Tony AwardsBehind the Scenic Designs of This Year’s Tony-Nominated MusicalsA look at early sketches, renderings, and what’s hidden in the sets by the Tony-nominated designers of Great Comet, War Paint, Groundhog Day, and Hello, Dolly!
June 02, 2017
The scenic designers of the 2016-2017 Broadway musical season created environments spanning from lavish red and gold dinner clubs to rustic feed shops. Their influences ranged from on-location visits across the globe to iconic art. Each designer created the world of the show while focusing on extreme details, including the design of individual labels for over 1,800 bottles.
Here, the Tony nominees for Best Scenic Design of a Musical share inspirations, early sketches and renderings, and Easter eggs hidden around their sets.
What was the inspiration for your set design? ROB HOWELL: I went to Punxsutawney. It was an interesting trip that I took about two years ago. I was expecting to come away with lots of specific reference material, different locations, and actually there was nothing there that was of any use to me in terms of putting scenery onstage and telling a story. What I did come away with was a sense of warmth and community. You can’t take a photograph of that. You just experience it. I was slightly crestfallen because I thought, “Well, that’s not going to help me necessarily with the design for a show,” but it turned out that it was actually the thing that we ended up leaning on.
To purchase Groundhog Day tickets, click here. For discount tickets on select performances, click here!
Is there a setting or set piece you’re most proud of? RH: I’ve got things I like and don’t like. I’ve got things that the audiences are responding to that are surprising to me and things that the audiences aren’t responding to that surprise me too. That’s sort of the blissful puzzle of all of this. It’s not about what Rob thinks. It’s about what Rob thought, colliding with what Tim Minchin thought and Matthew Warchus thought… If it works, it’s a perfect storm, and if doesn’t, it’s a slightly crappy storm. That’s why big musicals are scary. They involve so many different disciplines all trying to collide at precisely the right moment. That’s what everybody is reaching for – the absolutely perfect collision.
Is there anything hidden in the set (to inform the actors, as an homage to something) that audiences might not notice? RH: Gosh, I realize I’m not having enough fun in my job. [Laughs] What I’ve tried to do is – wherever possible—in any image, there’s the presence of a sun and a snowflake. This is subliminal and no one makes a big deal of it, but it helps you get the feeling that, in terms of climate, there are opposites at play the whole time. If you look carefully, you’ll find that in every single image.
The set for Groundhog Day includes a collage of hanging frames that serve many different purposes throughout the show. Could you discuss them? RH: We went slightly old-school, but still current, with weather maps that a weather person on a television screen would be standing in front of. I wanted some sort of level of abstraction and surrealness so I wanted to hang an expression of scenery – literally hang it on something – and I came up with the idea of the screens at the top of the show. I thought, “Well, I don’t want to put a TV onstage. That’s boring,” so I hung the television screens on a frame.
DAVID KORINS, War Paint
What was the inspiration for your set design? DAVID KORINS: Obviously these women and the worlds that they created and ran are representative of high style, of decadence, business. These women were icons of so many things, but really the inspiration came from lots of photographs and tons and tons of research of trying to figure out how they lived and what really defined their worlds and also what differentiated their worlds from each other. So much of my job was to try to very clearly define each one of the women’s aesthetics. Of course, Elizabeth Arden was a master at branding and marketing and Helena Rubinstein was a scientist and an art collector so their styles and aesthetics were very different...and then trying to find some sort of a bigger, all-encompassing theatrical metaphor that we could wrap around the entire show. We did that with those black panels that were very art deco-inspired and the huge bottle wall that surrounded the entire thing, representing the main question of the show, which is, “Did we make women more free or did we help enslave them?” These bottles are surrounding them to represent this unbelievable…the titans of industry that they are and all of the things that they gave up in creating these empires.
Is there a setting or set piece you’re most proud of? DK: This is not a show that sits still for one second. There are 70 or 80 pieces of scenery that move and slide and track and fly. This is perhaps the most complicated set I’ve ever seen with regards to storage backstage. The choreography backstage is as difficult and complicated as any show that I’ve ever seen. This is literally a feat of engineering and of a full team effort in the crew being able to execute it. I’m also very proud of the bottle wall, which is obviously a massive installation, but acts as a true emotional barometer for our story and can change to any color of the spectrum…representative of a very, very beautiful collaboration with Kenny Posner, our lighting designer, who lights the heck out of it.
