Talk about multitasking: there are so many onstage and backstage aspects to Harlem Song that it's hard to know what to call it. Housed in the historic Apollo Theatre in the uptown Manhattan neighborhood of the show's title, it's part Broadway extravaganza, part intimate stagehall revue, part valentine to a community, and strangest of all, perhaps the most entertaining visitors' center attraction ever imagined. And because the show shares the space with tours and other regular programming at the Apollo, it's a production that performs during weekends and then is packed away for the week. Harlem Song may be the world's first touring show never to leave its home theatre.
Written and directed by George C. Wolfe, Harlem Song was conceived by the producers as both a chance to help the Apollo take part in the current economic upturn in the community as well as provide the influx of tourists into the area with an entertaining stop on their bus trips. To that end, Wolfe has assembled a lighthearted and occasionally moving 90-minute piece that traces the history of the community from the Renaissance of the 20s to contemporary Harlem today through music, dance, and an array of taped testimonials from area residents that are both touching and hilarious (one barber explains how he accidentally invented the afro). Helping him make the project a reality were the same core design team from Bring in 'da Noise/Bring in 'da Funk: set designer Riccardo Hernandez, costume designer Paul Tazewell, lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and projection designer Robin Silvestri of Batwin + Robin, as well as the sound design team of Acme Sound Partners (who most recently worked with Wolfe on Elaine Stritch: At Liberty). The fact that all of these designers had worked with the director before came in quite handy in that the entire turnaround time from the official greenlight from the producers to opening night was only about three months.
“It reminded me of when we did Noise/Funk, because George was at his most creative,” Hernandez says. “He'd say, ‘OK, I have this scene with this going on; when can I see that, tomorrow?’ It was really, really, fast.” Hernandez, luckily, had begun working on general concepts with Wolfe last year, as Wolfe tried to piece together not only what the piece itself would be but also to best visually represent what he was trying to say. “He always had in mind to do the testimonials,” Hernandez says, “so early on we were just trying to find a clever way of having different options for screens and video.”
Photo: ©Michal Daniel
The main set piece is deceptively simple: a black raised platform with steps that features two 7'-wide by 10.5'-high moveable screens that can either hide offstage between cues or meet in the center and create one 10.5"-high by 14'-wide image, projecting both still and moving images. Individual set pieces fly out for certain scenes: a Harlem streetscape backdrop for the section called “Strollin',” a bandstand for an extended nightclub sequence, a small apartment for a rent party sequence in the section called “The Depression.” All the scenery was built by Hudson Scenic Studios; props and select decor were fabricated by Prism Production Services.
Simple perhaps, but with one big caveat: the entire set has to pack up and be stowed away in four hours' time. So once Hernandez had the final shell of the design figured out, he called Hudson's Neil Mazzella, technical supervisor Ken Keneally, and Steven Chaikelson of the show's general management company Snug Harbor Productions, among other people closely involved in the show's technical direction. “I asked them what it would entail, money-wise and time-wise, to build this as a touring show from the get-go so it could move in and out quickly,” he says. “We eventually came up with a great plan where the portals would fly out, and the bridge collapses and it flies out. The engineering of the whole walk ramp is wonderful; it literally can go in and out in four hours.” Hernandez notes that most of the set is stored in the back of the theatre, while the rest of it flies out; most of the props and some single set pieces are stored in a truck parked behind the theatre that serves as storage for many of the other parts of the production.
By the time all the designs were finalized, that left only about four weeks for Hudson to turn everything around in the shop; this even as Wolfe continued creating parts of the show. “What saved me was having Neil Mazzella do the job,” Hernandez says. “He's done most of my things with George anyway, and he knows the shorthand; I can turn in a drawing and he can have it built in three or four days. They really helped us out.”
The rehearsal schedule, which called for the production to be broken down and stored much like the regular schedule, also wreaked havoc on the creative team. “Just when you thought you were really getting in synch with the panels, and with Robin and the projections and video, and Jules and Peggy with the lighting, everything had to go out. Just when we got warm, we had to stop for a few days and then come back. But through the whole thing George was extremely understanding, because there were days where we had to wait an hour to get started. We all knew why we were doing this project, and though it was tough, figuring out how to do it all was worthwhile.”
Here's how fast Paul Tazewell's turnaround time was on Harlem Song: he only has a handful of completed drawings to show for all his work. “I was drawing and things were getting cut as I was drawing,” he says.
