Tharon Musser was a prominent 20th-century American lighting designer, working on theatre, dance, opera, special events, and industrial shows. The Tharon Musser lighting designs and papers contain materials collected and created by Musser over the course of her career. The majority of this collection consists of lighting files that Musser designed for productions and companies. Other items include programs, posters, professional files, and personal files.
Biographical/historical: Tharon Myrene Musser was born as Kathleen Welland in Roanoke, Virginia, on January 8th, 1924. After the early death of her birth parents, she was adopted by George and Hazel Musser in 1929, and named Tharon. She graduated from Berea College in Kentucky in 1946, and earned a Master of Arts from Yale Drama School in 1950, where she studied technical design and lighting. Musser took a break from Yale to spend most of 1948 in Alaska as a Civilian Actress Technician (CAT), helping soldiers put on shows.
Musser moved to New York after graduating from Yale. She was involved with the experimental theatre company Studio 7, the 92nd Street Y, and the American Shakespeare Festival. Musser was a member of United Scenic Artists, the union for designers, artists and craftspeople working in film, theatre, opera, ballet, television, industrial shows, commercials and exhibitions.
The first Broadway production Musser designed was the original production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (1956). This was the start of Musser's long and successful Broadway career. Plays she designed over the next fifty years included original New York productions of J. B. (1958), The Entertainer (1958), A Delicate Balance (1966), The Lion in Winter (1966),The Birthday Party (1967), After the Fall (1967), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971), California Suite (1976), Children of a Lesser God (1980), The Real Thing (1982), Rumors (1988), and Artist Descending a Staircase (1989), as well as many revivals of classic plays.
During this period, Musser was also Broadway's leading lighting designer for musicals, working on such shows as Li'l Abner (1956), Mame (1966), Applause (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), A Chorus Line (1975), Pacific Overtures (1976), Ballroom (1978), 42nd Street (1980), Dreamgirls (1981), and The Secret Garden (1991). In addition to the Broadway productions for which Musser was most famous, she designed for dance; opera; and Off-Broadway, repertory, and international theater.
Over the course of her career, Musser was nominated for ten Tony Awards for Best Lighting Design, and won for Follies, A Chorus Line, and Dreamgirls. Musser's work on A Chorus Line was considered revolutionary because it was the first to use a computerized electronic lighting board, an advance that changed the field of lighting design. Musser was also a generous mentor to young lighting designers including Ken Billington, Brian Nason, Vivien Leone, David Lander, and Musser's life partner, Marilyn Rennagel.
Tharon Musser died in Newton, Connecticut, on April 19, 2009.
Content: The Tharon Musser lighting designs and papers contain materials collected and created by 20th-century American lighting designer Tharon Musser. The majority of this collection consists of lighting files that Musser designed for productions and companies. Other items include programs, posters, professional files, and personal files.
Lighting files consist of the charts, lists and drawings used to notate and document lighting designs. These documents include light plots, electrical equipment lists, followspot cue sheets, focus charts, track sheets, magic sheets, and lighting board bibles. Some lighting files also include scripts annotated with lighting cues and notes. Lighting files for productions, arranged in alphabetical order by title, document Musser's fifty year career, with lighting designs for such shows as Mame (1966), Follies (1971), A Chorus Line (1975), and Dreamgirls (1981).
One 3.5 inch floppy disk contains 4 computer files (143.6 kilobytes), two of which are probably resource forks. These files were created in Lightwright, a hybrid spreadsheet and database, designed specifically to manage professional lighting design paperwork. Hard copies of the Lightwright files, which document Musser's lighting design for Street of Dreams, exist in box 51, folder 3.
Festivals, regional, repertory, and touring companies Musser designed for included the American Shakespeare Festival, American Theatre Festival, Center Theatre Group, National Repertory Theatre, and Phoenix Theatre. Summer stock companies represented here are Brooklyn Protestant Players, Cape May Playhouse, Group 20 Playhouse, High Times, and Pocono Playhouse. Industrial trade shows and fashion shows Musser designed included shows for companies such as Hooray USA, J.C. Penney, Lord and Taylor, Mais Oui, NEMA, and Revlon. The lighting files for operas are mainly from productions Musser designed for the Miami Opera Guild and the Dallas Civic Opera.
Musser's personal files include biographies, photographs, and materials from college and graduate school. There are course notes from Berea College and Yale University; an annotated copy of the play The Twelve-Pound Look, which Musser directed in 1945; coursework from Yale, such as a 1950 portfolio of photographs of lighting designs, and Musser's thesis on "The Business of Producing." Another folder of correspondence documents Musser's lifelong relationship with Berea College through her correspondence with Berea faculty members and administrators. There is one folder of programs, clippings and correspondence Musser collected while working as a Civilian Actress Technician on soldier shows in Alaska in 1948. Personal photographs, such as snapshots of Musser and various friends, family members, and colleagues are contained here.
A transcript of a 66-page interview Musser gave in 1986 as part of Southern Methodist University's Oral History Program is also held here. This transcript is available for research use only and may not be copied without permission. For permission to quote from the transcript, please contact the Head of Manuscripts, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, 333 University Drive, Dallas TX 99293.
Professional files document Musser's career with correspondence, programs, scrapbooks, clippings, photographs, posters, contracts, and materials documenting awards and professional organizations. Most of the programs are from various theatres, dance and opera productions, and special events designed by Musser during the 1970s and 1980s, but there are three programs from the late 1950s and early 1960s. A scrapbook containing programs, letters, and articles documents Musser's early career with Studio 7, the 92nd Street Y, and the José Limón Dance Company. There are also general press clippings which contain newspaper and magazine articles on Musser's career and lighting design from 1963 to 1996. There are several programs and posters representing Broadway plays and musicals designed by Musser.
Professional files also contain headshots of Musser between 1964 and 1984. The many awards Musser received are documented here with certificates, clippings, programs, and letters of congratulation from friends and colleagues. Materials collected or created by Musser as a member of professional organizations, such as the 1984 National Designers Conference, the United Scenic Artists of America/Local 829, and the Stage Manager's Association are represented with meeting minutes, correspondence, official documentation, by-laws, meeting and conference agendas, newsletters, notes, drafts of contracts, and lists of conference attendees. Musser's contracts from various productions from 1956 to 1989 are also included. Correspondence consists mainly of the many letters of recommendation Musser wrote for former colleagues, thank you notes, requests for interviews, and letters between Musser and job applicants, which were usually accompanied by resumes. Musser also kept files on the physical dimensions and equipment set-up of major national theatres, arranged alphabetically by city name.