Is there anything hidden in the set (to inform the actors, as an homage to something) that audiences might not notice? DK: Every single bottle out of the 1,800 plus bottles has a specifically designed label that we designed the profile of and then removed so it’s only the negative space of those labels. Patti LuPone’s number, “Forever Beautiful,” where there are those 13 very famous portraits that are done of Helena Rubinstein (from famous artists like Dalí and Picasso) we took every single one of the real paintings that were done of Helena Rubinstein, removed her face and “LuPone-ified” them. We literally took Patti’s face and painted it into every image so that they look like Patti, not like Helena.
What was the process of creating the similar, yet incredibly different worlds of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein? DK: It’s a designer’s dream and out worst nightmare. We start in the ’30s and go into the ’60s. Not only did we have to define the worlds, but we also had to find a way for them to evolve over time. There are two protagonists and two complete worlds and a lot of the set’s job is to tell you where we were. Oftentimes, it happens in a split-screen format so we have to tell you exactly where we are. The story relies heavily on the dramaturgical and architectural details of the set so it was an amazing challenge.
MIMI LIEN, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
What was the inspiration for your set design? MIMI LIEN: When Dave Malloy was starting to write the piece, he was inspired to create a complete environment that everyone is in together. We talked about this experience that he had in Moscow when he was doing research for the piece. He was taken to this bar/café called Café Margarita and he told us this whole story about getting lost on the way there and not knowing where he was and going through back alleys and the underbelly of Moscow and then he entered this bar and inside it was full of people who were having a good time. That was the catalyst for what we ended up designing.
To purchase Great Comet tickets, click here. For discount tickets on select performances, click here!
Is there a setting or set piece you’re most proud of? ML: I have to say that the Great Comet chandelier, which is what we call the largest chandelier that comes in at the end for the moment when the comet arrives, definitely was a big challenge. It’s something that has changed with every iteration of the show. The first time we did it, the biggest chandelier in the room was four feet in diameter and now that is the smallest chandelier in the room and our biggest chandelier is 14 feet in diameter. It was kind of a big challenge to make it the size that it needed to be. Some of the structural pieces that I had to add in order to reinforce it, they ended up visually making it even more starburst looking.
Is there anything hidden in the set (to inform the actors, as an homage to something) that audiences might not notice? ML: So, the paintings are kind of a great place to hide little things like that. We’re not really in a period-specific Russia. All of the paintings are by Russian artists, but they’re from all different time periods. There’s one picture on the wall that’s actually of Pussy Riot inside this orthodox cathedral in Moscow. When you look at it from afar it almost looks like religious painting, but then when you come up close you can see that the band is wearing their Pussy Riot masks. That’s kind of my favorite little Easter egg.
What was the inspiration for creating such a stark contrast between the cold gray lobby and the lavish red and gold theatre? ML: We’ve always had this journey that the audience goes through before they reach the inside and it’s a little bit drawing on Dave’s journey through the underbelly of Moscow, but also I wanted to heighten the contrast between the outside and the inside because dramaturgically the first line of the piece is “There’s a war going on out there,” and so I wanted the audience to experience that physically and spatially.
SANTO LOQUASTO, Hello, Dolly!
What was the inspiration for your set design? SANTO LOQUASO: Well, the inspirations were really about the New York period, the end of the 19th century, the 1880s, how it was graphically represented—this kind of innocence still, even though it was following the Civil War. I really delved into the engravings and illustrations, both in newspapers and art of the period: engravings that Oliver Smith used … Harrigan and Hart, I think, used the same 14th Street references. So that’s kind of the spirit of it and the performance style of the period more than the period that the show was written in.
Is there a setting or set piece you’re most proud of? SL: Even though the Harmonia Gardens is the big payoff, it’s Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed Shop which I find very satisfying just in terms of how it supports the action of the scenes that take place on it and the character and just sort of the charm of Yonkers…more rural than the rest of the show.
Is there anything hidden in the set (to inform the actors, as an homage to something) that audiences might not notice? SL: There is a marquee on the Times Square drop, which is part of “Elegance” at the opening of the second act and it says “The Rose” on it [like the movie Bette Midler starred in]. [The Rose] was actually an abridged title of a play that was running there at the time [Dolly takes place]. I just dropped the rest of the title. I’ve never pointed it out to [Bette] and somebody else actually emailed me and asked me and I didn’t respond. It was just sort of a joke at the time.