Living for Design: Beowulf Boritt Conjures Arresting Scenic Worlds for Chaplin, Grace and More

By Mervyn Rothstein
02 Nov 2012

Rob McClure in Chaplin.
Photo by Joan Marcus

And now the musical Chaplin, the tale of the legendary movie comedian, the little tramp, from his deprived childhood through his years of fame to his decline and fall. Your set is black and white, and shades of gray. Can you explain that choice?
BB: It was an interesting challenge. There were a bunch of challenges on Chaplin. We started the whole process relatively late for putting together a big musical, and we had a tight budget. It was still quite a bit of money. We had to find some way of doing a splashy Broadway show as economically as possible both in terms of money and space. The Barrymore Theatre is not typically a musical house. There's not a lot of wing space and the stage is shallow for a musical.

After the fact, doing it in black and white feels like a no-brainer. How could you not do a Charlie Chaplin musical in black and white? In an early meeting I had with the director, Warren Carlyle, we sat down and kind of designed the whole show in two days in a café on the West Side. We talked through it scene by scene and I sat there and scribbled stuff on a yellow pad and 60-70 percent of what's onstage now basically came out of these conversations. And at some point halfway through we said, what if we do it all in black and white? There was no discussion beyond that. We said, well, yeah, it made sense.

It becomes about contrast, and trying to get little bits of silver sparkle in there to heighten the contrast.

Boritt's sketch for the Chaplin Act One Finale

One interesting thing — the first day of technical rehearsals, for whatever reason, that afternoon we didn't have the actors in costume. They were all in rehearsal clothes. The sets were there and the lights were there. And it just looked awful. I sat there thinking the set is a disaster. I gather Ken Billington [the lighting designer] was thinking the same thing about the lights. And that night the actors were in costume for the first time and everything started pulling together. Once we actually got into the complete rigidity of the black and white world, it all worked really well. And of course that's what we'd been aiming for all along. I don't think we realized it was such an easily broken conceit. As soon as something begins to rattle that, it makes the whole idea fall apart.

Obviously in the course of the show we do break that a little bit. There's a red rose that tracks through the show that's the symbol of Charlie's mother and his love of acting and creating characters. And then at the end, when we get to the Academy Awards, and suddenly the whole world turns red — red curtains rise up out of the floor and a red carpet rolls down and all the characters reappear in colored versions of their costumes.

It's technically quite challenging. There was a day at the scene shop where we painted some of the backdrops on a piece of unbleached muslin. It's basically a white fabric but there's a little bit of yellow to it because it hasn't been bleached. Even though there was black and white paint on top of it, that little bit of yellow showed through, and it started almost looking as if it was Day-Glo yellow. We had to go back and repaint the backdrops on a bleached fabric.