The Tetris of Broadway

by Bryan Reesman
in Inside Theater
The dazzling drop and staircase combo from the Follies section. Images courtesy Beowulf Boritt.
The dazzling drop and staircase combo from the Follies section. Images courtesy Beowulf Boritt.

Beowulf Boritt is known for his bold, ambitious scenery in shows like Act One (a musical with a three-story revolving turntable) and Thérèse Raquin (a play with a river upstage). But for Prince of Broadway, the musical revue of the work of Broadway legendary Harold Prince, the Tony Award-winning scenic designer got a chance to create numerous old-school set pieces. The challenge was not to make everything fit onstage; it was storing it all in the wings of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, which has not had a musical production mounted there since the Prince-directed Lovemusik, which Boritt also designed sets for, back in 2007.

‡‡The stark but sturdy structure featured during the Company triptych 

        Prince of Broadway, On Broadway

Although a musical overview of a career that has garnered 21 Tony Awards might seem like a no-brainer, the show, directed by Prince himself with co-direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, has been a long time coming. Boritt says he worked on it for five and a half years before its arrival on the Great White Way. Previous productions fell apart due to lack of funding, but the Japanese producer of one failed attempt wanted to bring it to Tokyo, so two years ago the Prince of Broadway got an out-of-town tryout there through a successful limited run. Then finally, the Manhattan Theatre Club, which owns the Friedman, decided to mount it in New York.

The musical mélange features songs from famous shows that Prince directed or produced, including Cabaret, She Loves Me and Evita. Often times there are segue ways in between the musical numbers, during which different male and female performers temporarily take on the persona of Prince to relay information about his career. It recalls a similar conceit from the 2005 musical Lennon in which various cast members interchangeably portrayed the Beatles at different times.

“I feel like it’s the best road trip mixtape of Broadway that you could come up with,” Boritt says, of Prince of Broadway. “When you take all these famous numbers that people know and love and then realize that they essentially were all because of this one guy — Hal didn’t write these shows or direct all of them, but he was instrumental in all of them happening — that’s fairly astounding when you put it all together.”

Clark Kent and Lois Lane swap lyrics during 'You’ve Got Possibilities' from It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman. The real door in the drop stands behind him.

‡‡         Making Multiple Sets Fit

Putting this revue all together for Broadway proved to be the trick. While the theater in Tokyo was enormous, according to Boritt, the first question that came from people when the Friedman emerged as an option was, “Can you make the set fit?” He had no other choice.

“It was a challenge,” he admits. “We rebuilt some pieces and cut a lot of stuff down to make it fit. The Follies stairs was one of the few pieces from Japan that I had to completely rebuild because there was no way to make it fit. That piece was bigger, originally.”

The way to squeeze everything into the wings was to suspend set pieces in the air. “It’s a real jigsaw puzzle backstage, and there’s a lot of stuff up on chain motors floating up above everyone’s head,” explains Boritt. Even in anticipation of certain numbers, the floor space can be crowded. For example, an actor can come offstage from one scene and walk through the jail cell for Parade and Kiss of the Spider Woman to get further into the wings.

Boritt notes that the Friedman has an unusual configuration. “It’s shaped like a weird parallelogram, so what that means is that downstage right and upstage left there is no space,” he says. “There’s a weird wart on the back of the theater, a weird alcove way upstage that is actually the musical storage space, but getting stuff into that place is hard. Luckily, we had a really good show carpenter, Fran Rapp, who was great with the Tetris of it all. I laid it out so that every built piece could theoretically all fit, but we had a great crew that really made it work backstage. With someone who wasn’t as good, we would’ve been in trouble.”

The set pieces for the show vary quite a bit. There is the wood fence and fire escapes for West Side Story, the stark, three-level structure for Company, the giant web for Kiss Of The Spider Woman and the shadowy, candle-lit environment for Phantom of the Opera featuring a gothic gate at upstage left. Thanks to the right lighting and a fair amount of fog, the latter feels more dense than it really is.

“That one actually wasn’t so hard, because the theater back wall that you see when you come in is scenery, and that piece pulls apart in a bunch of different ways and has stuff hidden in it,” explains Boritt. “The conceit of the show all along is that we’re in an empty theater, and it transforms into all of these different things. With Phantom, it’s just a piece of that wall pulled away, and the gothic gate is sitting behind it. West Side Story is the same thing. The top of the back lifts off, and that whole city skyline is revealed. That’s not something I have to store, because it’s built into the back wall.”

The audience’s scenic imagination can spring forth from the shadows of the gothic Phantom Of The Opera set piece.

