This year, Broadway’s scenic designers seemed to up the ante. From the turntables of Hamilton to the unfurling jewel-box set of She Loves Me, from the video projections inviting audiences into the expansive yet disturbed mind of Patrick Bateman to the opulent yet dilapidated hotel of Hughie, from the onstage pool in Thérèse Raquin to the literal blood bath in A View from the Bridge, from the downtown duplex of The Humans to the “Jimtown” setting of the 1920s, this year’s Tony-nominated designers proved that they’re doing more than decorating a space for shows to appear in, they are creating scenic characters through their work.
Here, the Tony nominees share their earliest renderings, sketches, models and more, and reveal the origins and subtext of their designs.
BEST SCENIC DESIGN OF A PLAY
Beowulf Boritt, Thérèse Raquin
What the story’s always been about, to me, is there is this young woman—sort of ordinary woman—who is continually boxed in by the people around her, and they’re not even bad people. They’re just stupid people, and they just keep hemming her in, hemming her in, until finally she lashes out. That was kind of the impetus of the set.
We thought that garret, specifically, it’s the one moment of happiness and joy in this entire miserable play, and it’s got to be beautiful and ethereal, and then very quickly, of course, the horrible parasail crashes back in on top of her, blocking her in. So it was all trying to be a visual metaphor for that.
[As for the onstage pool], what’s hard about it is that water is clear, of course, so if you look at it at the wrong angle—even if it’s three-feet deep—you can see the bottom and see a rubber pool liner, and it loses all the magic, so one of the big challenges is: How do you make it so that the audience can’t actually see through the water even though it’s clear?
Christopher Oram, Hughie
It was clear that the environment he was in was going to be a player. It’s both representative of his home—where he’s been living the last five years–but also his state of mind and where he’s at. And the wonderful thing about [star] Forest [Whitaker] is he’s this kind of huge presence, this great hulking figure, but he also kind of looks like slightly broken as well, this slightly kind of injured quality, and I wanted to capture that within the space: this once grandiose building that has seen better days and fallen on harder times, which is Erie’s story as well. And yet you see vestiges of hope and glamour in it and have a sense that you can picture girls in the ’20s walking through there and now it’s left kind of rotting.
It was also about being in that world together [audience and actor]. The Booth is this beautiful, beautiful theatre and the perfect intimate size of it. This wide but shallow auditorium means [Forest]’s never that far from the back of the audience. ... We use the warm soft color of the Booth itself on the stage; it sort of melted into the auditorium so that one colluded [with the other] within that environment.
The detail across it, the cigarette butts, the ashtrays, things like the elevator crank, the luggage trolley and stuff like that were the things that created the sense of detail and also the memento mori of it. [Erie] comes in and tells a dozen stories, and there are a hundred more stories in it. It’s like a book in a way, with hundreds of stories in it, and we were privy to that.
Jan Versweyveld, A View from the Bridge
The title indicates that we, the public, perceive an event from a higher point, we get a broader view. A bridge is the connection between two worlds; we are in a vacuum, a transit zone, apart from a starting point but not yet arrived at a destination. Being in this state makes us vulnerable as a spectator and more susceptible to what is coming at us. We are loosened, freed from what binds us to the course of everyday life, and we can open ourselves up to look into our souls and those of our fellow man. What happens with Eddie is something which is inside all of us. As a result, time and place of action are no longer relevant. This means that we as creators can free ourselves from the naturalism present in the text.
At the start of the play a space is unveiled, until then, life in this space was still private, not yet revealed. Like lifting a large stone to observe the life beneath. Suddenly, the creatures underneath are literally uncovered, and you see their life in all its naked vulnerability. We see things we are not supposed to see. The audience is a voyeur and thus is confronted with themselves and with the human condition. The drafting of the audience on 3 sides of the playing space means that we look not only at the actors, but also at the reactions of the audience opposite.
[A View from the Bridge plays like] a Greek tragedy. Man is sent by his fate. We show a man as a caged animal that cannot escape his fate. ... Once entering the room (there is, as in any Greek tragedy but one door, the entrance to the palace), there is no turning back. The characters are caught in a trap like a rabbit, dazzled and attracted by a bright beam of light. Thus, the dividing line between actor and audience is important and is displayed by a glass edge. This comes to represent the remains of a house that once gave security to a family before fate came along and destroyed it.
Theatre has a cleansing effect; we can experience things that we do not allow ourselves to in everyday life. Through the eyes of Alfieri we are given an insight into the irreversible journey of Eddie. The character of Alfieri is the link between actors and audience. He tells us the story of Eddie who cannot resist the suction of fate, like a fly is attracted by a light bulb. The purity of his intentions is represented by the presence of running water—the daily shower that cleanses Eddie from his hard work as a longshoreman. This purity turns into guilt, represented by dripping blood. Gradually the blood covers more and more of the floor. The space has a plughole in which the fluids accumulate and can flow away, as in a slaughterhouse. The same bloody ritual can happen over and over again. Time is also displayed by the evolution of the lighting. We begin with a bright flash—like a premonition of the end—the light then evolves during the duration of the performance from warm and womb like into hard and cold, the light which is used in open heart surgery. The cycle is complete.
