According to the Journal, Binkley, a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, attended Atkins High School, where he was first drawn to theatre. He worked at the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem and graduated from Reynolds High School in 1974. After attending East Carolina University, he moved to New York in 1978, and began working with the Acting Company and Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Early on, he established himself in the dance world, working with the Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, MoMix, Peter Pucci Plus. Hubbard Street Dance, and American Ballet Theatre. Most famously, he was the cofounder and resident lighting designer for Parsons Dance, creating 85 original pieces for that company.
Binkley worked extensively in regional theatres, including the Goodman Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, Alley Theatre, Guthrie Theater, McCarter Theatre, Hartford Stage, Signature Theatre, The Old Globe, and Shakespeare Theatre Company. He also designed six entries in the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration.
He made a notable Broadway debut in 1993 with Kiss of the Spider Woman; other productions included: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (with Matthew Broderick, 1995), Parade (1998), Minnelli on Minnelli (1999), Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (2000), The Full Monty (2000), Avenue Q (2003), Jersey Boys (2005), In the Heights (2008), Gypsy (with Patti LuPone, 2008), Memphis (2009), Million Dollar Quartet (2010), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (with Daniel Radcliffe, 2011), A Bronx Tale: The Musical (2016), Come from Away (2017), Prince of Broadway (2017), and the current (but for the pandemic) Ain’t Too Proud. And, of course, he designed the lighting for the musical theatre phenomenon Hamilton (2016). It is surely indicative that he was allied with many of the most prominent Broadway directors of his era, including Harold Prince, Arthur Laurents, Des McAnuff, and Thomas Kail.
His Off Broadway credits include: Bat Boy: The Musical (2001), Golda’s Balcony (starring Tovah Feldshuh, 2003), A. R. Gurney’s Indian Blood (2006), Fetch Clay, Make Man (2013), Anna Deveare Smith’s Notes from the Field (2016), and John Guare’s comedy Nantucket Sleigh Ride (2019). He also designed the Off Broadway versions of Avenue Q, Hamilton, Jersey Boys, and Million Dollar Quartet.
Binkley was a two-time Tony Award winner, for Jersey Boys and Hamilton. He was also nominated for Kiss of the Spider Woman, In the Heights, a 2009 revival of West Side Story, the 2011 edition of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, After Midnight, Come from Away, and Ain’t Too Proud. He was nominated for four Drama Desk Awards, for Parade, The Full Monty, Lovemusik, and Hamilton. He received two Henry Hewes Design Awards, for Jersey Boys and Hamilton. Kiss of the Spider Woman earned him a Dora Award in Toronto and an Olivier Award in London. He was the recipient of five Helen Hayes Awards, given for achievement in the Washington, DC Theatre scene, and a Michael Merritt Award from Columbia College, Chicago.
Binkley seemed to work from an endless flow of invention, creating effects that ranged from nearly invisible to spectacularly eye-grabbing. He created an eerie, phantasmagorical atmosphere in Kiss of the Spider Woman, working seamlessly with Jerome Sirlin’s projections. In The Full Monty, he deployed a full range of flash effects for the show’s climax in a tacky strip club. Lovemusik, about composer Kurt Weill and actress Lotte Lenya began with the unforgettable image of Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy, their heads picked out of darkness, singing the ballad “Speak Low.” After Midnight benefited from the designer’s alluring use of color mixed with stark white beam looks. For Hamilton, he created a design as restless as the title character, scattering complex circular patterns that meshed beautifully with the turntable designed by David Korins and with the movement sequences devised by the choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. As befitting his background in dance, he was a master at using lighting to build excitement in a musical number.
A number of Binkley’s colleagues offered comments over the weekend:
Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt told LSA: “I can’t remember how many shows I did with Howell. He was the master of sculpting dramatic images out of darkness. Even as he lit the scene, he made the darkness around it look deeper, like it extended into eternity, what Hal Prince called ‘blank spaces.’ Hal said, ‘You want the audience to fill in the blank spots. You want the audience to be complicit with the production.’ Howell was the master of that. And he was the kindest soul you could hope to meet. The first time we worked together, on LoveMusik on Broadway, I was a novice set designer and he was the famous HOWELL BINKLEY. From the first time we met, he treated me with kindness. But more than that, he treated me with respect, and for a young designer in a room full of heavyweights that respect was golden.”
Scenic designer David Korins, posting on Twitter, said: “Howell made every show and every moment better. He painted with light and emotion. He had the biggest heart and was a genius storyteller. He was the kindest and most generous collaborator. A giant. Rest in Peace.”
The scenic designer Anna Louizos commented: “Howell was a great pal and collaborator, a superior talent, he possessed the most sunny and positive spirit I ever encountered. From our first off Broadway collaboration (Kafka’s The Castle) to our last one just this February (Fly at La Jolla) and eight Broadway shows in between, Howell was a sculptor of light, he mined subtleties of atmosphere on stage, infused energy and mood to scenery in surprising ways. My sets were never complete until he worked his magic. I will miss him terribly.”
The sound designer Nevin Steinberg said: “I am broken-hearted by my friend Howell’s passing. I am grateful for the over 20 years I knew him and for the many shows we worked on together. He leaves a very big hole in my heart, in our team, and in our community. I will miss him very much.”
Scenic designer Robert Brill, who, among many other projects, worked with Binkley on Ain’t Too Proud, his final Broadway show, said: “We have lost an incredible artist, a dear friend, and a gentle giant.
“His was a truly spectacular career that spanned generations, industries, and genres. Howell interlaced them all with his heartfelt presence and exquisite artistry, and I was so fortunate to have worked with him many times over the past two decades. Whether it was our first collaboration together on Sinatra at Radio City Music Hall, or the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, or our recent adventures with Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, I always admired and respected Howell as a powerful visual storyteller. His thoughtful and masterful craftsmanship was always at play, balancing volumes of space, creating bold and powerful architecture with light, yet never forsaking the dynamic contours of the performer. He was sculptor, painter, and architect, whose soaring artistry shaped our creative landscape with a vitality and grace that will be celebrated by artists and audiences for generations to come.
“Always wanting to champion the greater good, Howell's humility and spirit of collaboration will be lovingly remembered by each of us. I will always remember the love and respect that surrounded him. Howell valued the creative process and embraced every opportunity to be in the room with others like it was Sunday dinner. His warmth and genuine desire to serve is a constant reminder of what we owe each other not just as colleagues, but as community, and as family.”