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InDepth InterView: Beowulf Boritt - Part 2: CLINTON: THE MUSICAL, PRINCE OF BROADWAY, New JOSEPH & ANNIE Tours & Much More


Today we are continuing our expansive ongoing discussion with Tony Award-winning scenic design visionary Beowulf Boritt. Continuing an exhaustive discussion began earlier this year centered on the spectacular one night only concert presentation of PARADE in February, Boritt opens up about his other work at Lincoln Center over the years, including Manhattan Concert Productions presentation of RAGTIME and his Tony Award-winning work on the Moss Hart drama ACT ONE, which will be shown on PBS as part of LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER later this year. Furthermore, Boritt touches on his multiple other current musicals running or opening soon - the current revival of ON THE TOWN on Broadway, plus HAND TO GOD opening soon and Off-Broadway's CLINTON: THE MUSICAL, also in previews. Plus, Boritt details his work on a dizzying array of current tours and recent mainstage mountings of musicals, ranging from the national tours of ANNIE and JOSEPH & THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT to his work on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, LITTLE DANCER, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS in the West End and far beyond. As if all that were not enough, Boritt also looks ahead to the 2016 Tokyo production of the Harold Prince revue PRINCE OF BROADWAY and comments on rumors of an impending New York return of THE TOXIC AVENGER while sharing first news on his involvement with a number of new productions including the Keira Knightley-led revival of THERESE RAQUIN and the forthcoming revival of A BRONX TALE. All of that and much, much more in this concluding portion of our extended chat with one of Broadway's best visual artists.

The Picture Show

PC: With five productions running in New York this February, you certainly have been keeping yourself busy. Do you just have incredible organizational skills?

BB: [Laughs.] Obviously, HAND TO GOD I did Off-Broadway last year, so we sort of knew what was happening with that, but the rest is all new.

PC: How did you get involved with HAND TO GOD in the first place?

BB: I think Jessica Chase at MCC contacted me and said they were looking for a new set designer for the MCC production and so I met with the director and we had a really good meeting and it just went from there.

PC: Have you worked at MCC previously?

BB: Yes, I have done a number of productions there over the years. I remember I did SPAIN for them and some Neil LaBute plays and some other things as well.

PC: LaBute recently did this column (available here), actually - he is so smart and insightful.

BB: Yeah, I don't know him very well, but he was around a lot when we worked together last - for A DARK, DARK HOUSE. I'm glad I got to work with them again at MCC on HAND TO GOD.

PC: Are you involved with the puppet design of HAND TO GOD, as well?

BB: I am actually working with a puppet designer, Marte, who was involved with the show even before I was. It depends on the show, though - in HAND TO GOD it is all kind of self-contained; there's kind of a little puppet theater we make and there are some tricks in it that we have to do. With something like ON THE TOWN, though, the dinosaur puppet I was really involved in - when they get bigger, like that, it becomes more sort of scenery than puppet, so I have to get more intimately involved.

PC: How did you get involved with CLINTON: THE MUSICAL of all things?

BB: [Laughs.] Well, Dan Knechtges is an old friend, who is directing CLINTON, and he called up right before Christmas and said, "Could you do this?" and I said, "Well, it's right on top of this other show, so as long as my associate can be the one in the room most of the time - yeah, absolutely."

PC: When agreeing to a brand new piece such as that, do you always read the script first before signing on?

BB: Yeah, I read the script. I usually will sit down and read it - usually just to make sure that the scope of it is something that I can deal with more than anything.

PC: As if all your New York work wasn't enough, you also designed the new tour of JOSEPH & THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT.

BB: Yes, I did.

PC: Tell me about the very visually unique new prologue.

BB: Yes, that was Andy [Blankenbuehler], the director's, idea - sort of as something to ground the whole story. That was actually one of the first ideas that we had - to start in this kind of black, empty world and then have a Middle Eastern surround kind of come out of the blackness and then disappear at the end before the mega-mix.

