Exploring visual elements that deepens our comprehension of another world across the footlights and under the proscenium.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Transporting an audience from their time and place to an entirely different world—tucked under and behind the proscenium arch—is the task of the theatrical designer. The designer must invoke the magnificent and the intimate with scenery, costumes, lighting, machinery, and effects—all calculated to astonish and engage the audience.
This reminds us of a rich cultural heritage but also open up new paths for scholars to examine the renowned and the forgotten worlds of stage design. No play or musical, no opera or ballet is fully realized without a visual design. Exploring those visual elements deepens our comprehension of that other world across the footlights and under the proscenium.
Setting the Stage for Opera and Ballet
With the dawning of the Baroque in late sixteenth-century Italy, the introduction of the proscenium arch allowed for the manipulation of the scenery from unseen recesses off-stage. Among the most astonishing uses of the new device were those in seventeenth-century Vienna. Ludovico Burnacini, working in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, is responsible for some of the most legendary productions on the Baroque stage.
The opulence of the Baroque continued to influence theatrical designers throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries, perhaps most famously in the work of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the early twentieth century. Based primarily in Paris, Diaghilev’s presentations embraced contemporary trends in fashion as well as the eastern exoticism seen in designs by Léon Bakst for Le Dieu Bleu(1912). Bronislava Nijinska, one of Diaghilev’s dancers, established her own studio that emulated the Ballets Russes aesthetic with its strong affinity for the avant-garde as expressed in Russian Cubist/Constructivist painter Vadim Meller’s costume designs for Fear (1919).
Ballets Suédois Set Design
Rolf de Maré and his Paris company Ballets Suédois rivaled Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes during the early 1920s. De Maré controlled the beautiful Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, which also played host to Diaghilev’s company. At the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Maré oversaw productions that incorporated designs by artists Pierre Bonnard, Fernand Léger, Giorgio de Chirico, Gerald Murphy, and Paul Colin. Best known for his poster designs for theater, film, and music, Colin also made significant contributions as a theatrical designer.
Petrushka Costume Design
Nicholas Roerich remains one of most highly regarded designers for the stage. Born in St. Petersburg, he worked in Russia, western Europe, most notably in Paris, and had an extensive career in the United States. He is particularly well known for his work with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, including the design for The Rite of Spring(1913), scored by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) and choreographed by the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890–1950). This design for a revival of Petrushka, also scored by Stravinsky, was possibly created for choreographer/director Adolph Bolm’s Chicago Opera production in 1925.
Brahms Variations Costumes
Hungarian-born Marcel Vertès was perhaps best known for his fashion illustrations, but he also worked extensively in theater, principally in ballet for, among other companies, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. For that company he created costume designs for Bronislava Nijinska’s (1891–1972) Brahms Variations, performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and later on tour. Vertès also worked for Boris Kochno’s Paris Ballet in the 1940s and designed at least two productions for the Broadway stage: the musical Seventh Heaven (1955) and the revue La Plume de Ma Tante (1956).
A Costume for The Snow Maiden
Russian-born Boris Aronson created this extraordinarily light and delicate costume design for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo production of The Snow Maiden, scored by Aleksandr Glazunov (1865–1936) and choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. Aronson’s style evolved over time and culminated in his legendary scenic work for two spectacular Broadway musicals: Follies(1970) and Pacific Overtures (1976).
The Birthday of the Infanta
In 1919, Russian choreographer Adolph Bolm was invited by the Chicago Opera Ballet to devise an original production based on Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Birthday of the Infanta,” in which a dwarf misunderstands the attention paid him by the royal Infanta. The ballet-pantomime’s score was by John Alden Carpenter with scenic design and costumes by Robert Edmond Jones, today heralded as the most celebrated of early twentieth-century American designers.
The story is set in seventeenth-century Spain. Jones’s sets and costumes embrace the Baroque luxuriousness of the period. First performed at the Chicago Opera House on December 23, 1919, it travelled to New York, where it was staged at the Metropolitan Opera House. Ruth Page danced the role of the Infanta and Bolm danced the role of the very ugly dwarf who was madly and hopelessly in love with her.
Tony Walton’s work for the American Ballet Theatre’s 2007 production of Sleeping Beauty, choreographed by Kevin McKenzie (b. 1954), was a worthy successor to the magnificent original, which premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1890. The sets for the 2007 production took full advantage of the great depth of the Metropolitan Opera House stage, which gave Walton an enormous expanse to fashion his magnificent sets.
Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre
Lighting and production designer Peggy Clark and Elizabeth Montgomery (a member of the three-person, theatrical design collective known as “Motley”) designed the scenic productions for Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre’s national tour in 1953 and 1954. The tour encompassed more than one hundred cities. Agnes de Mille (1905–1993) was one of the foremost American choreographers of the twentieth century and worked with Clark in productions of Brigadoon, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Paint Your Wagon. This production design was created for de Mille’s Dances from the Golden Era (1953).
American Variety and Musical Stage
Variety stage, including musical review, burlesque, and vaudeville, were the dominant forms of entertainment in the United States in the early-twentieth century. Of these, the musical review, closely aligned with musical comedy, has contributed most significantly to the history of scenic and costume design in the theater of the period. George White’s Scandals (1919–1939), Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revues (1921–1924), and Earl Carroll’s Vanities were particularly famous for the beauty and overall artistic splendor of their sets. These long-running reviews created venues for the flowering of a distinctive American theatrical design.
