Howell Binkley, who sculpted Broadway hits in light, dies at 64

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Howell Binkley, who sculpted Broadway hits in light, dies at 64
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in “Hamilton,” at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York, July 11, 2015. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Most audience members at shows that Howell Binkley worked on, whether Broadway smashes like “Hamilton” or dance performances in small spaces, probably never gave a thought to his contributions. That’s the way Binkley, one of the most sought-after lighting designers in the business, preferred it.

“I always go back to my roots — simplicity, clarity, showing the text,” he once said. “Not putting on a ridiculous light show. Lighting is to expand the words and music and dance, not distract from it.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of “Hamilton,” for which Binkley won one of his two Tony Awards, first experienced Binkley’s artistry on his earlier hit, “In the Heights,” which made it to Broadway in 2008.

“I peppered the show with challenges,” Miranda said by email, “songs titled ‘Sunrise’ and ‘When the Sun Goes Down.’ The first act ended with a citywide blackout and the company singing, ‘Look at the fireworks.’ Howell never batted an eye, evoking all these natural phenomena with subtlety, allowing the audience’s suspension of disbelief to take them the rest of the way.”

Binkley died Aug. 14 in Jacksonville, North Carolina. He was 64.

His wife, Joyce Storey, said the cause was lung cancer.

Binkley, who had residences in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, and East Harlem, had more than 50 Broadway credits and was nominated for the lighting design Tony nine times. He won for “Jersey Boys,” which opened in 2005, in addition to “Hamilton” a decade later.

Often since his first Broadway credit in 1993, four or five Broadway shows he designed were running simultaneously. He also worked extensively in regional theaters and in dance, including a decadeslong collaboration with his friend David Parsons, the choreographer.

Modern Broadway lighting booths are full of high-tech gadgetry, but what Binkley helped Parsons achieve with his “Caught” almost 40 years ago, using a strobe to make a lone dancer seem to float and fly against a black background, is legendary in the dance world for its searing, minimalist beauty.

In a 2015 interview with the website Live Design, Binkley expressed pride at how such minimal elements produced such an impact. “Nearly impossible, yes? And yet it is known as one of the premier dance works in the world,” he said.

That ability to realize daunting visions made Binkley a favorite of top stage directors, including Harold Prince and Des McAnuff. As Miranda put it, “There was no challenge Howell couldn’t meet with light.”

Howell Bagby Binkley was born on July 25, 1956, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His father, John Jr., was an engineer for the Western Electric Company, and his mother, Hattie Louise (Bagby) Binkley, worked at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem.

His interest in the backstage side of theater, and lighting design in particular, developed early. By eighth grade he was spending weekends helping to load and unload trucks for productions at Reynolds Auditorium in Winston-Salem, and in high school he participated in summer theater camps at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

In 1974, he enrolled at East Carolina University, where students studying lighting design, as he was, were paired with student choreographers, experience he found valuable. He took a break from college to do tech work for two years at Opryland in Nashville, then returned to the university, where John Houseman and Margot Harley’s theater troupe, the Acting Company, had arrived for a residency.

That led to a summer internship for $35 a week at the company’s site in Saratoga Springs, New York, where new shows were rehearsed. Binkley never did finish college, eventually taking a full-time job with the Acting Company.

After three years there he joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company, hoping to learn from its esteemed lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton. She encouraged him to strike out on his own, and in 1985 he and David Parsons, who was also at Paul Taylor, founded Parsons Dance, with Binkley doing the lighting designs.

Resources are always sparse for a startup, and Binkley learned to do a lot with a little, something he came to see as vital.

“I truly believe that if a lighting designer is able to sculpt a piece with passion, imagination and a limited amount of technology, the world will open to her or him,” he said.

He had ample opportunity to test that creed as the young dance company toured extensively both in the United States and abroad, performing in all sorts of spaces in the days before light boards were computer controlled.

“We loved the hardship,” Parsons said in a phone interview. “We would clean theaters if they were too dirty. Howell was up on ladders — it was all manual, all gels.”

Binkley often equated the art of lighting a dance performance to sculpture.

“You are sculpting the body from all sides in order to give definition to the body as it turns, as it’s lifted, as it rolls on the ground,” he told The Winston-Salem Journal in 2012. “I try in my lighting of plays and musicals to use that same carving tool.”

His big break in theater came after he did the lighting for a gala on Theater Row in Manhattan. Harold Prince attended and apparently liked what he saw.

He asked Binkley to be the lighting director on a Broadway musical he was preparing: “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” The show ran for more than two years and earned Binkley the first of his Tony nominations. It also earned him the admiration of Prince, who used him on other shows, including “Parade” in 1998 and “LoveMusik” in 2007.

Binkley’s second Broadway credit was the 1994 production of “Grease.” By then his work had caught the attention of another top director, McAnuff, who recruited him for his revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (1995) and used him repeatedly thereafter, including on “Jersey Boys.” That musical ran for more than 16 years, one of the longest runs in Broadway history.

Among Binkley’s most recent Broadway credits were “Come From Away,” “A Bronx Tale: The Musical” and “Summer.”

Binkley’s marriage to Linda Kent in 1988 ended in divorce. In addition to Storey, whom he married in 2014, he is survived by a daughter, Zoë King, from a relationship with Anne King; and a brother, John.

Binkley often said he particularly enjoyed the collaborative nature of dance and theater. Miranda recalled his calming, veteran presence on “In the Heights,” whose creative team was relatively youthful — Miranda himself was still in his 20s at the time.

“I’d gravitate toward his tech table, where he kept a small bowl of assorted chocolates,” Miranda said. “He caught me picking out the peanut butter cups on the first day, a huge grin on his face. On the second day, I found another bowl of candy on his table: this one only full of peanut butter cups, just for me.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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