PC: Had you ever designed a production of the show before?

BB: I hadn't, actually. I knew some of the songs, of course, but I didn't really know the show well. It was kind of interesting to work on such a well-known show and not know it very well myself - I was definitely new to it. [Laughs.]

PC: Given the production plays all types of different venues, what challenges does that pose?

BB: For touring shows like that, we kind of design them for a cookie-cutter because the set has to stay the same size at every theater no matter how big or small the theater is because the lighting rig has to stay the same size. You can't go in and re-tech at every theater. So, we just have a basic blueprint that's about 40-feet wide and 29-feet deep and 20-feet tall and it all has to fit within that. The show just doesn't go to theaters that can't fit that.

PC: Is there a particular visual hook you settled on for the show early on in the process?

BB: Well, for JOSEPH, I was basically looking for a lot of ancient world imagery. Also, the show curtain is sort of based on old Egyptian papyrus.

PC: Were you involved with the design of the coat, as well, given that it plays such a prominent role?

BB: Yeah, that end moment that I think was really successful we were all really happy with was sort of a collaboration between all of us. Once we figured out the idea to sort of surround him with the fabric, Andy said, "It would be awesome if that could be the coat at the end."

PC: It brings to mind a phoenix rising, as well.

BB: Yeah, yeah - we're really proud of that. Of course, it was a pain in the ass to tech it - we spent a long time getting it right! [Laughs.]

PC: How so?

BB: Well, we had to hook it on to the poor guy - Ace - and the costume designer, Jen Caprio, was very involved with all of it, too; it was basically all her idea - the design was all based on stained glass, actually, and then Daniel Brodie did the projections. In the end, we figured out how to do the effect by having Ace wear a belt under the coat that has a whole bunch of rings on it and then there are parts of the set-pieces that clip on to him. But, in the moment that he is standing there with all of the attention on him and everything, there is a lot of weight pulling in every direction, so he stays pretty stuck in the middle.

PC: It's almost the inverse of the WICKED "Defying Gravity" effect.

BB: I know what you mean - yeah, exactly.

PC: The Potiphar scene has a very noir feel to it, I found.

BB: Yes, that is one of my favorite moments in the show, actually, so I'm glad you mentioned it - that big table that flies in that sort of makes an obelisk with Egyptian hieroglyphics and money signs and then it tips over to become a table and a bed and all sorts of other things for the Potiphar scene.

PC: And the Pharoah scene is of course the Las Vegas moment of the production.

BB: Absolutely, absolutely - that was a lot of fun to design.

PC: Have you actually ever worked in Vegas?

BB: A little bit. ROCK OF AGES is running out there still and I designed that out there. I designed SURF out in Vegas a few years ago, too, but it did not last long - to be honest, the producers really didn't know how to do a show, I don't think. [Laughs.]

PC: Vegas to Caryl Churchill, I just have to mention that A NUMBER is one of my favorite plays and your set for it was absolutely breathtaking.

BB: Oh, that's so nice of you to say - actually, that is one of my favorite sets that I have ever done, as well. One thing I really like to do in plays with not a lot of actors like that one is to imply the population of the world around them and I thought that all the boxes would be a good way of doing it for this particular play - you know, there are two clones we see onstage, but what if there are 7000 other ones or however many more there might be out there? So, every one of those boxes has a different version of him in it that could come out at any time.

PC: Very Edward Hopper-esque, aesthetically!

BB: [Laughs.] Totally, totally.

PC: Tackling a futuristic, vaguely absurdist play such as that, do you find it was a respite from more traditional fare?

BB: I did. You know, set designers tend to get pigeonholed - as you know, because most of my first really successful work in New York was all in kind of wacky musicals, people think that's all I can do. Consequently, that's what I get hired most to do, so I keep doing more of them. [Laughs.]

PC: A vicious cycle.

