Although the face of New York City changed dramatically on September 11, and the spirit of New York is still recovering, on Broadway stages the city is vibrantly healthy. It gleams with both purity and sin, from Park Avenue digs to nightclubs, from a bustling restaurant to a Broadway musical or two.
This season has seen four shows — The Women, 45 Seconds from Broadway, Sweet Smell of Success and Thoroughly Modern Millie — set in New York. Others still running are Rent, The Producers, 42nd Street, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and Contact (two sequences). From the 1920's (Millie) to the present day (the now-closed 45 Seconds), designers' visions of the city are shaped by each show's period and tone, as well as by the needs of its creators and performers, but all the motifs are recognizably New York.
Most identifiable, of course, is the skyline. "You couldn't do a good production of The Women without evoking the New York skyline," says Derek McLane, who chose to display it at the top of that show to set a whimsical tone. "It came out of the desire to create that moment when the women come out onstage and open the buildings and reveal Mary's apartment, sort of as little jewel boxes inside these miniature skyscrapers." Later on, a nightscape of high-rises, showing New York at its most glamorous, is seen through the window of Mary Haines's bedroom.
Although McLane avoided identifiable buildings among his art deco skyscrapers, he decided to change their original silvery gray after the WTC attack. "I had them repainted so the color was distinctly different from the World Trade Center," he says. "I didn't want these buildings to evoke that."
Bob Crowley, the Irish designer of Sweet Smell of Success, created a menacing crescent of high-rises that surround the actors and hem them in, evoking a bullring in which they do bloody battle. "We never wanted the show to stop for a piece of scenery to be delivered to the stage," says Crowley, who strove for a film noir effect. "It's continuous action as you get in a movie, and that meant that I didn't want anything getting in the way of the actors' coming on from any point in the stage." From that came the idea of "floating the city above people's heads, which is the feeling you get when you walk down through Manhattan anyway," he says. Crowley's skyscrapers, which include the New York Times building and the Empire State Building, were coated with different shades of metallic gray paint to reflect Natasha Katz's lighting and yet take on various colors, creating a dark but enticing world. "There's always been a glamour attached to jazz clubs, speakeasies, nightclubs, and cities of night with neon reflected in pools of water in the streets," he says. "It's a certain kind of glamour, but it's definitely glamour." Thoroughly Modern Millie views New York as a more upbeat place — it is, after all, 1922. There's also a skyline, but "it's a very stylized, futuristic view of New York," says designer David Gallo. "My intent is that, when the curtain goes up, people who have lived in New York their whole lives will see it anew." A Joseph Stella painting inspired his gleaming Brooklyn Bridge in mirrors and chrome, but there are grungier moments, too: Millie stays in the fleabag Hotel Priscilla, which has peeling wallpaper and rusting girders. "It's a bit shabbier and dirtier than everything else," says Gallo.
By contrast, all along 42nd Street you'd need a microscope to find dirt. Douglas W. Schmidt's cheery New York is distilled glamour, despite the Depression. Schmidt says his challenge was "not to exaggerate it so much as to give it all the extravagance that we possibly could. It's not a realistic view of New York. It's very much idealized." And even when New York isn't literally onstage, it's there in spirit. To design Philadelphia's Union Station, Schmidt studied tracks and staircases in pictures of the old Penn Station, "the archetypal station of that period." (Balancing that, however, he confesses that the elegant Maison des Dames was inspired by a picture of an old Texaco station.)
Extravagance wasn't called for in John Lee Beatty's set for Neil Simon's 45 Seconds from Broadway. The Edison Cafe is a well-known theatre hangout, and Beatty's re-creation of it was exceptionally realistic. But reality in theatre often means illusion. "For [director] Jerry Zaks, the soup list had to be on the wall," says Beatty. "To me it meant the wonderful way New York, like ancient Rome, is built on 12 periods of history in one room. You could tell it was a hotel from the twenties that had been changed into this — the eighties overlay, the nineties overlay. But Jerry saw soup. You're not just designing what's really there but also what people feel about it. So things got a little more wonderful . . . through a slightly rose-colored, affectionate lens."
Practical considerations also came into play. "The real room is painted peach, but you put an actor next to peach, and he looks sick all night long," says the designer. His solution was to use a layer of pink paint and then a layer of green, making "a 'warm-cool' color that looked like the place but still served the actor." On other points, however, Beatty was more scrupulous: the taxi stand outside the window was within two feet of the real one.
Sometimes clothing can conjure a place as effectively as sets, though costumes have to reflect the period of the play and, more subtly, the personality of the character. Still, where else but the Lower East Side would one find the profusion of plaids, vinyl, ripped nylons, tiger stripes and leopard prints that Angela Wendt provided for Rent? "The clash of patterns is big," says Wendt, who lives in the neighborhood and knows the milieu. "It's like going to a concert where people show up in their clothes to perform."
Though produced in 1995, Rent was penned by Jonathan Larson nearly a decade earlier — which had to be reflected in the show's aesthetic. "I think it's really important that Rent portray the New York of the eighties," Wendt says. "In the nineties, poor artists wouldn't live in Manhattan anymore." She chose a mixture of second-hand 1970's clothing; 1980's looks, such as technopants with zippers and pockets; and a cutting-edge preview of trends that flowered in the 1990's, such as vinyl and latex.
A different aesthetic prevails among the uptown crowd at Sweet Smell of Success, set in 1952. Bob Crowley started with fabrics that absorbed light for the everyday clothes of the people "hanging around midtown in the early evenings waiting to go out." Then come the high fashions of nightclub and cafe society: "Those are silk taffetas. There's a lot of brittle color there and hard fabrics that reflect light, so they're shiny and appear like dark jewels."
To dress the ritzy matrons in the now-closed The Women, says Isaac Mizrahi, "I tried to pretend I was living in the period and designing clothes then." In some cases, he drew on "certain things from my past, having lived in New York my whole life." For example, although Mary Haines' mother first appears in conservative, almost Edwardian clothes, when she comes to cheer up Mary after her divorce, "she's wearing this giant polka-dot thing. It's false, peppy, optimistic-looking," says Mizrahi. "My mother would dress that way if she knew I was going through that."
But Mizrahi also felt obliged to make some costumes "nasty in a way." The Countess de Lage is called "a nympho," so Rue McClanahan chose a more "bodacious" interpretation than the dignified character in the well-known film version. "The count plucked her out of the chorus, and she has bad taste, so in cases like that, this woman has to look really funny and bad, because I see women like that today. They think they're flattering themselves because they're wearing a push-up bra." Adds Mizrahi, "They're 'wannabes' of chic and glamour and taste. That's typically, strangely New York."
—By Edward Karam