The first Broadway show Neil Mazzella ever saw was A Man for All Seasons, starring Paul Scofield.
"It was the early 1960s, and my mother took me," Mazzella recalls. "There were a series of blackouts, and when the lights came back, the set had changed. I sat there and wondered what happens onstage when the lights go out. It captivated me. It captured my imagination. And I've spent my whole life trying to figure it out."
Mazzella has indeed figured it out, on a grand and successful scale. Over the last three decades, he has been the man behind the scenes, and the scenery, of more than 300 Broadway plays and musicals. Mazzella is president of Hudson Scenic Studio and Hudson Sound and Light, which together build sets, create automation systems, provide lighting systems and supervise the technical aspects of Broadway shows.
And in the last 27 years, Mazzella's shows — in one or more of those categories — have included The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, Angels in America, Monty Python's Spamalot, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins, The Coast of Utopia and Spring Awakening. Mazzella grew up in Staten Island. "I had three cousins who were child actors, in shows like Here's Love, Luther and It's a Bird… It's a Plane… It's Superman. So I saw all those shows and went backstage to see my cousins. They're all lawyers now. I'm the one in the theatre."
At the State University of New York at Oneonta, he majored in literature, with a minor in dramatic literature — "my goal was to be a writer, not to be in technical theatre. I didn't know anything about technical theatre when I was in college." After he graduated, "like every kid on Staten Island, I figured I would take the ferry and get a job in Lower Manhattan. But I decided I couldn't do that. It was the late '60s and early '70s, a time full of ideals, and because of the student protests and Woodstock I couldn't do what had been normal."
So he started working Off-Off-Broadway, for free, doing a little bit of everything — designing, stage managing, acting. "When you're not getting paid," he says, "you can get any job you want." Finally, he began earning money for his stagecraft — he found jobs as an electrician, and his technical career began.
He wound up at the Chelsea Theatre Center at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (which eventually morphed into Dodger Theatricals, a major Broadway producer). Michael David, now of Dodger and then executive director of Chelsea, recommended that Mazzella attend Yale Drama School and earn a graduate degree in technical theatre.
After Mazzella finished up at Yale, he returned to New York, where his first job was as a union stagehand backstage at Ballroom, the Michael Bennett Broadway musical. It was there that he met Gene O'Donovan, who was in the property department. And two years later, in 1980, after Mazzella did a stint at the Metropolitan Opera, he and O'Donovan began Hudson Scenic.
"One of our first jobs was building the set for David Merrick's 42nd Street, when it was moving from the Winter Garden to the Majestic Theatre," Mazzella recalls. "Merrick did not want to miss a performance. So we built a second set, at the Majestic, while the first set was still in use at the Winter Garden. The show shut down on Sunday at the Winter Garden and reopened Tuesday night at the Majestic."
When Mazzella and O'Donovan (who left in 1994) started Hudson Scenic, it was a small shop, with five employees in 5,000 square feet of space in upstate New York. Today, it has 140 employees in a 72,000-square-foot facility in Yonkers that offers state-of-the-art engineering, construction, scenic art, automation, lighting and related services to all areas of the entertainment industry.
For Mazzella, the hardest of all jobs is fabricating the sets and the automation for a new musical. "You really need to be on your toes," he says. "There is no greater challenge. You have to do scenery that costs anywhere from $1 million to $2 million, and it moves, and there are special effects, and sometimes you add people flying, and there are space limitations — the theatre can't get any larger. And there are the pressures of a finite budget, and rigid deadlines of when the show has to happen. And with today's technology, there's the expectation that things will move seamlessly. You want the audience to be amazed, and you don't want them to be walking out thinking about problems they saw with the scenery or the lights or the sound. You want them to focus on what's onstage — to be engaged with the story and the actors. We can't interfere with that."
Right now Mazzella is preparing, as technical supervisor, for the much-anticipated new Mel Brooks musical, Young Frankenstein, which is to open this fall. And as always, he is preparing for whatever else comes along.
"It's a constant challenge," he says. "I don't know what the future will hold — we rely on the creativity of the designers to provide those challenges. But we'll be ready for them."