Such fast turnaround and last-minute changes made it tricky during build time. “The shops in New York were not necessarily used to dealing with shows in this way,” he notes. “We tried to get as much into the New York shops as we could with as much confidence as we had at the time, but knowing that there may be some adjustments, either in the design or numbers, so we had to ask them to play a little bit on this or that.”
Tazewell says this process was slightly different than on Noise/Funk, which was already “a thing” when he came onboard. But much of Harlem Song existed, early on in the process, in George Wolfe's head. “We knew it was to start at the turn of the century and then go immediately into the 20s and then hit all the periods up to contemporary,” Tazewell explains. “That was a given. But you'd either get a phone call or have a meeting where George would say, ‘Well, I'm thinking about a number that's kind of like this,’ and I'd say, ‘How many people?’ and he'd say, ‘I know I'm going to have a male and a female singer in it, but I don't know who else.’ And so you'd kind of roll with the punches and have as much research already done in your head, knowing where to go to get whatever you needed.”
Though he did his own share of research, and also used the transcripts from the testimonials and the archived images as inspiration, in general Tazewell began by picking what he intuitively felt the colors for each period should be. “It was the 20th century, so it needed to feel hot and summery, or have that kind of light to it,” he explains. So the fabric, color, and patterns are there to give you the quality of Easter Sunday, or summertime.”
In the song “Well Alright Then,” which finds the residents on a Sunday afternoon, strolling and gossiping and checking out the passersby, Tazewell expanded upon those initial ideas. “What I got from George was that they're not absolutely perfect and chic; they are the onlookers of those who are absolutely perfect and chic, and they're doing their take on that,” the designer says. “Much in the way that if you were to go to Harlem and see men and women dressed for church, they take what is the contemporary style and really make it their own, either in terms of color or the way they put items together, whether it's a hat or a new pair of shoes or a purse.”
For the section titled “Nightclub,” in which we see glimpses of some of the hottest spots in the neighborhood come to life — the Cotton Club, the Savoy, etc. — Tazewell tried to find variations on the color of night, noting that where you are at 10pm is a very different place than where you are at 4:30 in the morning. “The quality of color and the quality of the fit change,” he explains. “You start the evening with the Cab Calloway thing, and we know what that is, the choice of white, something that's really going to beam and glow. And then we move to the night sky/moonlight dress, a beautiful beaded dress that's all sparkly and sophisticated — everything we think of as 20s evening wear. Then we move to a jazzier purple and black, and then we get to the showgirls, with these kind of tropical birds, but at night, with the whole African native sexuality, and then finally to the gutbucket singer, which is more teal and black and gold. It all continues to stay in the evening, with the qualities of night, but it shifts around a little.”
Because of the performance schedule — six performances over the course of the weekend — there's no time to allow the costumes a chance to dry. “We've got doubles and triples of some items,” Tazewell notes, “but unfortunately we also have showgirls going into wet costumes.” During the week, the costumes are cleaned and then stored in the trailer brought in specifically for Harlem Song that's parked behind the Apollo.
The costumes were built by Barbara Matera, Parsons-Meares, Jennifer Love Costumes, Donna Langman Costumes, Scafati Uniforms, and Tricorne-New York City, all of which Tazewell says were extremely helpful and understanding during the constant changes. “Because most of the projects I work on don't afford me to go to these places, to have custom beading and all of that was delightful, because you get what it needs to be.”
Lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer may have had to travel uptown to work on Harlem Song but, in another sense, they were on very familiar territory. Their previous collaborations with director George C. Wolfe included not only the hip-hop vision of black history known as Bring in 'da Noise/Bring in 'da Funk as well as The Wild Party, which drew its power from uptown-downtown cultural collisions in 1920s New York. (For that matter, they've been in Harlem before, shooting concert sequences for the upcoming film Marci X, featuring Lisa Kudrow as a rap-music mogul).
As a result, it is possible to see their work in Harlem Song as a kind of summation of their collaborations with Wolfe, which have also included Angels in America, Jelly's Last Jam, and Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. In many of these shows, Fisher and Eisenhauer, working with some version of a black-box or bare-stage design, have created theatrical designs, using strong color and angle concepts. In Harlem Song, the lighting is sharply angular, in scorching colors, the better to carve dancing bodies out of the darkness of Riccardo Hernandez's two-level set. The color vanishes for moments of stark drama, such as the angry ballad, “Here You Come With Love,” sung by a Depression-era housewife. Then again, this is lighting that plays well with others: Thanks to its constantly shifting focus, you are hardly aware of comings and goings on Hernandez's skeletal set. In addition, the lighting provides discreet support for the extensive projections and video sequences, allowing them maximum visibility.
