Scenic Designer Anna Louizos Captured the Heights by Wandering Its Streets

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27 May 2008

Anna Louizos
Anna Louizos
Photo by Josh Lehrer

Set designer Anna Louizos' love for New York City — and her eye for detail — helped bring a touch of authenticity to the new Broadway musical, In the Heights, for which she has been Tony Award-nominated in the category of Best Scenic Design of a Musical.

In her neighborhood-streetscape design of the Washington Heights-set musical, note the battered storefront signage, the stickers on doors, the knobby fireplug, the joyless streetlamp, the general grayness of the canvas. Her set serves as a neutral canvas for the real vibrancy of the world — the people.

She told Playbill.com that on a winter day in 2006, she and the show's director, Thomas Kail, and uptown native actor/composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (both fellow 2008 Tony nominees for hitting the Heights) wandered around in Washington Heights.

"Lin showed me places where he hung out," Louizos said. "We spent a whole day — a freezing January day — walking around in the cold. And then after that, I made several more trips, got photographs of details. I take a lot of photographs."

Details?



"It's something I learned from Avenue Q: The more specific you are to creating that neighborhood, the more people identify it as a real space," she explained. "If you were to copy a structure, it would not seem authentic, because what makes it authentic is the layers of aging and dirt and vestigial hardware that's still left over from some other sign that got taken down. Those are the things that — you don't even realize — collectively make it feel right."

The California native studied at New York University and used to live in the gritty East Village, where grime-covered architectural details were within reach. Her photos of New York City exteriors helped inspire the details seen in both Avenue Q (a Best Musical Tony Award winner, and still going strong) and In the Heights. Visually, they are sister shows.

"When I walk down the street, I notice things," Louizos said. "I'm always looking up, I'm always thinking, 'I'm gonna remember that.' That's what I love about the city."

As in her earlier design for Avenue Q, the multiple-façade streetscape of In the Heights has "pop out" elements to provide interior playing areas.

"There's a simplicity to it that's very efficient," Louizos said. "It works for the storytelling — it doesn't distract from the storytelling."

In the Heights had an Off-Broadway "tryout" in 2007, at 37 Arts. Is the scenic design different now that the show is at the larger Richard Rodgers Theatre?

"It's definitely different," Louizos said. "It has much more detail. The architecture of the buildings is actually more prominent. If you look, and made the comparison, the [Off-Broadway] buildings were steel frames, with a little bit of detail. There's a lot more detail now and a lot less of the framing of the buildings that's visible. There's more depth on Broadway than we had at 37 Arts — and there's less width. So for me I had to start squeezing everything and removing a foot here and there so that I could still fit the four major playing areas."

The show's primary visual metaphor, the George Washington Bridge — looming in the sky as it does in the uptown Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights — is now more dimensional than it was Off-Broadway. Before, it was a simple drop with a bridge image on it; now, there are layers — a scrim, an idealized cutout of the bridge and a backdrop.

Don't label Louizos a streetscape scenic designer: She was previously nominated for a 2007 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Musical for High Fidelity, which was more interested in interiors (fans recall the clutter-happy, shabby used record store run by the main character); her Broadway design of the beauty-parlor comedy, Steel Magnolias, was all about intimacy; and her multi-location, brightly colored scenic design for the musical comedy Irving Berlin's White Christmas (seen annually in major cities in North America) is pure showbiz.

Louizos is also currently represented on Broadway with the musical, Curtains, for which she was 2007 Drama Desk Award-nominated in the category of Outstanding Set Design of a Musical (competing with In the Heights, for its Off-Broadway run, in the same category that year).