Remembering the Tony-Winning Designers | Playbill

Tony Awards Remembering the Tony-Winning Designers
From the Special Tony Playbill

From the Special Tony Playbill

Backstage stories from and about some of the Tony-winning designers.
Costume maker Barbara Matera recalled that she and designer Theoni Aldredge were shocked when Aldredge won a Tony for Annie because neither thought the show would succeed. "I remember sitting there with her at the Eisenhower Theatre in Washington during tryouts, and we both thought, 'This is going nowhere.' With all those kids and dogs, we just didn't think it would succeed. But it was a huge hit." Matera recalled that Aldredge worked particularly well with the children in Annie. "She has a great rapport with children, even though she doesn't have any of her own."
Tony Award Winner: Costume Designer, Annie, 1977; Barnum, 1980;, La Cage aux Folles, 1984.

Like Jo Mielziner in 1949, Boris Aronson won 1951's scenic design Tony for several shows. He was cited for his work on The Rose Tatoo, The Country Girl and Season in the Sun. "The Tony meant a lot to him because it represented the recognition of theatre people for the work he did," said Aronson's widow, Lisa. "He very much liked to work in collaboration with the director and was very fortunate to have worked with people like Hal Prince. His original training was in Europe, and the approach there was a collaboration between the director and the designer."
Tony Award Winner: Scenic Designer, The Rose Tattoo/The Country Girl/Season in the Sun, 1951; Cabaret, 1967; Zorba, 1969; Company, 1971; Follies, 1972; Pacific Overtures, 1976.

The recipient of the first Tony ever awarded for costume design, Lucinda Ballard, was cited for her work in five plays that year: Happy Birthday, Another Part of the Forest, Street Scene, John Loves Mary and The Chocolate Soldier. Her son, Robert Ballard, said it was fitting that his mother was the first-ever Tony costume design winner, because throughout her life she had a string of "firsts." "To begin with she was the first born of five children and the last to die," he said. "After she left the Sorbônne, she was the first assistant hired by designer Norman Bel Geddes. She was also the first costume designer for the Ballet Theater and the first designer to be given a retrospective of her work by the Harvard College Library."
Tony Award Winner: Costume Designer, Happy Birthday, Another Part of the Forest, Street Scene, John Loves Mary, The Chocolate Soldier, 1947; The Gay Life, 1962.

Two time Tony winner for set design, Howard Bay is remembered as an innovative trailblazer in developing the kind of high-tech, moveable sets that most Broadway musical audiences take for granted today. "He was a pioneer in the engineering of the new sets, the kind you see today with a centerpiece that does something magical," recalled producer Manny Kladitis, who was on the production staff of Bay's second Tony winner, Man of La Mancha. "And he did it more cheaply and with less engineering than they have today." Kladitis also said Bay got much of his inspiration for sets directly from the plot and the dialogue of whatever show he was working on. "He fed the demands of the script."
Tony Award Winner: Scenic Designer, Toys in the Attic, 1960; Man of La Mancha, 1966.

As well known as a photographer of the rich and famous as he was as a costume designer, Cecil Beaton won the first of his four Tony Awards in 1955. Possessed of a large ego and no small amount of ambition, Beaton usually preferred to design both costumes and sets when he worked on a show. But he was also capable of successful collaboration, as was the case in his most famous show, My Fair Lady, with sets by Oliver Smith. Smith, himself no stranger to ego, was once asked what it was like to work with Beaton. He said that after an initial creative tug-of-war over differing points of view, the two settled down and got the job done. "Cecil and I met and had tea at the Plaza and got the whole show done in a half an hour," Smith told a friend.
Tony Award Winner: Costume Designer, Quadrille, 1955; My Fair Lady, 1957; Saratoga, 1960; Coco, 1970.


