This week, Playbill's new weekly feature, How Did I Get Here—featuring not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—spotlights 2023 Tony nominee Beowulf Boritt, recognized for Best Scenic Design of a Musical for New York, New York, which picked up nine nominations, including Best Musical. This is Boritt's sixth Tony nomination.
Boritt—who is the scenic and co-projection designer for the new musical from John Kander, Fred Ebb, Lin-Manuel Miranda, David Thompson, and director-choreographer Susan Stroman—won his Tony in 2014 for Best Scenic Design of a Play for his work on James Lapine's Act One. The Massachusetts native also received Tony nominations for his scenic designs of The Scottsboro Boys, Thérèse Raquin, POTUS, and Flying Over Sunset.
For New York New York, the designer, who received a 2007 Obie Award for Sustained Excellence, has created breathtaking replications of a plethora of New York City landmarks (and a rising bandstand that thrillingly ends the musical's second act).
In the interview below, Boritt explains why every job along the way is an important one—even if you don't like it—and why theatre is a long game.
Where did you train/study?
I was a BA drama major at Vassar; it was really a dramatic literature degree—we read and analyzed lots of plays. I got an MFA at Tisch/NYU in set and costume design.
What are the duties of a scenic designer before the show opens? What are the responsibilities after it's running?
I read the script, then develop the design with the director. On New York, New York that was an intense nine-month process with [director and choreographer] Susan Stroman. Once we've settled on what the design is, I supervise it being built by scenery and prop shops (another nine months), everything from the 10,000-pound iron fire escapes to the smallest paper props like the drinks menu on the table at The Major Chord. Through load-in, tech, and previews, I'm pretty constantly in the theatre making sure the design is helping to tell the story as beautifully and efficiently as possible. But once the show opens, I'm basically done. I'll check in from time to time, but once the show opens, the show crew takes over, and they don't need me meddling (too much...).
What made you decide to become a scenic designer? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
I loved doing the school play, and I loved visual art. I worked as an apprentice in a small summer stock theatre in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and that's where I understood first that a set designer was an actual job. I think I knew then and there it's what I wanted to do. My earliest memory of scenery/theatre was at the Memphis Opera when I was quite small; my mother sang in the chorus and had taken me to watch a dress rehearsal of Verdi's Macbeth. At intermission I remember watching spellbound as stagehands pushed massive Stonehenge-sized monoliths around the stage as if they were Styrofoam (which I presume they were!). I think the road company of Les Miz, which I saw in D.C. in high school, probably did a lot to put me on the road to the kind of design I love also.
What do you consider your big break?
I met Hal Prince at Ming's Clambake [a regular get-together for emerging designers, first launched by the late Ming Cho Lee] at Lincoln Center when I graduated from NYU. He was kind to me, and I stayed in touch. About five years later, he recommended me to his daughter, Daisy Prince, who hired me to design Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years. That show introduced me to a new strata of the New York theatre community and, in part, led to James Lapine hiring me to design The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Spelling Bee was really my big break.
How did your current work with New York, New York come about?
My first New York design job was Titus Andronicus at the Belmont Italian American Playhouse in the South Bronx. Hal Prince introduced me to Susan Stroman, and we subsequently did The Scottsboro Boys together (with John Kander, David Thompson, and Sharon Washington). We clicked, I fell in love with designing for Stro, and we've been working together on and off ever since. I was over the moon when she, Sonia Friedman, and Tom Kirdahy asked me to do New York, New York.
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
Meet as many people as you can. If you're a wallflower (as I was), learn not to be. Do everything that's offered to you, and love it no matter how mediocre it might be. Not every show will be great, but find something to love about each project because it will make your work better. Work tirelessly when you're young because the energy of youth does not last forever.
What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
You don't have to conquer the world by the time you're 30—it will still be there when you're 31. This is a little at odds with what I said above, but I think both things are true. Do everything you can, be ambitious, but know that a career in theatre is a long game, and you aren't a failure if you don't win a Tony Award by age 25 (or ever).
What is your proudest achievement as a scenic designer?
Just getting to do it. I'm grateful every day that I get to design Broadway shows. I can't believe how lucky I am.