Tony Walton's love of theatre began in the middle of the night during a London blackout in World War II, with his parents wearing paper hats and carrying noisemakers.
"My parents were terrific people, but ours was the traditional children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard English kind of family," the Tony Award–winning set and costume designer recalls. "They didn't spend a lot of time with us and didn't show very much warmth. My sister, Jennifer, and I were like the 'Mary Poppins' kids."
But then one night, when he was five or six, "well after midnight, in the wee hours of the morning, they came into our bedroom. They had just seen the musical Me and My Girl, which had the big radio hit song 'The Lambeth Walk.' They had paper hats and little hooters — and had obviously had a few bubbles to cheer them along the way — and they woke my sister and me up and taught us 'The Lambeth Walk.'"
It was, for Walton, "a joyous experience. And, not long after, they took us to the theatre to see a Christmas pantomime. Our nanny, a rather daunting figure — even more so than Mary Poppins — told us how incredibly lucky we were because we would be sitting in a box. All the way into town we were wondering how on earth we could all squeeze into this little crate. When we arrived, and were ushered into a grand velvet-festooned, Cupid-decorated 'box,' it was love at first sight. I knew I was doomed to be part of this world." Walton, 73, has been designing sets and costumes for the stage for more than a half century. His list of Broadway credits includes 16 Tony nominations and three Tony Awards — for his sets for Pippin in 1973, The House of Blue Leaves in 1986 and Guys and Dolls in 1992. His other productions — sets and/or costumes — include Anything Goes, I'm Not Rappaport, Hurlyburly, The Real Thing, Woman of the Year, Sophisticated Ladies, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Six Degrees of Separation and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
He has also designed for films, including "Mary Poppins," "Murder on the Orient Express" and "All That Jazz" — for which he shared an Oscar for art direction. On Aug. 19, the new musical A Tale of Two Cities, with Walton as scenic designer, began previews on Broadway.
Walton's family had no theatre background. His father was a surgeon, says Walton, "which seemed to me the best possible thing to be doing with one's life." But medically-related subjects were "the things I did least well in, in school. So the message became clear that this was probably not my natural bent. I also had a tendency to topple over if I saw somebody's finger bleed."
So he started to study the classics, Greek and Latin, "but they were so hard for me that one day I replaced my painfully-memorized chunk of Ovid with a narration of Stanley Holloway's vaudeville routine Albert and the Lion. I got booted out of that class." At Radley College, Oxford, he started doing "ambitious marionette shows, including Mozart's Magic Flute. One day a very famous English fine artist, John Piper, happened to be in the audience, and he appeared backstage after the performance and said, 'Which one is Walton?' I very nervously held up my finger. And he said, 'You should do this.' 'What is this?' I asked. ‘Stage design,' said Piper."
He sent Walton to the Slade School of Fine Art in London. To pay his way, he "initially took a job as an actor at the Wimbledon Repertory Theatre. But although I had been a cocky actor in school, I was hopelessly self-conscious in front of a paying audience." So, instead, he learned to "bang old bits of scenery into different shapes for new shows and slap fresh color on them."
For his two years of compulsory military training, he wound up in Ontario, Canada, as a trainee pilot. He had a girlfriend who was working on Broadway in a musical called The Boy Friend, and he would visit her. "Then, after leaving the R.A.F., I came to New York to be with her. She had just opened in My Fair Lady."
Her name was Julie Andrews. (They married and later divorced. He is now married to writer Gen LeRoy.)
Those years on Broadway, he says, "were the time of Elia Kazan, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. An astonishing time, with astounding set designers like Jo Mielziner and Boris Aronson. Aronson's credo was 'You have to begin each new adventure by again becoming a baby.'"
And then he got his first break — "courtesy of Biff Liff, who was the stage manager of My Fair Lady. It was designing for an 'industrial' for Fruit of the Loom." Walton's first major production was the Off-Broadway revival of Noël Coward's musical Conversation Piece in 1957.
And then, in 1961, he made his Broadway set and costume designing debut, for the Sam Spewack play Once There Was a Russian, starring Walter Matthau. "It lasted one night," Walton says. But the next year brought Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and his career of hits began.
Walton says his method of designing has changed over the years. "These days I try to read the script or listen to the score as if it were a radio show and not allow myself to have a rush of imagery. Then, after meeting with the director — and if I'm lucky the writer — and whatever input they may want to give, I try to imagine what I see as if it were slowly being revealed by a pool of light. I try to get the palette — and the feel of it — whether it's crispy or soft, whatever the flavor may be, before I get into any of the essential nuts and bolts. Generally, of course, it's about how best to tell the tale."
And the future? "When I was first going to the Wimbledon Rep, despite the fact that I was studying design, my ambition, if I had a clear one, was to direct. That got sidelined. Then, about a dozen years ago, Charlotte Moore of the Irish Repertory Theatre read an interview in which I was asked, if somebody invited me to direct what would I choose to do? And I brazenly said Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. And she called me up and said, 'I'm calling your bluff.'"
Walton has been directing there ever since. "And I hope to keep on directing there." He is also hoping to direct for the first time on Broadway — a production of the musical Busker Alley starring Jim Dale, which is in the planning stages for this season.
"It's a great joy," Walton says, "a series of new adventures."