A multiple Tony nominee, costume designer Alvin Colt won the award in 1956 for Pipe Dream, a Rodgers and Hammerstein show based on the 1954 novel Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck. Recalling the experience, Colt said, "Rodgers and Hammestein were great, but that wasn't their greatest show." Indeed, the show received mostly unfavorable reviews and ran for only about eight months on Broadway. "It was not the usual kind of Broadway musical comedy," Colt said. "It wasn't a flashy, glitzy thing at all. I did many other shows that were much more elaborate than Pipe Dream." One of those was the original, hugely successful production of Guys and Dolls in 1950. "That show was all Damon Runyon characters, and some of those costumes have become classics," Colt said. "I've sent them all over the world for different productions." The same year Colt won the Tony for Pipe Dream he was also nominated for two other shows, The Lark and Phoenix '55. "All the shows I was nominated for that year were completely different from one another in style and concept," Colt recalled. Colt said winning a Tony can make a huge difference in a costume designer's career, since some producers "go straight for the Tony winners, even if the designer may not be right for the show," he said. Colt also received costume design Tony nominations for Li'l Abner and The Sleeping Prince, both in 1957. For 16 years he served as costume designer for the Tony telecasts.
Tony Award Winner: Costume Designer, Pipe Dream, 1956.

Those who worked with the late set and costume designer Raoul Pène du Bois remember him first and foremost as an artist. "He came from a family of artists," said Willa Kim, herself a Tony Award-winning costume designer who worked as Pène Du Bois's assistant for several years. "His uncle, Guy Pène du Bois, was a painter whose works hang in the Whitney and other museums." Kim and others remember Pène du Bois as an innovator in his field. "He was an extremely inventive designer," recalled Kim. "He originated many of the things that have become part of the design vocabulary, and he's never been given proper credit." Kim also said Pène du Bois had a remarkable sense of color and a unique, original drawing style. "It was a personal style," she said. "You looked at a sketch of Raoul's, and you knew it was his."
Tony Award Winner: Scenic Designer, Wonderful Town, 1953; No, No, Nanette, 1971. Costume Designer, No, No, Nanette, 1971.

With six medallions to his credit, Jules Fisher has won more Tonys for lighting design than anyone in the history of the awards. Over a 20-year period he has worked with directors ranging from Bob Fosse and Arthur Laurents to Tommy Tune and George C. Wolfe on shows including Dancin', Chicago, La Cage aux Folles, The Will Rogers Follies, Jelly's Last Jam and Angels in America. His first Tony was for Pippin, and he remembers the experience as particularly rewarding because it was the first time he worked with Fosse. "To work with a director who was so aware of the use of light was a unique experience for me," Fisher recalled. "Bob would use light to make a scene work. And in Pippin, he wanted to create a certain visual magic that you would expect from a magician. We created illusions and special effects with light, and that was great fun for me." Fisher said Fosse was one of the first stage directors to use light to fluidly change scenes without loss of movement, a result of Fosse's work in films. "Like cutting a film, he wanted to dissolve or cut from one scene to the next with the speed of light."
Tony Award Winner: Lighting Designer, Pippin, 1973; Ulysses in Nighttown, 1974; Dancin', 1978; Grand Hotel, The Musical, 1990; The Will Rogers Follies, 1991; Jelly's Last Jam, 1992.

Even though three-time Tony winner David Hersey wasn't on hand to pick up his first Tony, the award holds a special place in his heart. "Although I've lived in London since 1968, I'm originally from New York, and to be able to bring a show home and have some recognition for it is truly wonderful," he said. "But I always seem to be working when the awards are handed out, and I've never been able to pick up any of my Tonys. Actually, if I'm ever nominated again, I suppose I'd better not show up, for I'll surely lose." He said Evita was a particularly rewarding experience for him because he successfully tried several lighting techniques that were new at the time. "In its day, Evita was a fairly ground-breaking production," Hersey recalled. "We tried a lot of things out for the first time that went on to become part of the vocabulary. The show was quite well-designed, and when we went into the theatre, we had a good idea what we wanted to do, which is not always the case." He said he used a technique called beam light follow spots for the first time in Evita and that at the end of certain scenes, he created a "white out" instead of the more traditional black out by flashing a bank of bright white lights on the stage that left an afterglow in the audience's eyes.
Tony Award Winner: Lighting Designer, Evita, 1980; Cats, 1983; Les Misérables, 1987.