BB: Yeah, exactly. I'm interested in anything, though - if the play or musical is interesting, I'm up for doing it.

PC: For something like PARADE: IN CONCERT that is a one-night event, you are designing something that very few people will ever see, so is your approach different? Do you perhaps feel you can take more risks?

BB: Well, in this case, with something like PARADE, it's not a huge time commitment to do it and I was very involved with the director and creative team on what the vision would be. In the week leading up to it, I was actually in Dallas working on a new production of a show with Susan Stroman - THE LAST TWO PEOPLE ON EARTH: AN APOCALYPTIC VAUDEVILLE.

PC: Did your ongoing relationship with Stro develop from your spectacular work on THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS?

BB: Yes. SCOTTSBORO was the first show that Stro and I did together and we subsequently have worked on several other things together. We did a few shows with Hal Prince - PARADISE FOUND in London and then THE PRINCE OF BROADWAY, which we are doing in Tokyo next year. Hal introduced us, actually, and we have become very close friends.

PC: Is PRINCE OF BROADWAY set to go in 2016 as announced?

BB: I hope so. I have given up guessing on anything anymore at this point, but I am pretty sure that it is actually going to happen in Tokyo. We just had a meeting with our Japanese producers a few weeks ago, actually.

PC: So, work is ongoing then?

BB: Yes, it is. We are slated for next Fall in Tokyo and the hope is that we can bring it to Broadway from there. So, we'll see - a lot of things have to fall into place.

PC: Are you locked into a specific preview period and opening night?

BB: Yes, we are.

PC: It's a particular challenge in a career review show to emulate certain classic sets from shows but still bring something uniquely your own to the design. How are you straddling both sides of all that?

BB: Well, the whole set has been designed for years now - we were all ready to go with the show two years ago. So, the set has pretty much been all designed and sitting in my studio for two years and every so often Hal will get an idea and we will tinker with it. He'll want something added here or taken away there - every few months he will call me to make little changes.

PC: The work never stops.

BB: It does not. But, to answer your question, for instance, we basically recreate the entire Loveland sequence from FOLLIES - it's more or less a replica of the Boris Aronson set - and for other sections we do a more reduced version of the original design.

PC: Given Prince's legendary legacy of great designers, is it a particular privilege to adapt the great designs of Aronson and Eugene Lee and some of the others?

BB: Well, for about half of THE PRINCE OF BROADWAY sets we are copying the originals - I am treating it as if, you know, if I were designing a set for a show that was set in the White House, I would do research about what the White House looks like and try to make it look like that. So, we kind of take the same approach with PRINCE OF BROADWAY. Once it was all designed, Boris Aronson's widow, Lisa, was still alive - she just died, actually, last year - and I showed her the whole set and told her, "We are copying this from this and this from this," and she just loved it. She thought it was all great.

PC: Did she have any particular insights or suggestions?

BB: If anything, she actually was pushing me to copy his sets more exactly! [Laughs.]

PC: It's tough to top perfection, right?

BB: Right! Right. Exactly.

PC: Did you study the original set models themselves?

BB: Yes. They are at the Lincoln Center library - FOLLIES is there and CABARET is there and some of the other ones. There are also lots of pieces of the sets and folders with a lot of the original blueprints and everything.

PC: As far as your ongoing collaboration with Stro, did you adjust your work for THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS at all in designing the new West End production of the show?

BB: Well, we did it at the Young Vic a year ago and I absolutely completely redesigned it to fit into that space. We built a whole new physical production in London. So, this time around, I was stuck in Washington with LITTLE DANCER - also with Stroman - and so my associate went over to supervise it when they brought it to the West End.

PC: Do you ever count how many shows you design a year, on average?

