As director Eric Schaeffer sat down to read a new version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's first less-than-fabulously-successful show, Allegro, he found “So many places. So many times. So many scenes. The only way to tell the story was to go with projections.”
To that end, he brought in Michael Clark, who had designed projections for Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Schaeffer's small (136-seat) Signature Theatre in the Washington DC suburb of Arlington, VA. Clark saw that projections were essential to tell this story of the life of a man from birth to divorce and career crises. He points out that “the show was originally conceived as a projection show but they were constrained by the technology of the day. We've come a long way since then and now we can do a lot of things either easier or better or cheaper or more reliably.”
Allegro opened on Broadway in 1947 following the phenomenal success of Rodgers and Hammerstein's first two shows, Oklahoma! and Carousel which averaged runs of over 1,500 performances. Allegro ran 315 performances and closed in the red. Some saw it as way ahead of its time, others thought it a flawed effort to expand theatrical boundaries. It is rarely revived, perhaps because it required vast resources to mount. The original run had a cast of 18 principals, 22 dancers, 38 singers, 35 musicians and 40 stagehands!
With the encouragement of Dena Hammerstein, widow of Oscar's son James, Joe DiPietro adapted Hammerstein's book in a way that requires far fewer resources and seems to be meeting with audience approval. In his version the small town where the hero is raised is in Kansas and then he practices medicine in New York. This gave Clark a head start in the selection of suitable projections as he delved into photo collections for shots of small Midwestern towns, ivey-covered colleges and New York.
The original design by Jo Mielziner had been innovative in a number of ways, not the least of which was the use of projections. Clark says “I had a fairly complete book of press photos of the original production and, of course, I was very aware that Mielziner's original was a projection intensive design. But, just like the play had been reinvented and reworked, so was the design. It is still in the spirit of the original. But where that production had roll-on/roll-off furniture with such a massive cast, we had a minimalist set and smaller cast. Our design is evocative of and pays homage to the original production but I think the new book gave us license to use the technology of today to tell the story.”
For the set, Schaeffer selected Eric Grims who designed last season's 110 In The Shade. Grims envisioned a number of platforms in a horseshoe shaped structure with furniture pallets sliding on and off. But Grims says, “Schaeffer's approach was simplify, simplify, simplify (or simply cut, cut, cut.) Soon, there wasn't a single piece of furniture.”
Sightlines required the side walls of the “horseshoe” to close in at the back. The final configuration had the downstage opening at 32 feet but the back wall only 20 feet from side to side. Grims said that “purely by accident, the result is fantastically acoustic” with the ten-piece orchestra on a raised platform behind and above the rear wall.
Schaeffer suggested glass bricks as a possible visual element but the use of projections on the rear wall dictated a different surface. The front risers of the platforms presented an opportunity to go with the glass brick look. Since glass bricks don't come in the size needed, Grims built the risers out of clear Plexiglas covered with painted scrim. They look solid until lit from behind by three strands of white and amber Christmas tree lights. Grims said he had to buy out the entire after-Christmas sale stock of three Kmarts, two Targets and a Wal-Mart to get as many lights as he needed.
The image of Grims heading off to Kmart is a good metaphor for the budget challenge of the project. Clark says that budget may have dictated a single projection device but that it wasn't the reason for front instead of rear projection. “I like projections washing over the actors and — if there had been any — the furniture. Yes, it requires a great amount of control. But we can now control where a projection is and, even more importantly, where it isn't. Properly done, it adds depth and interest to the look.”
Clark is proud of the fact that all of the photos used are time-appropriate. He loaded black and white originals into Photoshop and digitally tinted them to create appropriate looks — warm yellows and ambers for Kansas, greenery for the college campus scenes (including the image accompanying the brief musical snippet from Rodgers and Hart's “Mountain Greenery”), black and white tinged with a subtle steel-like blue for New York.
Motion was important as well. Clark not only had projections sliding right and left, he had sequences with images that built on each other. To subtly reinforce a line in the script that read “a lot of life can happen in two years,” he created a montage of the Empire State Building rising. In his research he had been struck by the fact that the highest building in the world of its time had gone up in just two years, 1930-31. He used a period photo of the building, erased more and more of the upper floors and projected it in reverse in a simple match dissolve.