Florence Klotz is always surprised at how often people remember her work on Follies, for which she won her first of a record six Tony Awards for costume design. "Of all the shows I've done, that's the one they always talk about," she recalled. "It's phenomenal that it sticks in people's minds, but it was a monumental show." She said she remembered standing in the back of the theatre with Follies composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim on opening night and experiencing a special thrill as the curtain rose on the opening number. "It was marvelous to see what you had worked on for nine months up there on the stage." She said her experience on Follies was so rewarding and so successful that she was afraid to do another show. "I didn't think I could top myself, but then I got to do A Little Night Music, which was a completely different kind of show." Interestingly, all six of Klotz's Tony Awards were for shows directed by Hal Prince. What does that tell her? "What that tells me is that I'm comfortable with him and that he understands me."
Tony Award Winner: Costume Designer, Follies, 1972; A Little Night Music, 1973; Pacific Overtures, 1976; Grind, 1985; Kiss of the Spider Woman‹The Musical 1993; Show Boat, 1995.


It would have been difficult for the legendary scenic designer Jo Mielziner not to have won a Tony award in 1949. He created the sets for most of the big plays that year, including Sleepy Hollow, Summer and Smoke, Anne of the Thousand Days, Death of a Salesman and South Pacific. His work on all five was cited in the Tony presentation. "I don't know where he kept his Tony awards, but there was an Oscar on the mantel in his studio at the Dakota when I worked there as an assistant, and it was slightly terrifying," recalled Lloyd Burlingame, now chairman of the design department at New York University's Tisch School for the Arts. (Mielziner won an Oscar for his work on Picnic.) "I'd look up from my drawing board, see the Oscar, become intimidated and then go back to work." Burlingame said that as a set designer, Mielziner was "totally sympathetic" to the playwrights. "His relationship with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller was extraordinary. His sets came out of the material. He plumbed the depths of the written piece. On Salesman and Streetcar he helped shape to some degree the staging of the plays. That's pretty rare today. He was also one of the few great scene designers who was also a great lighting designer." Indeed, in 1970 Mielziner won a Tony for lighting design for Child's Play.
Tony Award Winner: Scenic Designer, Sleepy Hollow/Summer and Smoke/Anne of the Thousand Days, 1949; The Innocents, 1950; The King & I, 1952; Child's Play, 1970. Lighting Designer, Child's Play, 1970.

"Anytime I did a show with Michael Bennett it was sheer joy," said Tharon Musser, recalling her experience on Follies. "All three Tonys I won were on shows that he did." The other shows were Dreamgirls (1982) and the legendary A Chorus Line (1976). Although she is thankful for the accolades, the Tony awards make Musser nervous. "I've always found Tony day, when I'm nominated, one of the worst days of my life because I absolutely abhor having to get up and speak in front of a large group of people. But at the same time, it's awfully nice when you win." She said creating the lighting for Follies was difficult because the show was staged on multiple levels. But the sets were designed by Boris Aronson and, she added, "those were always great to light." Her Tony nominations include Applause, A Little Night Music, The Good Doctor, The Act, Ballroom and 42nd Street.
Tony Award Winner: Lighting Designer, Follies, 1972; A Chorus Line, 1976; Dreamgirls, 1982.

The multi-talented John Napier is one of the few Tony winners to pick up two awards in a single year in separate categories for different shows. In 1987 he won his first Tony for set design for Les Misérables and at the same ceremony he picked up another award for costume design for Starlight Express. Napier won another Tony for costume design in 1983 for Cats, but he is primarily known for being the master of enormous and technically complex set designs. Indeed, after Sunset Boulevard opened in 1995, for which Napier won his third set design Tony, some critics suggested the show should be renamed SomeSet Boulevard. But Napier says his work is not all that complicated. "It's sort of puzzled me over the years why people think the set design of Les Misérables is so complex, because it's really fairly simple," he said. "The logic behind it came from working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and (Les Misérables director) Trevor Nunn for ten years. There was a kind of vocabulary we had for staging what you'd call epic drama. The set does many complex things, but in reality it's three walls, a turntable and two towers." It was Napier's long association with Nunn that led to his first Tony, for set design on The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982), which Nunn directed. Napier's work has sometimes been criticized as being too reliant on glitzy high-technology that takes away from the substance of the work, but he disagrees. "We now have at our disposal tools that make possible things that couldn't be done 20 or 30 years ago. I take the view that all of those things are permissible as long as they work within the framework of the story you're trying to tell." Napier's Tony nominations include set design for Cats and Miss Saigon (1991).
Tony Award Winner: Scenic Designer, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, 1982; Les Misérables, 1987; Sunset Boulevard, 1995.Costume Designer, Cats, 1983; Starlight Express, 1987.

