Tony Walton - A Personal Tribute

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Tony Walton    —  A Personal Tribute

To say that Tony Walton was the best friend anyone ever had would be a good example of British understatement. 

About how many people can one say that you owe them both your career and your country! Before Tony, I was an English, young, skinny, assistant stage manager/hopeful lighting designer . . . with ambition!

In 1962 I received an invitation from Tony to cross the Atlantic to meet producer Harold Prince in order to  to create the scene projections for A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM on Broadway. (I’d introduced Tony to projection the year before for a West End review ONE OVER THE EIGHT.) Hal was to produce FORUM with music for the first time by lyricist Steve Sondheim. Steve’s work was deemed to be a bit avant-garde and so, for security, Hal thought some visual excitement for each musical number might help. Thus wondrously coloured projections by Tony Walton were delivered by me with lighting by Jean Rosenthal.

Hal Prince became a friend, and invited Tony and I to become his producing partners in London. FORUM was followed by SHE LOVES ME, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, COMPANY, CABARET, and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC that through Hal’s brilliance, changed musical theatre in London ever after.

But that was only the beginning. Tony invited me back for more projection on Broadway, Sammy Davis in GOLDEN BOY (“The best use of projections I have ever seen.” NY Daily News.) and others, leading me to become the first ‘Brit’ lighting design member of the United Scenic Artists. 

Needless to say, through the 60’s and 70’s, as a trans-atlantic commuter I was frequently to be found cuddled up in Tony and his wife Gen’s spare room in the Apthorp on 79th and Broadway,, enjoying the crazy company of their two wondrous teenage daughters, Emma and Bridget. 

Meanwhile back in London, I was a busy lighting designer, producer and, thanks to Sir Laurence Olivier, a theatre consultant; with the National Theatre, the RSC Barbican, the Royal Opera House and others around the world. 

But Tony persisted. Almost every show that I personally lit, on and off-Broadway from the late 1970’s to 2016 was entirely thanks to Tony. In 1988 my American wife, Molly and I emigrated to the USA. I gave up my ‘home’ on the Upper West Side for a house of our own in Ridgefield, CT. For me, consulting across America exploded. Tony remained a rock-fast friend and mentor. 

Of course the man was a genius. Tony Awards, an Oscar and an Emmy followed. His sense of theatre, his exquisite taste, his artistry, amazed me. His ability to grasp the core of story to find new theatrical ways to express its essence was a constant surprise. And golly, was he picky! When every single aspect of a production seemed quite perfect, Tony would quietly, but rather firmly, suggest we all should tried harder. Ove

rdrive was compulsory. No matter how demanding he was, his opinions were always (often quite infuriatingly) correct!

And of course you loved him beyond description. Over the years, he had a seeming host of assistants, often delightfully young, female and lovely. Everyone around him would give their uttermost to make that show better.  His crazy apartment in the Apthorp was the liveliest arts studio in Manhattan. Gen, as den mother, served exquisite meals at all hours, and every person gave their all . . . All for Tony. 

His career extended from great movies through handsome books to theatre. He worked with some of the great directors of our time, until in his later years he became a brilliantly sensitive director himself. His love of theatre and his love of actors gave him an extraordinary ability to create the very best for audiences wherever he worked. A true master magician of the theatre. Thank you dear friend. 

Richard Pilbrow                                March 3rd 2022