David Zinn, The Humans
The Humans was a cool opportunity to make a set that really had a character and presence in the play. It's a study of the uncanny—of familiar things made strange and threatening—and was a great exercise in both the kind of "movie"-like real detail I really like to indulge in, as well as a host of theatrical "tricks" to make the space feel alive and scary. And we were able to rehearse on the set from day one, which I think helped make it feel really, truly, inhabited by our extraordinary cast.
BEST SCENIC DESIGN OF A MUSICAL
Es Devlin & Finn Ross, American Psycho
It’s kind of the two-prongs to it: there’s making these gigantic musical theatre numbers, but also making Patrick Bateman’s inner mind. I think that’s more something I’m interested in is the psychological space the character inhabits and finding a way to visually articulate that to an audience and bring that forward is sort of my motivation. Patrick’s mind is clearly completely f***ed up, the guy has problems. He’s kind of all over the place; it’s a messy, noisy place he inhabits. The whole static thing [with images] was a way of connecting to the analog nature of the 1980s and the pre-digital world. It’s all from analog sources distorted. If you remember when your Sony Walkman ran out of batteries and went “wooooooaaaaamp” and died. It’s the way of seeing these kind of ideas come forward is something I found quite interesting and labeling the characters’ rampant and wanton desire to things and status.
80s MTV has a big branding factor in it as well. He was the MTV generation inspired by the Barbara Kruger idea of “I shock therefore I am.” That was quite interesting to me.
There was never supposed to be that much video in the show, and then as you’re approaching tech you realizes that there’s more that could be done with it. [As for the white canvas of the set], Patrick lives in this white, sort of pristine environment; certainly it’s where he thinks he lives. Before you get into the impact that there’s going to be blood flying everywhere and the red against the white as a strong look, if you read the descriptions of how he talks in parts of the book and reference the movie, it’s this perfectly white-walled [world].
What Es is doing is creating an enormous playground for video because—not in everything she does but certainly in this one—it’s a blank world. Lighting can give life to it in one way, but video can give life to it in a more subtext psychological kind of way. Es, when she’s designing something, she thinks, “How can this work as a surface as well as a wall?” which is quite important for what we do. It’s always a fun and exciting challenge when those shows come along, especially something like Psycho, which is just so total in its approach to a subject matter but also in our approach to production. Don’t hold anything back, just go for it and that’s kind of what the characters think. They’re not holding anything back, they’re living it.
David Korins, Hamilton
From my very first reading of the show, it felt, to me, like there was this cyclical kind of movement. [Turntables are] a very cinematic storytelling device, but also, a cyclone pushes him, you know, a hurricane pushes him off of Nevis; his social and political storm that surrounds him; his cyclical relationship with Burr. It just felt to me like all these things could happen in a circle; like, a duel, when you surround someone and size them up. And so, I said it to [director] Tommy Kail and [choreographer] Andy [Blankenbuehler], and they bought it.
It’s definitely a very presentational space, but I think it’s more about trying to evoke a town square, like an aspirational space.... I think it’s about creating a place where people came together, you know, in that time period.
WATCH: Korins shares making-of videos so you can see Hamilton’s set actually get built.
Santo Loquasto, Shuffle Along...
The Act I finale of Shuffle Along is the reveal of the Jimtown setting [shown in this sketch], inspired by the original 1921 design for the production. It is rendered in a somewhat rapturous, romantic painting style and infused with a palpable glow provided by the lighting and costume designers. Of course, the sensational dancing is nothing short of thrilling. I think we can safely say that the cumulative effect is what the audience responds to. Our struggling troop has arrived and triumphed.
David Rockwell, She Loves Me
It is a kind of dream-come-true project for me. And, as someone who’s lived in New York all my adult life and been a designer, being invited to take a musical from the Golden Age of musicals and reinvent it was thrilling. The notion was to create the world of Budapest with all its color-saturated detail as a sort of homage to that Golden Age of musicals, but then allow it to dance and move as a character in the play using technology (that no one’s aware of) to make that happen.
So when that store, which has 300 perfume bottles in it, opens up, that’s four separate pieces, each tracking and rotating. But the thrill is that the design intent is about emotionally connecting you to the story. The actors love being in it; each one of those counters is customized for each person who’s part of that world, so they believe in it, and that is something the audience feels. And, you know, I think all of us who work in the theatre are creating environments that last for two-and-a-half hours while the audience is there and everyone’s effort goes into telling that story.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.