Barbara Matera, who made the costumes the late Irene Sharaff designed for numerous Broadway and Hollywood productions, was succinct yet comprehensive when asked about the legendary designer. "As far as the costume industry was concerned, she was the greatest," Matera said. "She was admired by all her colleagues, and she was wonderful to work with. She knew exactly what she wanted, and she had a fabulous color sense." Matera, who first worked with Sharaff on Funny Girl in the 1960's, recalled, "she always had great conviction about her designs, and that made it easier to work with her. She was fun to work with, and new ideas delighted her. She wasn't old fashioned at all." Although later in her career Sharaff was primarily associated with Hollywood and won several Oscars for her work in films, Matera said she never lost her feel for the stage. "Even though she did an extraordinary number of films, she was always highly respected on Broadway."
Tony Award Winner: Costume Designer, The King & I, 1952

It's difficult to overstate Oliver Smith's contributions to the American theatre. With seven Tonys for Best Scenic Design to his credit, he has been honored more than any other set designer since the inception of the award in 1947. And the productions he has been honored for represent the most enduring and memorable shows the American stage has ever seen. The impressive list includes not only My Fair Lady, but West Side Story (1958), The Sound of Music (1960), Camelot (1961) and Hello Dolly (1964). One of Smith's former assistants, Rosaria Sinisi, recalled that when she worked with Smith on a revival of My Fair Lady in 1980, the two shared a meal in New Orleans before returning to the Saenger Theatre for final dress rehearsal. "After dinner at Antoine's we made it back in time to catch the transition into the Embassy Ballroom set," Ms. Sinisi remembered. "Oliver slouched contentedly in his seat and his chandeliers floated into view, dancers and scenery gliding smoothly beneath them. He draped his legs over the seatback before him, and the evening's martinis glistened in his eyes. I shoved an ashtray under his toppling cigarette ash. 'You know, dear,' Oliver informed me happily, 'This scene shift never fails to excite thunderous applause. It's simply a smashing design, and they're lucky to have it, if I do say so myself.' I couldn't contradict him. He was right."
Tony Award Winner: Scenic Designer, My Fair Lady, 1957; West Side Story, 1958; The Sound of Music, 1960; Camelot, 1961; Hello, Dolly!, 1964;4,332Award Winner: Woman‹The Mus Baker Street, 1965.
Special Award, 1965.

His sets depicting a lush passenger train winging its way from New York to Chicago in the 1930's snared this veteran set designer his first Tony. At the time his stunning art deco sets of train compartments for On The Twentieth Century were credited with reviving the style among a generation of designers. "I remember being contacted by the Art Deco Society of America and invited to join," Wagner recalled. "I was also contacted by the management of the Chrysler Building because they were thinking of redoing their lobby. And it was the first time I was ever reviewed by an architecture critic. I think it was Paul Goldberger in The New York Times who wrote a piece on the show." Wagner said the biggest challenge in On The Twentieth Century was making a musical in which most of the song and dance numbers took place on a single set‹the train. "We occasionally cut away to different scenes, like in the dream sequence and the opening, but most of the pieces were on the train," he said. Winning his first Tony marked a noticeable change in his career. "I got more offers after that, and it makes your work less of a gamble," he said. There is something special that comes with the Tony that makes you successful, not necessarily in the bank, but in the eyes of the professionals around you." Wagner won another Tony in 1990 for City of Angels and received his first nomination in 1972 for Jesus Christ Superstar. He was also nominated in 1982 for Dreamgirls; in 1992 for Jelly's Last Jam and again in 1993 for Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. In addition, Wagner was the scenic designer for the British import Chess in 1988 and has the distinction of being the set designer for the longest-running musical in Broadway history, A Chorus Line (1976). This year he designed the sets for the new musical Big.
Tony Award Winner: Scenic Designer, On the Twentieth Century, 1978; City of Angels, 1990.

