Winching in the Wings

by Bryan Reesman
in Inside Theater
Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Room, a rolling display,  gets flown in the wings when not in use. Photo by Joan Marcus
Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Room, a rolling display, gets flown in the wings when not in use. Photo by Joan Marcus

Mark Thompson Solved a Scenic Puzzle for Broadway’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Broadway’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been dazzling audiences with its fast pace, dazzling set pieces, and the buoyant energy of a nearly 40-person ensemble; notably, charismatic star Christian Borle as eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka, who offers an exclusive tour of his factory to five lucky children.

Directed by Jack O’Brien, the show also updates Roald Dahl’s original story (and the subsequent musical film with Gene Wilder) by presenting Willy Wonka in disguise as the candy shop owner as well as offering many new songs. While the madcap musical runs like clockwork, scenic designer Mark Thompson had his candy bowl full for this show, which he worked on previously during its London incarnation at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where it played for three and a half years.

“We had an utterly different design,” recalls Thompson, of the U.K. run. “Whereas in London we approached it so the entire set would change for each [factory] room in the second half, the conceit with the New York version, which I thought of when I’d seen the workshop, was that he is a Svengali and nothing changes. It is the same room. He brings his bits of magic to it.”

Naturally wing space is a priority for a show like this, and Thompson acknowledges that that is always in the back of a designer’s mind. The Charlie production team knew they would be going into the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, and he says, “It was a huge puzzle. The staff and the crew were astonishing. They deserve a medal because things are winched up and fly into the wings. I think there are three layers of stuff hanging on winches.”

The first half of the musical takes place in Charlie Bucket’s village, along with global locations for the other Golden Ticket winners shown on a giant video screen before they appear for their individual numbers onstage. “We’ve got the portals in the beginning in Act I, which then take up flying space obviously where that ceiling goes and [in] the ocular window in the ceiling,” explains Thompson. “Some things have to split in half. To allow the interval change, all those things fly up, then all those panels must rotate independently and fly out in view. It is very, very complicated.”

An upstage video wall shows the village

‡‡     Lots of Set Pieces

There are a lot of distinct set pieces in Charlie. Act I features a big video screen that is flown in to introduce the various other children who will go on the Wonka tour with Charlie. There is also the Bucket family shack, the chocolate shop, and two town units. “Then there is a small factory and a big factory that has to get redressed inside so it can rotate in Act II,” says Thompson. “The turtle has to be put in there during the interval change.” The factory world of Act II includes the chocolate room, the glass elevator, the inventing room, the squirrel room, and the TV room with a large camera flown in for the famous teleportation sequence.

While this dizzying array of sets sounds like an immense amount of work for Thompson — who, by the way, also designed the costumes for the show, another impressive feat — he says he designed the show quite quickly. “We did a bit of work early on last year, but all of that got scrapped once I saw the workshop, because it seemed to be going in a different direction,” he notes of the Broadway version. “Also, the book changed and some new songs were written. We started work the end of June, and things slowly dribbled along. There was a little bit in September and a big session in
October.”

 Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Joe rejoice that he has won one of the fabled Golden Ticket

A big challenge for Thompson was to make sense of the story, because he feels it does not have a schematic arc. “It’s a series of parables, so making sense of the whole journey is tricky,” he admits. “What is the sweet shop? It’s a pop up shop where Willy’s in disguise, which obviously, we didn’t do in London because we followed the Dahl story more [closely there].” The Oompa Loompas in London were also imagined differently, requiring two people per Oompa rather than one as on Broadway.

The changes and differences presented Thompson with some challenges. He adds that only he and the show’s writers transitioned to Broadway from the West End, where the theater was bigger and had greater wing space. “It was quite cathartic [for me],” says the designer. “It was hard because it had a visual expectation, not just in terms that it should be huge, but people think they know what it’s meant to look like, which is difficult.”

He says everyone in the show seemed to love his scenic design. “I know I can be a bit minimal sometimes, which is always harder to pull off because there’s nowhere to hide. I think some of the real traditionalists feel that this isn’t as big as they thought [it would be]. ‘Where’s the chocolate room?’ They should try doing a show in a small Broadway house.”