Florenz Ziegfeld’s (1867–1932) annual Follies, a series of spectacularly devised musical comedies, were the most celebrated events in American theater of the time. Ziegfeld employed brilliant theatrical designers. The finish and consummate quality of Ziegfeld’s visual mastery and his intense preoccupation with the production lighting were legendary. The era’s finest composers in light theater provided the perfect complement to the magnificence of Ziegfeld’s staging, always on a mammoth scale and often in the largest and best-equipped theaters in New York. His opulent Ziegfeld Theatre on New York’s Sixth Avenue, designed by architect and designer Joseph Urban (1872–1933), was the home for Show Boat, Rio Rita, and Show Girl, among others productions.
Costume for Show Boat
Show Boat is often characterized in terms of superlatives: the first modern American musical, the most influential Broadway musical, and even the greatest American musical. Written at a time when most shows consisted of little more than thin plots and catchy tunes, Show Boat became a touchstone for the musical as we now know it—a cohesive dramatic presentation in which the music becomes a vehicle for the development of character and action. During its seventy-year history, it has been filmed three times and given several major New York revivals, including the one in 1946 for which Lucinda Ballard designed the costumes.
The Legacy of Variety Theater
In the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, many stage artists found a level of support through the federal government’s Federal Theatre Project (FTP), administered through the Works Progress Administration during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. The FTP included “units” for staging almost all forms of theater. Many scenic artists who found work through the program went on to fame in some of the nation’s greatest theaters. Among these were James Morcom and Nat Karson, both of whom later worked on productions at Radio City Music Hall in New York’s Rockefeller Center in addition to other venues.
In the aftermath of World War II the variety stage and theater came to reflect on its own past. Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army (1943) used variety theater to take an irreverent look at the burdens of the war. Director and choreographer Bob Fosse relied on the motifs of vaudeville and burlesque to create the atmosphere of the roaring 1920s in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical Chicago (1975), with stage design by Tony Walton. Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930) and James Goldman’s musical Follies (1971) reflected on stage life and its vicissitudes, entwining memories of the heyday of variety theater as a commentary on the present. This glamour and nostalgia was enhanced by Florence Klotz’s costumes for Follies.
Federal Theatre Project
The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was administered entirely by, and was wholly a function of, the federal government and was intended to provide employment for theater professionals during the Great Depression. FTP productions included plays, musical revues, vaudeville, dance, children’s theater, puppetry, and circus performance. FTP also included black theater and Yiddish, French, German, Italian, and Spanish language presentations. There has been nothing comparable in the world of theater to date.
Several of the designs from vaudeville presentations are attributed to James Stewart Morcom. Like many FTP professionals, he had a successful later career. Morcom designed for the New York City Ballet and was with the Radio City Music Hall for many years.
This Is the Army
This Is the Army, Irving Berlin’s World War II all-soldier revue, opened on July 4, 1942, in New York with plans for a four-week run. Intended as a morale-booster and a fund-raiser for the Army Emergency Relief Fund, it took on a life that far exceeded any expectations. The show toured the United States, was made into a movie, and for twenty-three months played before audiences of U.S. armed forces personnel in Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific before closing in Hawaii on October 22, 1945.
Transporting the Audience
The Library of Congress is widely acknowledged to be the single greatest repository for documentation on the American musical stage. It houses the archives of the vast majority of American composers and librettists, as well as many directors and stage personalities who are central to the history of American musical theater. Recently, these holdings have come to include the work of many leading set and costume designers, whose art provides a framework within which to explore the relation between the visual elements and the production as a whole.
The best of theatrical design takes audiences out of their time and place and magically sets them in an entirely different world. The variety of designs on display attests to the ability of stagecraft to capture our attention and then bring us along on a journey—whether to Edwardian London or pre-World War II Berlin or mid-nineteenth-century Japan or dazzling twentieth-century Broadway.
My Fair Lady
Many consider the mid-twentieth century to be the golden age of American musical theater, during which time many large-scale shows were produced. One of the most well-known of these big productions is My Fair Lady (1956), with score by Frederick Loewe and book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. The production opened at New York’s Mark Hellinger Theatre, equipped with one of the largest stages for musical theater in the city. Stage designer Oliver Smith recreated London in 1912 by using two massive revolving stages that allowed for rapid changes of scenery. Smith designed virtually all of the Lerner and Loewe musicals, including Paint Your Wagon (1951), Brigadoon (1947), Camelot (1960), and Gigi(1973).
Model for the Set of Grand Hotel
One of the most spectacular designs devised for the later twentieth-century American stage was Tony Walton’s two-tier set for the musical Grand Hotel, directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune (b. 1939). The story takes place in the entrance and lobby of an elegant but aging hotel in 1928 Berlin, with the scenic design evoking a strong sense of history and nostalgia and underscoring the theme that—good, bad, or indifferent—life goes on. The stage was in constant motion—the chandeliers rose and fell, the lobby transformed into an assortment of different rooms, and the furniture, including the lobby’s revolving door, became characters in their own right. By placing the orchestra on the second tier of the set, Walton enabled the action to extend beyond the proscenium and into the theater. The careful synchrony of the action, the scenery, and its many elements were choreographed to render the set and the narrative wholly interdependent. This three-dimensional model demonstrates the complexity and finish of Walton’s design.
Grand Hotel Curtain Design
The edifice on the curtain, which descended in front of the set and served as a primary motif for the musical Grand Hotel, was based on the façade of Harrods, an upscale London department store. By using simple pinpricks to allow backlighting to shine through and form the design, Tony Walton crystallized the overriding concept for the production: the central “character” is the life of the hotel itself. The musical’s story does not focus on a single character but, rather, the flow of activity in the hotel.