BB: It usually is about 20 shows a year. When they get to be big shows like LITTLE DANCER and ON THE TOWN, sometimes it ends up being fewer, though. This last Fall, I did ON THE TOWN and I did the new tour of ANNIE at the same time and then I went straight to DC to do LITTLE DANCER and SCOTTSBORO BOYS was going up in London at the same time as that. Then, I had an associate put in WIESENTHAL that was running Off-Broadway at the same time. I'm lucky that I have a good assistant, so I can be in one place and they can be in another and we can still make it work.

PC: The new ANNIE tour harkens back to the original production as opposed to the most recent revival, so did you adapt any of the original designs or keep them in mind in designing it?

BB: Yeah - Martin [Charnin] didn't want me to copy the original at all, but he definitely wanted the spirit of it.

PC: The Warbucks set in particular is gorgeous - especially the forced perspective with the ceiling filigree.

BB: Yeah, that was fun to do. You know, I don't do a lot of painted drop shows, usually, but because it was a tour we wanted it to be adaptable, so most of it ended up being painted drops. It was a fun project to work on and I was really happy with how it came out.

PC: A lot of touring houses tend to be tricky spaces - many are old converted movie theaters with shallow wings and whatnot. Do you take that element into consideration in your designs for tours?

BB: Yes, that's true. They've all got to come in and out so fast that we have a number of trucks - ANNIE is currently not the smallest of tours because of all the trucks, so right now we are actually trying to trim it back a bit to make it a little more viable. But, again, that's why we use so many drops, too - a drop doesn't take up a lot of space.

PC: Are there elements that are adaptable depending on the size of the particular venue?

BB: Yes. For ANNIE, the big staircase is designed so that there is the A version that goes all the way up, but there is also the B version where you take off the top of the stairs and it's only four steps.

PC: Have you ever done complete recreations of any sets of your own for a new production?

BB: Occasionally. I remember I did a production of AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' about 10 years ago and about two years ago they called and asked if I would recreate it for them. So, I gave them the old model and we put the whole thing up again.

PC: Speaking of revisiting past work, ACT ONE is coming to PBS later this year, as well.

BB: That's right - it is. They filmed it for LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER and it is airing in a few months - yeah. I haven't seen it yet, but I gather it came out very well.

PC: Did you adjust anything for the filming?

BB: They usually do, but for the set we didn't. The lighting designer went in and re-lit the show to sort of make it brighter so it would film better for HD - and I'm not sure what they did in the editing - but they filmed it live, so it was basically the show as we did the show 8 times a week.

PC: ACT ONE is so cinematic that it will play excellently in filmed form, no doubt.

BB: Yeah, I agree. The story of ACT ONE is told so cinematically and the set is actually designed for there to be a lot of close-ups, so I think that worked well in its favor for being filmed for TV.

PC: Are you working with James Lapine on anything else coming up - perhaps the new FALSETTOS revival?

BB: Well, I hope I am involved - I don't know. James sort of keeps his own counsel, so if he wants me he will ask. As far as FALSETTOS goes, I don't think he has decided what he wants to do with it quite yet, but if he asks me I would probably love to do it.

PC: How do your first meetings with directors usually go?

BB: I always let my ideas spring from the director - we always talk; not necessarily even about design or visual things, but we talk about the feel of the show and the mood of the show. For example, on ACT ONE, when James and I first met he said that he wanted the sense of Moss Hart constantly and energetically running up and down stairs - he wanted that energy throughout the whole show. So, in the end, that ended up being the whole idea for the set, more or less.

PC: And you two did LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE right around the same time.

BB: Yeah - right before ACT ONE, actually. I signed on for ACT ONE first, though, and then he hired me for LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.

PC: Given the ingenious use of chairs in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, it was the ideal bid for FALSETTOS, no doubt.

BB: [Laughs.] I definitely know what you mean. We'll see.

PC: With ACT ONE, RAGTIME and most recently PARADE, would you like to continue working more at Lincoln Center in the future?