Photo: ©Michal Daniel
For Fisher and Eisenhauer, there were numerous logistical challenges, in addition to the usual aesthetic issues. Like everyone else on the project, they had to deal with the show's unique weekly load-in/load-out schedule, designed to accommodate other presentations at the Apollo. As a result, Fisher says, “The plot is not entirely our own; it belongs partly to the theatre.” Eisenhauer adds, “We began with the theatre's house plot, figuring out what worked for us and what we needed to add.”
Because there is no time in the schedule for hanging or refocusing units — the changeover is timed at four hours — the designers went with an almost entirely automated rig. “That way,” says Eisenhauer, “you pop your disk in the console and you get your show back.” And not just any automated gear, either — since space was at a premium, the designers went for the smallest and brightest units possible. The top choice was the Vari*Lite VL6C, especially because, says Eisenhauer, “We needed a spotlight with a clean edge; there were enough washlights in the rig already.” Also included in the rig are High End Systems Studio Spots®, xSpots™, and Studio Colors®; all lighting is controlled by a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console. Equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase New Jersey and VLPS New York.
In addition, much of the sidelight is provided by units on towers “that are made to snap in and out of place,” says Fisher. “We used our best touring techniques to make the focus process easy.” Because of the projections, “We had to go easy on frontlight,” says Fisher, who notes that because the Apollo theatre hasn't undergone the engineering reinforcement given to most Broadway houses, “We have limited positions to hang units; there can't be any steel over the front of house. In all cases we had to adapt to the existing rigging, cabling, and trussing.”
As for the use of color, Eisenhauer says, “That's George Wolfe.” Noting that the show entered rehearsals in a fluid state, she says, “Every element was pure George. Nobody else really knew what the show would be. As we told Peter Marks in the Times, he just reaches down our throats and pulls it out. When we started on the show, we didn't know what it was going to be. George not only wanted us to carve up the space with light, but he was completely fearless about using color to tell the story.”
Both designers stress that Wolfe is Harlem Song's true auteur. Eisenhauer points out that, as a revue, assembled from a collection of songs interspersed with video interviews, it really only existed in the head of the director. Many creative folk prefer to work with a finished script, but she says that the process of building Harlem Song from the ground up was exhilarating. “George was so in the flow on this project,” she says. “It felt like were in a familiar process. We had hard days and creative problems to solve, but it was so relaxed — and funny! That's rare.”
Ever try accumulating over 80 years' worth of moving and still images in a matter of a few months for a project that hadn't even been written yet, much less funded? That was the daunting task facing Robin Silvestri in trying to put together the hundreds of images — ranging from Depression-era food lines to the glittering neon of the Savoy to a triumphant Joe Louis walking through the neighborhood — that serve as the dominant visual images in Harlem Song.
“We actually started talking with George in December of last year,” she says, “but we still had so much research we had to do. We worked for months and months on researching, locating footage and images, so we knew where to find everything. That way, when we decided on what a scene was going to ultimately be, we knew where to go to get the appropriate visual material.” Silvestri had five staffers working with her just to accumulate all the images; her staff included video producer Elle Kamihira, art director Brian Drucker, editors Russell Steward and Eric Suquet, assistants Cagdas Arpac and Zach Borovay, and researcher Postell Pringle.
Despite the relatively long lead time, the show evolved so much between early meetings and technical rehearsals that Silvestri and her team were constantly looking for more images, which often proved to be problematic. “There is stuff you can unearth if you have more lead time. We ran into the same situation with Noise/Funk; a lot of material, like that which you might find at the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture], you need weeks to get that stuff.” The designer notes that commercially available material overall was not what she'd hoped, but that she and her team were able to find individual collectors who had some moving footage they were able to use.
Meanwhile, the testimonials of the approximately 39 individuals tied in some way to the history of Harlem were filmed by documentarian Madison Davis Lacey; he then gave Batwin + Robin the raw footage and Silvestri went through the transcriptions and made selections, and then sat down with Wolfe and edited those pieces together.
Scharff Weisberg supplied the custom projection system for the production, including a three-screen Watchout system, which feeds three stacks of two NEC Nighthawks that front-project onto the moveable screens onstage. The projection department was spared the chore of removing equipment after weekend performances since the projectors are hung on the balcony rails and the playback sources are tucked away on the fifth floor.
