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InDepth InterView: Beowulf Boritt - Part 1: An Inside Look At Manhattan Concert Productions' PARADE

Today we are analyzing all aspects of the hotly anticipated concert event that occurred at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall on Monday featuring an all-star cast performing Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's Tony Award-winning score and book - the Manhattan Concert Productions presentation of PARADE. Outlining his involvement in the unique theatrical event is acclaimed and versatile Tony Award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt, who opens up about the exciting and idiosyncratic nature of a one night only event such as this as well as the many opportunities available in designing for such a spectacular evening in order to bring his artistic vision to fruition. In addition to a thorough discussion of the themes and actual real history elemental to the musical itself and how Boritt has integrated those features into the visual landscape of the piece, he also sheds light on the intensive design process and intimate collaboration with director Gary Griffin, composer/lyricist/conductor Brown, lighting designer Jeff Croiter and sound designer Jon Weston and more. Also, Boritt offers a close look at his inspiration for the design elements created especially for the evening and how he is utilizing vintage photographs and actual historical pieces to maximize authenticity and accuracy in portraying the musical based on a true story occurring in 1915. All of that and much, much more in this expansive design-focused special feature with one of Broadway's brightest behind the scenes visionaries.

Also, stay tuned for the concluding portion of this InDepth InterView with even more about PARADE as well as news on many of Boritt's current and future projects, as well, coming next week.

For more information on the Manhattan Concert Productions performance of PARADE at Avery Fisher Hall visit the official site here.

The Old Red Hills Of Home

PC: The original production of PARADE is notable for its incredible scenic design involving a gigantic tree. Did you get to see the original Hal Prince production?

BB: You know what, I have to confess: I did not see the original production. It was one of those things where I had just moved to New York at the time and I didn't have any money. To be honest, I have never actually seen PARADE live onstage - but I know the music really, really well. As you know, THE LAST FIVE YEARS was sort of my first big New York show, so I've known Jason since then and I know the score for PARADE really well and I just love it. That's an advantage for a set designer sometimes, too, because then you don't have any of the other productions in your head influencing how you approach a new production like this.

PC: And of course this is a concert production, as well.

BB: Right. And, since it is a concert production, the set is quite minimal but hopefully very effective. I mean, we are loading it in in two hours and teching it for hopefully two or three hours and then it's the performance. That's all the time that we have to do it, more or less, so it has to be relatively minimal.

PC: What is your specific vision for this production?

BB: What I am doing with the set is actually the very first idea I pitched to Gary [Griffin] and Jason [Robert Brown] - they both instantly liked the idea. The idea is that we are doing a projection surface that is a gigantic Georgia state flag from 1915 and then hung behind it is an American flag from the period - the American flag is all in black and white and the Georgia flag is more dominant in color; sort of like it is trying to obscure the American flag.

PC: What a striking visual metaphor that also echoes the themes of the show.

BB: We project onto the Georgia certain images to help us know where the location of the particular scene is - for instance, an old photograph of the pencil factory or an old photograph of downtown Marietta or whatever the scene is. I am working with a wonderful designer to co-design the projections, my associate, Caite Hevner Kemp - we thought it would be a fun project to do together.

PC: What did Gary and Jason say about the idea when you pitched it?

BB: I remember Jason looked at me and said, "I like that. You know, in all my years of doing PARADE, I don't think anybody has ever had a Georgia flag as part of it." He was sort of surprised - I'm not sure he knew what it looked like either! Without getting really literal, it felt like a good image to evoke the tension between the leftover Southern animosity about the Civil War and the more national themes that run through the show. And, all of that feels really relevant today, still - all of those issues haven't gone away.

PC: Certainly not. Did you augment pre-existing images or did you come up with new photographs to utilize?

BB: A little bit of both. We dug into a lot of stuff. And, it took a long time to develop what the vocabulary was for what we wanted to do. So, we looked at some etchings and photographs and lots of other things and what we decided on was architecture, basically, and trying to find iconic things that people may recognize. You know, often it is Marietta itself you are seeing - from the period - but some things were weirdly hard to find - like the prisons - so they are not the real actual thing that was there at the time. With prisons, they don't look like much, generally - not like we imagine the real thing, at least. I mean, we could find pictures of prisons, but they didn't look like much - you probably wouldn't even know it was a prison if the caption didn't tell you what it was, you know?

PC: Very spare.

BB: Very. So, we would then try to find something or come up with something that looked more like a prison from the period but actually had bars in the windows and things that would clue you in on where the location was supposed to be. In general, I tried to keep people out of the images - so, if there are people in the image, they are in the distance, usually; you're not looking at people who could distract from the actors onstage or something. You want the actors to always be the focus. So, there aren't a lot of pictures of people except for a few times - like, we have a picture of the Governor's Ball where people are more recognizable and there is a chain gang picture we are using where people are more of a presence, but in general we tried to make the people in the projections recede. It's the documentary approach.

PC: As far as physical design and props are concerned, what is your approach?

BB: For PARADE, Gary and I settled on the idea of a basic physical set made up of a lot of courtroom chairs - that was an idea that we had early on. We didn't want to be carting a lot of things off and on, so we use a bunch of period chairs like what you might find in a courtroom of the period and a couple of tables and stuff, too, so it can be a courtroom when it needs to be but then we use all of that stuff in the other scenes, too. So, for instance, the table that the defense sits at becomes a coffin when you throw a black cloth over it. Things like that.

PC: How fascinating.