BB: Oh, I love working at Lincoln Center. I mean, Avery Fisher Hall is so great and the Beaumont is just such an amazing space, too - and, as an institution they are just so supportive and great and they work so hard. With ACT ONE, it was an absolute dream to work on, quite honestly. The space is so big backstage at the Beaumont that it allows things that no other theater in New York can and that's one of the most exciting parts about working there for a designer.

PC: Avery Fisher Hall is one of the most vaunted concert spaces ever, as well.

BB: Oh, it's so, so cool to be able work there - so cool.

PC: Accordingly, your visual aesthetic seems to be making a big impact with sparse elements, would you agree?

BB: Yeah, I like to do that. I personally just hate heavy scenery and I feel like with musicals they have to be sort of heightened and light and frothier than life - musicals can really be weighed down a lot by too much crap being wheeled on and off the stage, I think. So, I always try to lighten things up and give things an airier feel. I'm sure there are examples where I haven't done that, but I feel like if I can strip it back to just the bare essentials of what it needs - just a couple of things that are really important details and then the actors; that's what always leads to really good theatre, in my experience.

PC: Speaking of spare design, was the original production of THE LAST FIVE YEARS more or less your New York debut?

BB: More or less. I had been designing for a few years, but THE LAST FIVE YEARS was definitely the first commercial show that I did that got a lot of attention. My work got attention on it, too, and it opened a lot of doors for me.

PC: Hopefully a sundial appears in the movie somewhere. Have you seen it yet yourself?

BB: [Big Laugh.] I haven't, but that definitely would be cool to see!

PC: Is there any update on THE TOXIC AVENGER you are aware of given recent rumblings of a return to New York?

BB: I saw that article, too, but I haven't heard anything official. I would love it if we got to bring it back to New York, but I haven't heard anything official about it yet. We will see.

PC: APOCALYPTIC VAUDEVILLE is potentially Broadway-bound, as well, I would assume.

BB: Well, it isn't scheduled to come to New York yet. We did it in New York about a year ago for a short run, but we are doing it in Dallas this month and then we are doing it at the A.R.T. after that, so we'll see.

PC: LITTLE DANCER no doubt has a bright future, as well.

BB: Yes, it does. We did LITTLE DANCER down in DC and we are going to be doing it in LA next year and hopefully bring it in from there if all goes as planned.

PC: Also, congratulations on the rapturously received ON THE TOWN revival, as well.

BB: Thank you. I am really proud of that production.

PC: CLINTON: THE MUSICAL will be your fifth simultaneous production besides HAND TO GOD, ON THE TOWN, WIESENTHAL and PARADE. What's your visual cue for that?

BB: The set is the White House - sort of a jokey version. What it is is sort of a big portrait gallery like the wall of ex-presidents in the White House, so what I did was portraits of all the ex-presidents and then in the corner are pictures of all of their mistresses.

PC: How hilarious.

BB: Yeah, so there's Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings; JFK has about 12 women in the picture with him - the joke is that all the most famous presidents have had famous mistresses.

PC: Are you working on anything else new at the moment?

BB: I will be doing the Keira Knightly THERESE RAQUIN coming up and I'm doing BRONX TALE with Jerry Zaks and Robert De Niro, too. Those are the things I've committed to so far and I've got a couple of other offers at the moment. The next thing I do after PARADE is a musical with Christopher Ashley called COME FROM AWAY out at La Jolla about September 11 - this airport in Newfoundland had to be shut down because of the attacks and all of the people were sort of trapped there for a week. It's a small musical about those people. It's very unique.

PC: Let's hope we see at least 20 more sets from you in 2016 - and beyond. Thank you so much for this today, Beowulf.

BB: It's always great chatting with you, Pat. My pleasure. Bye.

For even more about the design world of Beowulf Boritt, stay tuned to BroadwayWorld for an extensive inside look at ON THE TOWN coming up soon!

Photo Credit: Lincoln Center Theater, Classic Stage Company, NETworks, etc.

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