"It's the idea that a play or a musical can be seen and contained in this little cubic space," he says, explaining, "We make models of sets in half-inch scale, and the models always come to life for me. And then you see them onstage, and you walk around in them. To me, that's magical."
Wagner has been creating his own magic onstage for nearly a half century. In his 46 years on Broadway, he has received nine Tony nominations and three Tony Awards — for The Producers in 2001, City of Angels in 1990 and On the Twentieth Century in 1978.
His many other Broadway credits include A Chorus Line (both the original and the current revival); The Boy From Oz; the recent revival of Kiss Me, Kate; Side Show; Angels in America; Jelly's Last Jam; Crazy for You; Jerome Robbins' Broadway; Dreamgirls; Mack & Mabel; Promises, Promises; The Great White Hope; 42nd Street; and Hair.
Yet with all his success, Wagner says he never planned to be a scenic designer. "I got into it simply because I loved theatre," he says. "When I started out — I was 20 years old — I hadn't studied anything about theatre. Then suddenly I began going and fell in love with it. I wanted to figure out some way I could be around it. So I started running a light board at a place called the Theatre Arts Colony in San Francisco, where I was born."
The son of a Danish-born marine engineer — "the chief engineer on big ships" — and a New Zealand–born classical pianist who gave up music when she moved to the States, Wagner and his parents moved around California fairly frequently when he was growing up. "I was kind of a dreamer as a kid, and I was always encouraged to draw. With all the moving, drawing became a refuge to me." He went to art school in San Francisco and then began working at that city's many small theatres. One company, the Actors' Workshop, did a production of Waiting for Godot. "We gave one performance at San Quentin Prison. It got a lot of press, and because of that we were invited to go to the Brussels World's Fair as the representative of American regional theatre. On the way back, we stopped in New York. And you can't come to New York and not want to stay here."
The year was 1958, and the Off-Broadway movement in New York was heading to its zenith. Wagner worked on 17 Off-Broadway shows. Then he became an assistant to the designer Ben Edwards, and then to the legendary Oliver Smith. He worked as Smith's assistant on Baker Street, Luv, 110 in the Shade and Hello, Dolly! before setting out on his own. Wagner's first big hit, in 1967, was Hair.
How does a scenic designer design?
"I start with the text," Wagner says. "If it's in a book, it's written. If it's a musical, you hear the music. Then you start talking to the director, who invariably has a visual connection with the work. You read the play umpteen times, until you know practically every line. Then you talk it through or read it through with the director, long before a drawing is made."
These days, Wagner doesn't make drawings anymore. "I start with a simple little quarter-inch scale model, with little white things that I don't feel badly about when I cut them out or change them or throw them out and start over. It's not a big investment of time. And as the ideas begin to evolve, and you get a better and better idea of what the show is about, you keep doing the little models, until you have one you sort of like. And then you go to half-inch scale. All this can sometimes take six months."
His favorite set, he says, was for A Chorus Line. "Because it's so simple. That was the result of two years' work, of Michael Bennett and I trying to distill things. We started with big ideas for visualizing scenes, and as we went through the show's workshop period, they got smaller and smaller. Finally, we realized we could do the whole show with nothing but a line. That was the real beginning. And then we knew we needed a black box, which represents theatre, and that we needed the mirrors, because they represent the dance studio."
The most complicated set, he says, also involved Bennett — the one for Dreamgirls. "Because everything moved — the towers, which were filled with lights. Sometimes we would send the lights out into the audience. And all the lighting bars were basically platforms, so the actors could climb up on those things and fly out. Which they did."
Wagner has also designed for opera, and one unfulfilled hope involves Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelungen. "I've seen a number of Ring cycles that have made me very jealous. I guess that's the ultimate challenge for a designer."
But in truth, he says, designing for opera isn't really his dream. His next project, he says, is next fall's highly anticipated musical version of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. "I love musical comedy," Wagner says. "It's what I've always related to. And I've never been bored for even a second."