An East Carolina University alumnus will be honored at the 2016 Tony Awards this Sunday for his work on the Broadway smash hit “Hamilton.”
Howell Binkley is nominated for best lighting design for a musical. The show, which received a record-breaking 16 Tony nominations, has become one of Broadway’s biggest critical and commercial successes in its ten-month run.
“It’s an honor to be involved with such a hit show,” said Binkley, who has been a Broadway lighting designer since 1992. This is his seventh nomination; his last win was for “Jersey Boys” in 2006. “It’s still as exciting as the first one.”
Binkley has worked with “Hamilton” creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda and his team before, on a production called “In the Heights,” Miranda’s Broadway debut.
“We have a history of working together,” Binkley said. “It’s a very collaborative process.”
“Hamilton” uses rap and hip-hop music to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton and the founding fathers. This is just one of the many things that make the show unique, from the diversity of the cast to the non-stop pace. There are 50 songs that move immediately from one to the next, Binkley said, and his lighting helps keep the show moving. Instead of traditionally fading to black at the end of each scene, there’s only one blackout at the end of the first act for intermission.
“The show is continuous,” Binkley said. “We work to keep it seamless and keep it vibrant.”
Binkley has been with the show since its beginning, participating in weeks of technical rehearsals before the show premiered off-Broadway at The Public Theater in February 2015. Putting sets, costumes, music and lighting together is “a layered process” that takes about three weeks, Binkley said. “It’s like any other business or product; you have to perfect it before the audience sees it.”
Now, Binkley checks in on the show about once a month to make any needed adjustments, as the house staff at the Richard Rodgers Theater execute his lighting design in sold-out shows.
Growing up in Winston-Salem, Binkley participated in both high school and community theater. He wanted to pursue a degree in architecture, for which ECU accepted him. But once he got involved in the theater program, he never looked back. He studied theater at ECU until 1977, but left before graduating to work in New York. He started out doing lighting for rock ‘n roll concerts, until he met renowned director Harold Prince of “Phantom of the Opera.” His first Broadway show was “Kiss of the Spider Woman” in 1992.
“ECU totally prepared me for my career,” Binkley said. “It gave me a great foundation that took me to where I am now. I’m very proud I went to ECU, and more proud every year as I watch the school grow.”
For the last three years, Binkley has brought a senior theater student from ECU for a summer internship with him in New York.
“I’m happy to open new doors for them and see where they all go,” he said. “School was a new community for me. I introduce them to a new community just like ECU did for me. ECU absolutely contributed to my success. I love giving back.”