Scharff Weisberg project manager Derek Holbrook explains the setup thusly: “We use the Watchout system to project a 10.5'-high by 35'-wide image through which the screens track. Most of the image is black except for two windows, 7' wide by 10.5' high, which Watchout pans from side to side. The beauty of Watchout is that it can also create a seamless, single image among the three projection systems and move the smaller images across it.” Watchout moves the video and graphics so that they track with the moving screens.
All of the video sequences were created with the camera on its side for the unusual vertical orientation. The video was then rotated in AfterEffects and fed into Watchout, which rendered the pans. The master show control system is a Medalion Display Controller that synchronizes the Watchout cues with the movement of the screens, cues the proper shutters, and handles switching between primary and backup systems. “The moving screen was an exciting prospect,” says Silvestri. “For years we'd been wanting to do that but the only way to get it done was through a complex series of projectors.”
Once the production moved into the Apollo, Silvestri and her team brought in a Media 100 editing system, while another stayed at the Batwin + Robin offices, so that the designer could work with Wolfe on immediate scenes while the offices could prepare for scenes coming up. “This was the first time I was able to get George to use video, and I think he appreciated having an edit suite onsite,” the designer explains. “As he was working, we could edit things and he could see it immediately.”
Another aid was an in-theatre intranet set up between Silvestri's computer, the Watchout computer, and the show control computer, which allowed Silvestri to pick images with Wolfe and send them to the Watchout programmer, who would then upload them into the system. This came in handy as the show moved closer to the opening and Wolfe was still tweaking. “Over a three-day period, we uploaded something like 885 new files. That's how much the stuff was changing, and gives you an idea of the amount of material that we were constantly working with and revising. It was a tremendous amount of work, but working with George is so great because he pushes you. He was so enthusiastic about the video and working with the film that it made our job much easier.”
Nevin Steinberg, one-third of Acme Sound Partners, sound designer on Harlem Song, describes the sound package for the production as a “combination platter” in that it combines parts of the existing Apollo system with gear brought in by the sound team specifically for the production. They felt such a scenario was vital to the success of the design since the show was to be integrated into the theatre's weekly schedule.
“Our mandate from the beginning was to try and determine to what extent we would be able to use their sound equipment and interface with what already existed,” says Steinberg, who worked with Acme Sound's Tom Clark and Mark Menard on the project. “Fortunately the Apollo had recently undergone a renovation and had done a pretty significant upgrade of the house system.”
The Apollo system consists mostly of EAW speakers, with KF-750s and KF-755s in the main left and right flown arrays, plus a large complement of subwoofers and JF-80 delay speakers around the house. The Acme team brought in a Yamaha PM1D digital console for the front of house, as well as a Soundcraft Spirit 40-channel monitor console, XTA DP226 and DP200 loudspeaker and output processors, Stage Research SFX show control for sound effects playback, an array of L'Acoustics ARCS and DVDOSC and Meyer CQ-1 speakers, DPA 4061 and 4065 lavs, and Sennheiser SK5012s, among other assorted gear.
The big technical challenge, and what Steinberg calls a big experiment for the Acme team, was the use of the PM1D at the front of house, the first time they'd used an all-digital front end. “It worked out well, I think,” he says. “It was a good use of the product for that application, because it was a small footprint, and since we wanted to keep the console in the theatre all the time, that was a big hurdle for us. Electronically it performed flawlessly, and the audio quality was good. The learning curve on the software and programming was pretty steep for us, but we managed to get through it without too much trouble.”
The other big challenge with the mix of equipment was getting the gear they brought in (all courtesy of Sound Associates) to fit in the space comfortably with the existing system. “We negotiated with a very willing Apollo management to get a supplementary front-of-house mix position and leave it there because there was some concern about moving that in and out,” Steinberg says. “Also, with the help of the technical supervisor (Ken Keneally) and the carpentry staff we were able to get an onstage monitoring/distribution/amplifier room platform built above what is their existing monitor rig. So we were able to bring everything in and park a lot of the gear that we feared would have to be moved in and out every time. That saved us a tremendous amount of time and anxiety.”
Indeed, the only major part of the sound package that has to be broken down after each weekend is the bandstand that rolls out for the nightclub scenes. All the musical instruments, music stands, and lights, as well as the mics and wiring, come out. That, in addition to lighting and sound fill positions, as well as any onstage monitoring along the bridge. Those are all packed up — presumably not in white boxed containers with duck sauce and chopsticks on the side.