Charlie hopes the wrapper of this Wonka Bar holds a Golden Ticket

The chocolate room is different than what many people might expect. Rather than fill the stage, it is actually contained in a rolling display that is perhaps a little over half of the width of the stage. It is a combination of larger and miniature pieces, and Thompson purposely scaled it down. “I find it’s wittier to do that. In London, we filled the whole stage, and it just became so vulgar. I stand strongly by the idea that it should be minimal.”

The scaling down of the chocolate room set piece correlates with the concept behind the magic room, through which Wonka navigates a series of invisible obstacles that the parents and children must follow through. They laugh at him until they start to trip over and bonk their heads on unseen objects. Thompson loves this mime sequence — it is one of his favorites. “I find that completely charming, because it’s real theater and not relying on scenery and technology,” he says. “It’s the charm of the actors on an empty stage. It’s great.”

Being a minimalist seems to have paid off for Thompson with regards to this show. It could be very tempting to cram the stage with as many props and set pieces as possible. But as he notes, once one heads down that route, it can lead to a dearth of room in the wings, which would become a big problem. Even so, he still needed to scale back. “There was a lift in the middle of the floor that was cut because it was going to cost $40,000,” he recalls. “The Beauregarde troupe drove out of an underground car park in this purply pink Cadillac.”

The glass elevator lifts them over an image of the town

‡‡     The Glass Elevator

The most difficult set piece to create was the famous glass elevator in which Charlie and Willy fly through the factory roof up into the sky. While the elevator rises up from the floor and allows them to come in, the ceiling (without the dome) comes down and around and the elevator rises into the air, and a view of the village in miniature appears to give a sense of how high up they are. A lot of hydraulics were involved, as well as some excavation.

“They had to dig out some of the far wall to get the sweet shop in, and they had to dig down into Manhattan granite about eight feet in order to get enough motor to support the elevator, because it tips and revolves as it comes up, so that was a bit scary,” recalls Thompson.

The elevator rotates on a fixed position. “Originally, I designed it so it would come up, rotate, and swing forward further towards the audience, but everyone said it was going to test the technical team too far,” says Thompson. “So, I compromised, which meant I had to dig out some of the far wall and rebuild it. It was a long setup. I think they started work in the pre-fit in October, and the load-in started January 1. We started tech the beginning of March.”

The elevator presented an obstacle for sound designer Andrew Keister because of the way it was constructed and the weird sound reflections it generated when the actors faced away from the open front. But Thompson had to construct something that looked like glass. He praises Keister’s collaborative spirit, and he notes that the timing of the singing and the actors’ movements was crucial, especially as composer/lyricist Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman did not want to jettison any of the lyrics or music. Thompson reports that it took some time in tech to coordinate things properly.

The first half takes place in Charlie Bucket's village

“It’s such a beautiful song [“The View From Here”], and we put the two people singing it inside a Plexiglas box on stage,” says Keister. “It was just horrendous, and it took an immense amount of work and time and detail [to get right]. Christian [Borle] has to be so careful about how far he turns his head towards the side panels of the walls when he’s singing. It’s just immensely difficult to make it come out, but I think the end result is quite good.”

The heavy ceiling piece also gave the production team a bit of a headache. “They had to do all sorts of things to the grid to make everything work, because that ceiling piece hangs vertically off two lines [in Act I],” says Thompson. “Then it gets flown in, jacked back, and then attached to the other lines [for Act II].” While the ceiling covers the stage in Act II, there are many lights located in the oculus and within gaps around the roof. “There was a lot of fighting [for space],” says Thompson. “Every half inch mattered.”

Willy Wonka shows off the inventing room to the surviving tour members

Every inch of the wing space in the Lunt-Fontanne has been used. “They’ve got the chocolate room flown up with the frame around it from stage left wing up in the back corner,” says Thompson. “The inventing room, that big urn, is also stage left hanging up. Everything hangs up. It’s hung to do quick changes, and it’s very, very tight.” The pop-up walkway that carries Veruca Salt and the nuts up into the fire in the squirrel room is “flown on its nose in the upstage right corner wing. You ought to have a look backstage. It’s very intriguing. What they do in 15 minutes [during intermission] is astonishing.” (There’s a whole lot of rearranging going on.)

While Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a grand undertaking for Thompson, both in London and New York, (and his next challenge will be designing the American touring version), he tried to approach it like any other show. That included the challenges of cramming everything into the wings. “I think one should never be hampered by, ‘Where is that going to fit?’” asserts Thompson. “It’s always best to think freely to start with.” In other words, be driven by your imagination.