For Tony Walton, picking up his first of three Tonys was "a little shocking" and emotionally "overpowering" because he truly did not expect to win. He thought the award would go to veteran set designer and multiple Tony winner Boris Aronson for A Little Night Music. "I thought that Boris would get it again, so in my 'thank you' speech I said I was convinced the award would roll back to Boris's house at midnight." In Pippin Walton said his goal was to retain the theme established in the first number of the show, which had a recurring lyric referring to magic. The star, Ben Vereen, sings the song and makes a handkerchief disappear. When it reappears, the first set rises up from beneath the stage. "The challenge was to keep that flavor going for the whole show," Walton said. He also said he loved working with the director, Bob Fosse. "It was absolutely thrilling," Walton said. "He was extremely demanding, especially of himself. I miss him every day, and I feel his presence every day that I'm working." In addition to his three Tonys for Scenic Design, Walton was nominated for his costume designs for The Apple Tree and Anything Goes. He also received scenic nominations for Chicago, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, The Real Thing, The Front Page, Anything Goes, Lend Me a Tenor, Grand Hotel, The Will Rogers Follies and She Loves Me.
Tony Award Winner: Scenic Designer, Pippin, 1973; The House of Blue Leaves, 1986; Guys and Dolls, 1992.

When Bless You All opened in 1950, The New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, "Bless the scene and costume designers of Bless You All, which opened last night. They are Oliver Smith and Miles White. By putting their heads together, they have made the new revue the most stunning show in town. It looks both crisp and elegant, like a modern fashion magazine." Others obviously agreed, and Miles White won his first of two Tonys for his efforts. Recalling the night he picked up his award, White said: "It was rather casual. We were all lined up backstage. I was following someone out, and things seemed rather rushed at the time." He picked up a second Tony in 1953 for Hazel Flagg. "The award gives you a feeling of accomplishment, but it's more of a public relations situation than something of any great value," he said. White said his two awards are displayed in his home, but added that his Tonys are different than the ones handed out today‹they're not the familiar statuettes. "Mine are flat," he said. "I won them before they put in those peculiar twirling things. Mine aren't hung in a space needle. They're just flat in a velvet case." White, who designed his first show in 1938 at the age of 18, was also known for his work on Carousel (1945); High Button Shoes (1947); Oklahoma! (return engagements, 1951 and 1953); Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949); the revival of Pal Joey (1952); Bye, Bye Birdie (1960); and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960). His Tony nominations include Take me Along (1960) and Milk and Honey (1962).
Tony Award Winner: Costume Designer, Bless You All, 1951; Hazel Flagg, 1953.

Freddy Wittop's Tony Award for Hello, Dolly! was one of ten medallions awarded the show that year, including Best Musical. His costumes, complete with those crazy hats, were described as "lush" and "lavish" by costume designer Jonathan Bixby, who designed the costumes for the recent Broadway revival of Dolly! Bixby said one of his goals for the revival was to retain Wittop's unique ability to express the American spirit in his costumes. "His costumes were truly American in their design and color and shape," Bixby said. "They were not the least operatic or European. The shapes and the colors are uplifting. The characters in the show are working class people, and Freddy found such great style in the American look. I've always been inspired by his work." Wittop received Tony nominations for A Patriot for Me (1970) and Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen (1971).
Tony Award Winner: Costume Designer, Hello, Dolly!, 1964.

Patricia Zipprodt's most vivid memory of collecting her first Tony was that she barely made it up to the stage to accept her award. "I really didn't think I could make it up the stairs," she recalled. "I had on high heels, and the stairs in the old Astor Theatre leading up to the stage seemed very steep." But she made it, and she recalls wanting to thank everyone in the cast for being so patient and cooperative during their fittings. She said her work on Fiddler on the Roof was particularly challenging. "First of all, I'm not Jewish, so I had to learn about the Jewish world and learn it deeply so I could design in those terms," she said. "And I wanted desperately to create theatrical clothes that had a tough realism but still could support a musical approach without being trivialized. I tried to age the fabrics and paint tones of patina onto already aged fabrics." Her Tony nominations include Zorba, Pippin, Mack and Mabel, Chicago, Alice in Wonderland, Sunday in the Park with George and Shogun: The Musical.
Tony Award Winner: Costume Designer, Fiddler on the Roof, 1965; Cabaret, 1967; Sweet Charity, 1986.

-- By John Wolfe

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