All of the effects are projected by Sanyo's 45-pound PLC-XF30 5200 lumen projector using Dataton's Watchout software. The show's entire set of projections is contained in a 3.2 gigabyte file.
Veteran lighting designer Ken Billington joined the project in his first Signature production. He found it a “bizarre space,” a black-box theatre with no flies in a converted chrome-plating foundry. Billington did his original design work without actually seeing the house. “I first got into the space about a week before tech,” he says. They rented an ETC, Inc. Obsession 600 console but used the house lighting sets.
Billington has done a lot of projection shows in his career and says he has learned to reject the notion that, “if it's a projection show it doesn't need light.” Actually, he says, “washing the surfaces (with light) helps the projections,” giving the surfaces depth. “The key is that you need to work with the projection designer, talking things through and making sure everyone is working toward the same thing.”
Collaboration between all designers was essential. An example is the development of an idea that struck Schaeffer the first time he read the script. Since the central character's mother, father, and grandmother all die but remain in the show as observers of his life, Schaeffer wanted some effect that symbolized the release of their spirits. He described it as a “whoosh” in his conversations with frequent collaborator, sound designer Tony Angelini.
Angelini built a sound/cue from wind and other elements and Billington worked in a light cue that synchronized with the “spirit's release.” Then Clark came up with the idea of reversing the projections' polarity. At the first preview they were surprised to see that the audience didn't seem to quite “get it.” Angelini stretched the sound 0.8 seconds and Schaeffer worked with the actors to create responses that, in Billington's phrase, “didn't look like someone just hit the wrong button on the light board.” Finally audiences not only “got it,” the meaning of those moments is a frequently heard topic of conversation in the lobby at intermission and after the show.
As with most musicals mounted at Signature, Allegro doesn't use mikes for the singers. Angelini likens a Signature musical to a continuation of the dialogue between orchestra and singers that begins with the sitzprobe. As to soundscape, Allegro uses “maybe nine or ten different effects” said Angelini, listing such things as a doppler-shifted train for the entrance to New York, boat whistles and fog horns behind a reference to a cruise and bird songs to reinforce the father's plea for the son to come home to Kansas where the birds sing.
Schaeffer says that “since the set would be so plain in order to be a screen for the projection, we wanted to make the costumes carry more of the storytelling weight — they had to help establish who these people are, where they are and in what time. They also had to provide texture and a feeling of life to the production.” Gregg Barnes, who worked with Schaeffer on Signature's premiere of The Rhythm Club, was given the assignment. He concentrated his research on the clothing of the times and places, using group photos from the Midwest and street scenes of New York. “I tried to make it look like life did in those photos rather than go with a traditional musical theatre look” he says, adding “the Big City costumes are richer and classier than reality — I wanted the audience to say, ‘I wish I dressed like that.’”
Very few of the costumes were made from scratch. Instead, Barnes drew from stocks from his years at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey and some of the remnants in his own collection including costumes from Side Show, which he designed on Broadway. Another major source was the Metropolitan Vintage Clothing Shows in New York. “We used lots of vintage stuff altered by the crew and only about six costumes from scratch — mostly things that had to be multiples like the bridesmaids' dresses,” he says.
“I brought Sky Switzer down with me [to assist] but the rest of the work was done on site by costume shop manager Jenn Miller's marvelous crew. Not only are the audiences tremendously loyal at Signature, so are the volunteers,” says Barnes. Miller says she hired Gabriele Vincent and Holly Petty for the project to augment her two volunteers, Barbara Travis and June Nagler. Cooperation within the Washington DC theatre community is legendary and the scarves for the production are a case in point — they were knitted by E. Brooke Marshall, a production assistant at the Shakespeare Theatre across the Potomac River from Signature.
They even enlisted the help of cast members from earlier Signature productions. “Actors from previous shows often come by to see friends, talk shop, share some coffee and sew on some buttons or beads,” says Miller. Steven Cupo, who won the Helen Hayes Award for his Emcee in Cabaret at Signature, volunteered to remove a beaded up velvet collar from a vintage cape, make a pattern and create a replacement.
Just another example of how theatre — especially musical theatre — is a collaborative endeavor.