Necco Wafers are round purple, green, yellow, orange, white, pink, black and brown sugar candies that have been manufactured by the New England Confectionary Company for the past 150 years. Their trippy pastels are a main ingredient in David Rockwell's set design for film-turned-Broadway-musical Hairspray.
All the colors were important. After taking a field trip to Baltimore with the film's creator and director John Waters, Rockwell knew that replicating Charm City exactly wasn't going to be exactly charming.
"John's movies are about everyday Balitmore, close-up, which on film looks wonderful. In the theatre, it looks like Death of a Salesman. [Hairspray] is the essense and spirit of what John was trying to do," Rockwell said.
So Necco Wafers came to represent the wacky Waters Baltimore. As does the Lite Brite.
The popular 60's and 70's toy, which utlizes little plug-in plastic lights placed on a luminated black background to create a picture, actually premiered five years after Hairspray takes place. But Rockwell makes the Lite Brite aspect of the theatre's backdrop a vital part of the show, letting it first illuminate Tracy Turnblad's new world with bright pink when she first liberates herself and her mother in "Welcome to the '60's." At the musical's finale, the lights create dancing shapes. The playfulness of toys and candy in the set enhances the fun. Not to mention: the house curtain, hung like an Austrian drape, but made of red plastic tubing; the black-and-white world Tracy begins her day in; the radio-controlled rats; the billboard that comes to life; and the finale's special curtain, made up like a gigantic beehive.
"It's full of surprises. There's something about the bizzare world of John Waters that makes you want to keep building," Rockwell said of the show.
Of course, there were a number of set problems to overcome while Rockwell was creating. One was how to keep sections of the cast apart.
"Hairspray's a show about integration, but half the cast is black and half the cast is white and they don't integrate until the very end. So there have to be places for them to sit and sing, depending on who's on stage," he said.
Hairspray is Rockwell's second Broadway show. His first was another campy classic, the recent revival of The Rocky Horror Show at Circle in the Square. Rockwell, who has always loved theatre, has also designed a few houses with his Rockwell Group, including the Kodak Theatre, where the Oscars played in 2002, and a new home for Cirque du Soliel at Disney World, a tent-like structure made with Teflon-coated fiberglass.
After his second show, has the set designer bug taken root in Rockwell? Well, yes. While talking about his pieces, Rockwell is excited, demonstrating and describing with his hands and models.
"You don't get this kind of thrill from doing a building," he said.