BB: Of course, since the actors have to learn it all so quickly and because it is only a one-time thing there isn't a lot of complex blocking, but I think that power of these kind of concert events is in scaling it back this way so you let the score and story and the actors be the focus.

PC: It's all about the story and score.

BB: Yeah, it is. I remember when I did the RAGTIME concert a few years ago, again, it was very simple, as well - we just basically had a projection screen and sort of conjured up America with the video and images we used. What I based it on for RAGTIME was old sheet music, actually - you know, the tops of old sheet music has fairly elaborate illustration on it; for instance, patriotic songs have illustrations with a big shield and an eagle and all kinds of stuff. So, I did a big version of that that sort of hung over the stage and conjured up the period and the kind of Americana that RAGTIME deals with. It's interesting doing PARADE now because it is the same period, more or less, and dealing with some of the same things, just in a more specific way and a more specific location.

PC: What an illuminating parallel to draw. The two musicals premiered around the same time, as well, incidentally.

BB: Yeah, yeah - it is interesting.

PC: Is this the first time you have worked with Gary?

BB: Well, we had met before, but, yes, this is the first time we have worked together. I don't honestly know how I ended up on the project as a matter of fact, though - I know I had worked with the production company before and Gary and I knew each other a little bit, and, as I said, Jason and I have known each other for many years, so I guess based on that or RAGTIME or both somebody thought I would be the right person to do this. I never actually asked whose idea it was to have me do this, though.

PC: Your RAGTIME was designed specifically for Avery Fisher Hall, as well, correct?

BB: Yes. Stafford Arima directed that and Stafford and I are old friends, so I believe Stafford asked me to work on that. So, that was how I was introduced to Manhattan Concert Productions, who is also doing PARADE now.

PC: Was RAGTIME your first design for Avery Fisher Hall?

BB: Actually, it wasn't. Years ago, I did a benefit for the Metropolitan Opera Guild to honor Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle, which was also a very simple design with a projection screen - we used a big picture of Moss Hart and a big picture of Kitty Carlisle. But, it's funny that the first thing that I did there was a Moss Hart event and then I ended up doing ACT ONE at Lincoln Center years later.

PC: A prelude, as it were.

BB: I guess so! It's funny how things work out like that.

PC: Have you worked with Jeff Croiter or Jon Weston prior to this production?

BB: Yes - Jeff Croiter and I have worked together a lot, though not a lot recently; it's sort of weird how your careers ebb and flow, you know? It's been a couple of years since we did a show together, but we've worked together for many years. Jon and I worked together on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and also something else years ago, so we've known each other for a long time, too.

PC: Was there a particular initial vision Gary expressed to you about his visualization of PARADE?

BB: Well, we came up with the visual design together - we both knew it had to be something simpler and not too elaborate that still made a statement. We had a couple of discussions back and forth about going this way or that way with it, but we fairly easily came to agree on what we are doing. We'll see if it was a good idea or not on Monday! [Laughs.]

PC: Is there a particular benefit to designing for one of New York's very best concert venues like Avery Fisher Hall undoubtedly is? It's a large space with so many possibilities.

BB: Yes, it is gigantic, but when you put all of those people up there the stage actually gets a lot smaller. Believe it or not, we had actually had to build the stage out for this about 12 feet in front of the normal stage to give ourselves more staging space. There is a huge chorus of people in the back that takes up half the stage and then there is a huge orchestra that takes up the rest of the regular stage. So, basically, the part of the playing space that the actors are going to be on and acting out the show in is actually all downstage of the what is usually the stage of Avery Fisher. It was a similar challenge with RAGTIME. It's a concert hall, which is what it was designed for, so when you add a huge chorus and then all the actors, you have to make more space sometimes. It's an interesting, but very rewarding opportunity.

PC: How big is the chorus?

BB: I don't know the exact number, but I think it is about 200 people.

PC: That's incredible.

BB: Yeah, it's really going to be something. Part of it is also that we tried out a lot of this already with RAGTIME, so I pulled out all my old plans for that before I did this and so it made it much easier - I didn't have to figure it all out all over again this time. [Laughs.]

PC: RAGTIME to PARADE - two of the greatest modern American scores.

BB: I totally agree.

PC: Could you take me through the concept for the spine-tingling final moments in PARADE: IN CONCERT?

BB: Well, as you know, since our concept was to have this whole sort of slide show of locations as we go through the story - all in black and white, so they feel like period images - we decided that it should all fade to color at the very end.

PC: The world isn't black and white, it's multi-hued.

BB: Exactly. Exactly.

PC: Was that the idea from the beginning, given the two prominent flags?

BB: The concept from the beginning was the two flags - the Georgia state flag and the American flag from 1915 - sort of overwhelming the world. The video inside that was designed to sort of give the feel of a documentary and help land where the actual locations are in real life. The super-titles help establish where we are, too - you know, the courthouse or wherever it is. Since it is PARADE, there are a lot of places that you have to go to. We're a little bit like a documentary in that sense.

PC: How were the video sequences devised?

BB: My associate Caite [Hevner Kemp] did the video and I supervised - we came up with most of the concepts together and decided on what we thought would work best and then she visualized them on her computer. We sort of tech-ed through it with Gary and Jason and everybody in a conference room and she sort of projected it all on a wall and we all discussed what we liked and what we didn't.

PC: How wonderful that Jason was so involved.

BB: Yes, Jason was very involved with all of it. I was so happy that they included me in the production.

Photo Credits: Walter McBride, Beowulf Boritt, etc.

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Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)