‘One of my great memories is Michael Jackson,’ says superstar lighting designer Peter Morse, when asked for a highlight from his three-decade-long career.
‘You could stand at the back of a stadium filled with a hundred thousand people, looking at a stage that was 80 to 100 feet across with 20 dancers on it, a big band and a bunch of video. But every eye was on Michael. He had that aura. Everyone knew instantly where he was at all times on that stage. No one ever lost sight of him. He did not need IMAG to point him out – although it was helpful for people see him in close-up. He was the epitome of an artist that has that aura to rise above the production around them.’
And Morse knows more than a thing or two about stellar performers. He has collaborated with a host of the world’s best. As well as Jackson, he’s lit the live shows of Prince, Madonna, Barbara Streisand, Tina Turner, Lionel Richie, Usher, Bette Midler, Shania Twain, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson, The Eagles, Sean ‘Puff Daddy’ Combs and Dolly Parton.
One reason the charmingly self-effacing American is sought after by such legendary artists is that he empathises with them – for he was once a singer himself. Morse, in fact, nearly became famous as the first artist to record the folk classic Blowin’ in the Wind. As a teenager in the early sixties, he was spotted at an open mic folk night and signed to Philips record label – swapping his village of Winnetka, Illinois, for the bright lights of New York. His producer introduced him to another up-and-coming folk artist who’d written some songs he thought Morse could record. That artist was Bob Dylan and one of the songs went on to become the anthem for the decade’s civil rights movement. Unfortunately, Morse’s version never saw the light of day.
“I went in the studio to cut my folk album…I tried singing Blowin’ in the Wind, but I’d been in vocal training with an opera teacher for three months and I was trying to sing a Dylan song. It was atrocious,” explains a grinning Morse, with typically self-depreciating humour.
He did, however, go on to become a member of the New Christy Minstrels – the Grammy-Award-winning folk ensemble that launched the career of Kenny Rogers. Later he also worked as a session singer in California. To this day, Morse’s identification with artists and inherent musicality shape the way he works.
‘Having been a musician I have very strong ties to that part of the performance…I have great comfort feeling I understand the artists and their point of view, more than just trying to light air or light the dance,’ he says.
‘Yes, there’s choreography involved – there’s scenic movement and everything else. But the root of it all comes from my affinity with the music and my understanding of it. It goes back to my roots.
‘When I’m lighting a concert performer I feel like it’s most important for me to get inside their head and their heart… I mean, think about it, their music and the lyrics they’re trying to express are all that matters to them. And, to me, there’s no greater privilege than to be able to take that and expand it visually for the audience.’
Morse became a lighting designer via a slightly circuitous route. When session singing, work became slow, he first got involved with organising other artist tours. Soon he became the tour manager of US country star Mac Davis – who’d also been one of Elvis Presley’s songwriters. When Davis needed a lighting expert for his tours, Morse took on the role, despite lacking the relevant technical expertise.
‘I would go into these venues during the day and say, “I can’t see what’s hanging up there. Turn it on and let me see it.” And when they did, I’d say “Oh, what is that I can’t tell?” and they’d say and they’d mention a fixture name. And I’d say. “Oh okay, well point it over here.” That’s how I learned the basics of lighting.’
Dolly Parton was Davis’ opening act and Morse toured with them, ‘carrying four Genie towers in each corner supporting a bunch of par-cans’. By the time the seventies came round, Davis was enjoying huge success and billed to appear at the MGM Hotel in Las Vegas. Due to the scale of the production, Frank Sinatra’s lighting expert, Bob Kiernan, was asked to put together the design. Sinatra was in town at the same time and when his design for that show didn’t go to plan, Kieman instructed Morse to re-light the entire show.
‘Suddenly, I’m left on my own to program a Vegas show with about 400 conventional lights in it, various colours and god knows what… It took me about a week to play catch up. They never realised that I didn’t do the original design,’ confesses Morse.
‘So I got busy studying and doing what I could. And that’s where it really started. I became a full-time lighting designer then and there.’
It wasn’t until the late eighties, however, that Morse fully honed his own approach. He was lighting Michael Jackson’s Dangerous tour and the scale and complexity of the rig forced him to make a career-defining choice between focusing on his artistic vision or becoming a programming whizz. Inevitably, his passion for music led him to go for the former.
‘I came to the realisation that if I knew what it would take to create a look, I might back off from it or find an easier path – rather than dictate it to a programmer who may look at me like I’m crazy, but somehow will make it happen,’ he explains. He has employed a team of trusted programmers ever since.
Morse is keen to credit those he’s learned from. He says Barbara Streisand, for example, taught him about the importance of simplicity. On a tour with her in the nineties, she asked him just to use a single spotlight for part of the show – and it turned out to be the ‘most powerful’ segment of the whole performance.
As for the future, Morse isn’t slowing down any time soon. He’s regularly travelling to Berlin, where he’s one of the creative forces behind The One Grand Show – an extraordinarily decadent revue at the city’s iconic Friedrichstadt-Palast. It features five hundred dancers and wildly extravagant costumes from Parisian fashion legend Jean Paul Gaultier. Morse’s excitement about this new venture is palpable – and his modest nature unaffected by decades of high level success.
‘If you look at the renderings, you’d swear it was a dream sequence, because of how beautifully the show’s put together’ he says. ‘Hopefully, I can live up to (its creators’) expectations.’