Mielziner: Master of Modern Stage Design. 2001: by Mary Henderson. Foreword by Frank Rich. Back Stage Books, a division of Watson-Guptill Publications/BMI Communications. ISBN: 0-8230-8823-5. 320 pages.
A quarter-century after his death, Jo Mielziner remains one of the two or three greatest designers in Broadway history. His unbeatable credits include the original productions of Strange Interlude, Street Scene, Of Thee I Sing, On Your Toes, The Women, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Pal Joey, The Glass Menagerie, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, A Streetcar Named Desire, Mister Roberts, Death of a Salesman, Guys and Dolls, The King and I, Picnic, Can-Can, Tea and Sympathy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Most Happy Fella, Look Homeward Angel, Sweet Bird of Youth, Gypsy, The Best Man, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1776 — and those are just the high points. For decades, his meticulously conceived, painterly work set the standard for how a Broadway show should look.
In this gorgeously illustrated volume, the noted theatre historian Mary C. Henderson traces Mielziner's life and work. The child of a feckless society portrait painter and a sometime journalist for Vogue, he grew up, somewhat unconventionally, in Paris and New York, and got involved in the theatre through his brother, Kenneth MacKenna, a young Broadway leading man. By the mid-1920s, Mielziner was a regular fixture on Broadway, his work deeply influenced by the ideas of Gordon Craig, Robert Edmond Jones, and other devotees of the New Stagecraft, who wished to do away with chintz-covered, realistic sets in favor of a more streamlined approach. He found success early, but his real heyday came after World War II, when his collaborators included such names as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Tennessee Williams, Joshua Logan, and Elia Kazan.
Henderson does a remarkably thorough job of tracing Mielziner's career, offering many perceptive comments on what did or did not work about various designs. She also presents a sympathetic yet clear-eyed view of his often troubled private life, which included three failed marriages and various problems with his children, making it clear that his Roman Catholic faith — he was a convert — provided a constant solace in times of trouble.
Along with her comments about Mielziner's design techniques, Henderson also discusses Mielziner's not-always-happy career as a theatre consultant, especially his problematic experience working on the Vivian Beaumont and Mitzi Newhouse Theatres at Lincoln Center. She provides much information about the scenery and lighting shops of the period (Edward Kook was one of Mielziner's closest friends). And of course, many other designers make appearances, including Ming Cho Lee, Patricia Zipprodt, Lucinda Ballard, Robin Wagner, and many others.
Henderson's prose is often less than gripping and sometimes she tells too much; when Mielziner moves to the Dakota apartments on 72nd Street, she stops to provide a history of the building, to no real purpose. Also, readers of this magazine, already familiar with the function of, say, a lighting dimmer, will probably grow tired of the way she over-explains the most basic theatre terms. Anyone who chooses to pick up a book about Mielziner will probably need no assistance in these areas.
And yet, anyone interested in the history of modern stage design will be terribly grateful for the complete overview that Henderson provides of Mielziner's career. That's not to mention the stunning parade of color reproductions of his designs that can be found on nearly every page. Not only are the classic designs, like Guys and Dolls or Death of a Salesman featured; the abundant illustrations make clear that even fast flops like the musicals Christine (1960) and Dance Me a Song (1950) benefited from masterly designs. My personal favorites are the sketches Mielziner did for Rodgers and Hammerstein's backstage musical Me and Juliet. They infuse their mundane theatrical subjects with a sense of dark glamour that makes me wish I'd seen the original production.
These days, it's a kind of miracle that a life of Mielziner would receive this kind of lavish, careful treatment. For this reason alone, the book belongs on the shelf of every young designer and in the library of every college theatre department.