‡‡         An Assist from the Audience

The simplicity of the Phantom piece, says Boritt, echoes Prince’s aesthetic. “You do an empty black space, put a couple of things in it and let people imagine everything else,” he elaborates. “That was our guiding post for the entire show — you put a little bit there so people imagine that there’s more there.”

While the Company structure is not exactly like the original set piece, it is very much inspired by what Boris Aronson did originally in the 1970 production. Boritt spent a lot of time studying the original set to comprehend how it worked. “It’s one of those revolutionary Broadway designs that really affected how people designed afterwards, and I felt like we had to represent that in some way on stage,” says Boritt. “That was always one that I wanted to devote a lot of floor space to.”

For reasons of economy, Boritt created some set pieces that served a dual purpose, such as the collection of lockers from the Damn Yankees number, “Heart.” On the flip side is the fence that Tony leans against during “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story. “I dealt with a bunch of scenes that way,” says Boritt. “Things are multipurpose, so they could spin around and be another thing. That’s how you make it fit in a small space.”

Some of the numbers have painted drops. The one for the Showboat couplet displays the titular river vessel churning along the water with a dock in front. “You Have Possibilities” from It’s A Bird...It’s A Plane...It’s Superman includes a large drop with a door in it. “That was made to look like a comic strip with a little desk set in front of it,” says Boritt. “It’s the office of the Daily Planet, but it looks like halftone dot matrix print from an old newspaper. It’s an office with the New York skyline and comic strip titles around it.”

The Follies triptych requires two drops. The first is a valentine-themed, cut drop located downstage with a large circle cut out in the middle for the staircase. “Upstage of that is another valentine drop that collapses into the floor when we go into the old, decrepit theater,” says Boritt. “Those were big, multilayered things. The valentine lace on them is made of cut felt in layers and layers and layers. Thank God it was built in Japan because it would’ve cost a fortune in the U.S.”

 Tony serenades Mary during “Tonight” from West Side Story. A breakaway section from the top part of the back wall reveals the New York skyline in the background.

‡‡         Researching the Original Designs

The designer did a lot of research into the original sets for the different musical numbers. In many cases, he was trying to evoke his own version of what those original scenes were. He says it was educational to look carefully at what the original designers had done, and he spoke either with those still living or their surviving heirs. He estimates that Boris Aronson, who died in 1980, designed about a third of the original shows that comprise Prince of Broadway.

“His wife was still alive until a couple of years ago, so I spent an afternoon with her going through all the designs and just talking through how they did stuff, and whether she felt like I was honoring his work in an appropriate way,” recalls Boritt. “That was really interesting. I heard some fun stories. It was my own little design history course to talk through those things with people.”

While Boritt has not done a lot of revivals, when he has undertaken them he has preferred to take his own slant. He might look at the original sets to make sure he is not accidentally copying something, but he normally veers away from in-depth research of his predecessors’ work. While he was not trying to copy the original sets for the numbers of Prince of Broadway, Boritt wanted to study them enough to evoke his own version of those efforts. Given that this show is an homage to a theater icon and famous songs, that approach makes sense.

“Interestingly, I’m leaving a couple of days to go back to London to do Young Frankenstein over there, and that’s the show that Robin Wagner did on Broadway ten years ago,” says Boritt. “My version of that set is very different. The intent with this remounting of it is what Mel Brooks wanted. He didn’t want a big, fancy Broadway musical. He wanted something economical.” He proposed to director Susan Stroman that they do a vaudeville show version with all painted drops and be old-fashioned.

“It feels appropriate for that show, but it also makes it cheaper and easier to do,” acknowledges Boritt. Once they worked out the whole set and agreed on it, he visited original set designer Robin Wagner at his studio and showed him everything that he was working on. “There are little bits and pieces of what I’m doing that still relate to what he did because it’s built into the show. We had a good talk about the show, and he was very supportive of the whole thing. In the case of something like that, I do try to talk to the original designer, especially when it’s someone like Robin Wagner, who is such a legend in the business and knows it so well.”

‡‡         A Change of Pace

The old school approach to Young Frankenstein is mirrored in Prince of Broadway, and it makes for a change of pace, not only from Boritt’s usually grand designs, but also for a modern era in which moving scenery has become de rigueur for mainstream theatrical productions. For a musical revue like this, it would seem inappropriate to go overboard with technology.

“That’s exactly it,” concurs Boritt. “It gave us a bit of freedom, because we were trying to evoke what these shows really were, especially the ones from the ‘50s and ‘60s. They really were traditional shows, so it was fine to do a drop and do it very simply. With the more modern [Prince] shows, we never talked about trying to out-Phantom Phantom, if you will. If people want to see Phantom of the Opera, it’s down the street. We’re just trying to give a little taste of it.”

 

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