; graduated from Marion (Virginia) High School, in 1942; Berea College, Berea, Kentucky, B.A., 1945; Yale University, M.F.A., 1950; never married; no children.

One of a trio of pioneering women lighting designers that also includes Jean Rosenthal and Peggy Clark , Tharon Musser has been a dominant lighting designer on Broadway since 1960, and is the winner of four Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards and three Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards, as well as countless nominations. She is also the recipient of two lifetime achievement awards: a Lifetime in Light Award from Lighting Dimensions magazine (1990) and the Wally Russell Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement (1995).

Musser was born in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1925 and attended Berea College, a work-study school in Kentucky, where she served as technical director in the college's theater, a job she came to love. She continued to study technical theater at Yale University, where her specialty narrowed to lighting design. While still at Yale, she worked at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York City, designing for children's shows, string quartets, poetry readings, and three or four dance concerts a week. After receiving her M.F.A. degree in 1950, she toured with the José Limón Dance Company, serving as lighting designer and stage manager. Musser's early years also included a stint as a television floor manager at CBS, but she was put off when she discovered she was making less money than her male counterparts, "so adios TV," as she put it.

Before she was permitted to design for Broadway, Musser had to pass the difficult union exam, which at the time included scenic and costume components as well as lighting. (She later worked with Rosenthal and Clark to establish a separate exam process exclusively for lighting designers.) Soon after receiving her union card, she lit her first Broadway show: the premiere production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (1956), directed by José Quintero. "Brooks Atkinson's review sent me to the dictionary to see if it was complimentary or not," she recalled. "Thank God, it was."

Musser's credits mounted quickly, and came to include everything from Shakespeare to musical comedy. She has worked with the American Shakespeare Festival, the Dallas and Miami opera companies, the Mark Taper Forum, and American Ballet Theater. She has lit all of Neil Simon's plays since Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971) and has designed an impressive list of musicals, including Follies (1972), A Chorus Line (1975), and Dreamgirls (1985), all of which were directed and choreographed by the late Michael Bennett, whom she considered the ideal collaborator. She was particularly drawn to Bennett's lack of ego and his ability to get everyone to understand that the production took precedence. "He was incredible," she said. "I keep working with new people hoping to find somebody with that spark. The theatricality just oozed out of his pores."

Musser won her first Tony Award for Follies (1971), and her second for A Chorus Line (1975), for which she used the prototype LS8, the first computerized memory lighting board to be used on Broadway. "Well, if my hair wasn't white then, it would be," said Musser, recalling the trouble she had with the board, which was dubbed Sam. "A couple of years before we closed on Broadway, it got to the point where if you sneezed it went out to lunch." (Sam now resides in the Computer Museum in Boston, which Musser views as a "very respectable retirement.") Musser won her third Tony for Dream-girls in which she used moving lights, yet another innovation. Thankfully, with Bennett's directing, said Musser, she could count on the dancers to hit the same mark every night. Although she admits that musicals are more lucrative than other shows, she finds that she can only live through one or two a year. "I've gotten to the point where I don't like to touch a musical unless I like the people or the product very much. They all take a lot of blood whether they're good, bad, or indifferent, but the bad ones take gallons."

Relishing the collaborative nature of theater, Musser likes to be totally involved in her projects. "It has to look like I've been there when I do a show," she says. She favors early meetings with the set and costume designers, and frequently picks up pointers from them that help clarify her own point of view. Musser tends to be spare and elegant in her designs, using as few instruments as possible to create the largest number of effects. She thinks that designers today use far too much equipment. "I call it supermarket lighting. You see mush. You don't see a point of view on that stage, just mush." In addition, she points out, all those extra instruments must be hung, focused, and maintained, causing additional problems.

Musser does not draw up her design until the last minute, and even then hands it to the shop without color, which is both her favorite part of the design and the hardest. "I tend to do it early in the morning, when I'm half asleep, otherwise I beat it to death," she says. "This blue, or that blue or that blue. … [C]ome on, just write one down! Color's the easiest thing to change once you're in the theater, but nine times out of ten your first impulse will have been a good choice." Regardless of her preparation, Musser cringes through the first five lighting cues of a show's opening night, sure that nothing is going to work right. If the show is one she really cares about, the jitters become all-consuming. "I can't stand it, just don't want to know about it."

In addition to a staggering number of design projects (in one year alone she did nine shows), Musser has lectured on the theater at colleges across the country and has served as a theatrical consultant for Webb & Knapp, Radcliffe College, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and the New York Council on the Arts. She received the Distinguished Alumna Award from Berea College in 1973, and was awarded an honorary degree from Emerson College, Boston, in 1980.

By her 70s, Musser had become nostalgic about the old days and less patient with what she saw in the theater. "I used to think you could learn as much from something you didn't like as from something you did. Now I tend to go to dinner at intermission a lot." She also became very selective about her projects, admitting that while she was not quite ready to retire, she didn't want to push herself quite so much. "You quit, you die," she says.


McGill, Raymond D., ed. Notable Names in the American Theatre. Clifton, NJ: James T. White, 1976.

Parker, W. Oren, and R. Craig Wolf. Scene Design and Stage Lighting. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

Pilbrow, Richard. Stage Lighting Design: The Art, The Craft, The Life. NY: Design Press, 1997.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller, eds. Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts