An Anglo-American Design Team Creates the Fellini-esque Fantasy of Nine

Few Broadway musicals ever seemed less likely to get revived than Nine. The winner of the Best Musical Tony in 1982, its reviews were nevertheless mixed and it went down in theatre history as a stylish but substance-free vehicle for a male star and an array of flamboyant females. (Some hard-core show fans revile Nine for taking the Tony away from Dreamgirls, by opening on the last day of the 1981-82 season.) Furthermore, no director was willing to challenge the memory of Tommy Tune's stunning original production, with its white-tiled setting, chic black costumes (the show effectively launched William Ivey Long's career), and once-in-a-lifetime cast, led by Raul Julia, Karen Akers, Liliane Montevecchi, and Anita Morris.

But shows are meant to be revived and reinvented, so it fell to English director David Leveaux to find a new approach to Nine. Based loosely on a quite different production (designed by Anthony Ward with lighting by Paul Pyant) at London's Donmar Warehouse, Leveaux's new take on Nine has become one of the hottest tickets of the New York season. The reasons are many, including star Antonio Banderas' sensational Broadway debut, and a galaxy of supporting stars, including Mary Stuart Masterson, Jane Krakowski, and the indestructible Chita Rivera. Nevertheless, Leveaux's achievement is twofold: He has, with his designers, given Nine a sleek, stylish new look, and he has also found the emotional core of this musical, adapted by Arthur Kopit and songwriter Maury Yeston from Federico Fellini's film masterpiece, .

As in the film, Nine centers on Guido Contini, an internationally celebrated film director. Guido seemingly has everything, but in fact his life is rapidly disintegrating. His marriage to Luisa, the love of his life, is unraveling. His lover, Carla, wants him to get a divorce, right now. His leading lady/muse, Claudia, is missing in action. His producer, Liliane LaFleur, is pressing him to start filming — and he hasn't written a word of the script. In short, Guido is burned out, used up, and overextended in every possible way. He flees with Luisa to a secluded Venetian spa, in search of privacy; what follows is a Fellini-esque carnival in which Guido is beset by a city of women, each of whom wants a great big piece of him. The ladies appear and disappear as in a dream — seducing, cajoling, begging, denouncing. Nine is a thoroughly surreal exercise, a fantasia taking place in its leading character's mind, as past and present collide, and Guido, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, faces the fact that every life, even his, is about making choices.

In this new production, Nine is distinguished by a crisp, chic look that establishes its own identity even as it recalls the black-and-white Fellini original. Scott Pask's spa setting, a sleek creation in stone, glass, and metal, is filled with visual surprises, including floods of water and a tiled mural of the Three Graces. Brian MacDevitt's lighting works endless variations on the theme of white light to distinguish the many levels of Guido's imagination. Most dazzling of all are Vicki Mortimer's black and white costumes, all of which could have come right off a Milan catwalk, circa 1965: chic, tailored suits that end in the tiniest of miniskirts; hostess outfits with sprays of flowers across the front, one-piece Empire minidresses with black bow ties placed just above the breasts — everything accessorized with big earrings, purses, headbands, and other key period accoutrements.

Mortimer says that, based on her conversations with Leveaux, a number of design ground rules emerged, chief among them that “apart from Luisa, all the women should look as they did when Guido first met them — i.e., they should have one look, as opposed to changing with the events of the piece.” Equally important, she says, “It was crucial that each woman have her own persona, not a generic or choric look, in order to earn her place in Guido's past.”

These designer-director conversations also dictated many of the stylistic choices that followed. The black-and-white look, says Mortimer, “was connected to the dialogue between reality and fantasy, memory and present time in the piece.” (The one exception is the addition of gold in some clothes for the Act II sequence in which Guido begins shooting a film about Casanova.) In addition, she says, “The '60s were very important to David's view of Nine, especially the early '60s of Catholic Europe. That was the point of balance between '50s conservatism and the permissiveness of the later '60s and '70s. Fashion is a fantastic illustration of this — you can see young women still dressing like their mothers in, say, Chanel, alongside the new icons of Pucci, Quant, and early Paco Rabanne.” She notes that the clothes then reflect “the thrill of liberation, the excitement of individual expression rather than conformity.”

Seeking inspiration for her designs, Mortimer says, “I was keen to find reference material specifically from mainland Europe, not England or the US, so I asked an Italian-English design associate, Justin Arienti, to find material in Milan on my behalf. He came up with some wonderful pictures, mostly from Italian fashion magazines of the time, of which there is a good collection at the Biblioteca Roditi.” Interestingly, she adds, “Fellini's own clothes aesthetic was very influential, of course — he had a wonderful ability to push the boundaries of what a particular woman is likely to wear, from the very ordinary to extreme artifice.”

The designer began working before she met the cast, “to be sure there were sufficient iconographic triggers for the audience to release their own associations of the time.” However, she says, “Most drawings were altered in some way after I met the women. They were a heavenly group — diverse, independent, gorgeous.”

Each of the leading ladies has a carefully wrought look that speaks volumes about her character. Carla, Guido's luscious mistress, played by Jane Krakowski, wears “a simple trapeze shape of Mackie net with strategically placed lines and jingles of beads intensifying as they reach the hem.” She appears virtually nude, covered only in glittering baubles. The designer says, “I had originally thought that she would have more in common with the Carla in . I based her look on a dress worn by Natalie Wood at Cannes in the early '60s — very presentational and curvy — but Jane brought such a modern, provocative presence that we had to start again. The key was to find something that could give us a child/woman sexuality; what nailed it was a fashion picture from a recent magazine showing a girl in what seemed to be a shower of water. This gave us a surface combining nudity and a reflective shimmer, the perfect counterpoint to Luisa,” who is dressed in a gray tailored skirt and white blouse, with square black glasses.

Even though Luisa (Mary Stuart Masterson) wears the simplest outfit onstage, Mortimer says her clothes underwent the most transformations. “It took two goes before we realized the crucial thing: that she and Guido should feel like real partners, that they should look like they belonged together, despite the range of temptations around him. Mary Stuart's way of describing it was that Luisa should feel like the script girl — her discretion masks her hold on her husband.” In contrast, the costume for Claudia (Laura Benanti), a serious, dedicated actress, is designed to look like “the archetype of New Wave French cinema — trench coat, dark glasses; this was something that Anthony had used in the Donmar production, and it clearly worked well for the part.”

Two characters are exempt from the prevailing '60s style ethos. Guido's mother (Mary Beth Peil) wears a long black dress, with a hat and black fur muff that is appropriate to her station as a well-off widow. “It was important that she should be the epitome of the ideal mother for Guido — feminine, austere, beautiful, and witty,” says Mortimer. “David wanted her to look as she would have done at Guido's father's funeral, handbag and all, even in the lineup for ‘Folies Bergère.’” That musical number is delivered by Chita Rivera as Liliane, as she urges Guido to make a musical film; Liliane is dressed in the New Look of the 1950s, with a voluminous black skirt, and a hat and veil — “Parisian, of course,” says the designer, “the Dior thing, representing the liberation of postwar sensuality, and playing shamelessly on Chita's own star status to emphasize the gloss and glamour of Liliane's past as a great vedette and chanteuse. On a simple level, she is part of a lost and beautiful past, and should feel part of that era, a grown-up in grown-up couture.” Of course, Liliane's skirt disassembles, allowing her to dance a sizzling tango with Guido.

Most of the costumes were built by Tricorne, the New York-based costume house founded by Doug Quandt, Katherine Marshall, and Scott Traugott; the latter is one of Mortimer's US assistants, along with Brian J. Bustos. Antonio Banderas' outfit, a simple, well-tailored set of white shirt, black tie, and black pants, was executed by John David Ridge. Rodney Gordon built the millinery. Speaking of other key collaborators, the designer says, “I was incredibly lucky to have [hair designer] David Brian Brown and [makeup designer] Naomi Donne working on the show — none of the looks for the women mean anything without their work. They were happy to respond both to my reference pictures and bring their own, and made me recognize the incredible wealth of invention around the way women presented themselves at the time.” She also mentions UK assistant Lynette Mauro, who found many of the show's fabrics in London: “She is absolutely my equal in her ability to become childishly over-excited at the sight of the right button for something!”

Summing up, Mortimer says, “Nine was, for me, a dream project — a wonderful eclectic period; Italy; the movies; a license to make each woman look as fantastic as possible; just one man at the center. Heaven!”
DB

Waterworld

There are some sets you look at and immediately think, “I'd like to live there”; Scott Pask's set for Nine makes you think, “I'll have a sauna, mud bath, and full body massage, please.” Set in an ultra-posh spa in 1960s Venice, Pask has melded ancient Roman rubble with Italianate tiling and sleek steel and glass to create what the designer likes to call an installation, one that somehow manages to be both Fellini-esque and completely realistic at the same time.

It's also very much in keeping with Pask's style, which has been heavily influenced by his background in architecture (he has a bachelor's in architecture from University of Arizona), and which director David Leveaux calls “effortlessly modern.” Leveaux had directed a production of Nine at the Donmar Warehouse about seven years ago; designed by Anthony Ward, it shares only the use of water and a table as a central object with the current Broadway incarnation. For this production, Leveaux stressed to Pask, “It's got to be Italian.”

That wasn't a problem for the designer. “I lived in Florence during my education, and studied architecture there,” he explains. “There aren't many Italianate references per se in this production; it's a deeper world. We have this ancient floor and a big crumbling wall, and then we have these modern glass walls, which move like a '60s game show, first to allow fluid entrances, then, ultimately, to reveal the complete space.”

One of the most breathtaking visual elements of the production is a huge Botticelli-esque mural of the Three Graces, hidden upstage behind the glass walls and a moveable curtain until the second act centerpiece, “The Grand Canal.” As the main character, director Guido Contini, struggles to film his movie with no script, water trickles down the mural into a standing pool, as if the women were weeping, and the downstage bath fills with water and overflows.

For Pask, half the fun in building the Nine set was finding the materials, most of which come from the architectural world. He especially enjoyed finding the tile that covers the stage floor. “My studio's on Union Square, so I just ran around to the tile vendors, and fell in love with a sample at Country Floors called travertine noche, which is a dark travertine. The beauty of this tile and its grout is that it changes color when it's wet. I was adamant that we not use any sealer that would prevent that effect from happening onstage. So, in the end, after Antonio's ‘drowning,’ when the water has drained, you're left with that damp, darkened surface.”

The glass doors and walls also came from the architectural world; the translucent panels are film-covered Lexan and the stainless steel fittings are a system of glass framing and support commonly known as the Pilkington system. The curtain hiding the mural was made of Tyvek. “It's meant to look like a renovation curtain that pulls across this fresco in a great state of decay. It's indestructible, and because of its texture and color, when it's backlit, it's incredible.” Hudson Scenic built everything, with the exception of the tiling, which was subcontracted to Dimension Stone.

The fresco, inspired by Botticelli, was painted on plaster by Grace Brandt and her team at Hudson. Though it had to be waterproof, for the crying effect, Pask still wanted it to retain the chalkiness of a fresco. “To make the gold tile field surrounding the fresco, several varied laser-routed templates were created. Those were filled with a plaster compound; when pulled up, they leave depressions that create the tile grout lines. The whole field is done that way, and then when those were all set, they'd go in and hack away at the plaster to simulate various states of decay. Then they gold leaf the large areas, and then add the water damage from above. I just bow down to Grace and her team of artists for what they accomplished.”

Pask and the Roundabout tech crew turned to effects specialists Jauchem & Meeh to create both water effects. A 3,000-gallon reflecting pool, which runs the length of upstage, is the source for the crying effect, for which water is pumped up to a set of pipes at the top of the mural. “It had to be laid onto the wall in a very non-turbulent way, to prevent splash,” explains Gregory Meeh. “Noise was also an issue; there are some big, flat spaces onstage. Originally, it came out of a spray head and we heard a splatter sound, which amplified and echoed around the room. And then we also had to keep the water running down the wall rather than dripping, because when it drips and hits the pool then there's the sound of it hitting the water. Changing nozzle configurations and pressures solved that problem.”

The pool is a tiled ellipse located center stage that features a glass edge at the front so the audience can see it fill with water. “I loved the idea of an infinity pool, and thought it would be great to have it here, even though usually the edge is intended for the pool's inhabitants,” says Pask. The water that fills the pool comes from a 2,000-gallon tank housed underneath the stage and is pumped up very quickly on cue; both water effects are cued via the lighting console. “There's a huge amount of water to get into that pool in a relatively short time,” Meeh explains. Even trickier, he notes, is getting rid of the water. “We had to put a 6" drain on it; that's a very large valve on the drain. But now it can drain back into the tanks faster than we need it to.”

Both tanks are filtered and treated much like the water in a swimming pool, though with milder forms of chemicals, since no one's actually taking a bath. The water is monitored and changed regularly. “I like working with water,” says Meeh. “It's one of my favorite media. [Roundabout technical supervisor] Steve Beers and consulting carpenter Dan Hoffman knew this was a challenge, and they really worked with it, as did the shop, to make a setup that would work. Scott's set was stunning, and he designed it around the water, so it was built to interact with everything.”

Pask stresses that the Eugene O'Neill production sought to match the closeness of a Donmar production. “That became my mantra: making sure the scale of the room is big enough for the actors but small enough to maintain the intimacy. Having done shows in the Donmar, it's incredible to be in the presence of a great production in that space with a great cast. And that's what we wanted Nine to be: We wanted it to be an event, so when you walk in you feel like you're sharing a room with them.” A room, and maybe a spritz.
DJ

Nine Lights

For a flashy Broadway show like Nine, the light plot is deceptively simple. But it's one that LD Brian MacDevitt puts to great use. For the most part, the lighting is no-color, white light that signifies the dreamlike state of Guido Contini as he looks back over his life and all of the women he's loved. “It is, by musical standards, a small light plot,” MacDevitt concedes, “with a small number of moving lights, and I think the play lends itself to that. The director's idea lent itself to keeping things simple and using fewer things to their greatest effect — exploiting the dynamics of how bright something could get and how dark something could get, how many different colors you can get out of blue and white. It is really a big range.”

When a splash of color is used, as in the Folies Bergères number, it is in striking contrast to the rest of the show. “It is his memory of seeing the Folies Bergères,” says MacDevitt. “Also, it is what the music calls for; so many of the choices in the show are from the score. There really aren't any questions that can't be answered by listening to the score. If you are wondering which direction to go in, you just listen to the music and it tells you; it is very exciting.” MacDevitt originally conceived the Folies number very differently, more in keeping with the monochromatic nature of the rest of the show, but after some convincing, reworked the number. “When I first cued it, I used just blues and whites, and after discussions with the team we added in some color, but it is really restrained. The color energized the number.”

MacDevitt chooses his tools carefully and has been known to light musicals with little or no automated luminaires, such as Urinetown, in which he only used City Theatrical AutoYokes. For Nine, he played around with choices of fixtures and lamp types for the proper feel for each scene. “It was a show where at times I really welcomed the arc sources,” says MacDevitt. “In this one we have [High End Systems] Studio Beams and I really feel that they are much more believable as daylight, more than other arc sources. Also, because it is cinematic, we used some HMI sources for this strong, nasty edge. To light people, I use incandescents, except at the end, when his world is falling apart, I bring in the HMIs. It is having sensitivity to the color temperature and controlling it emotionally, using it at times in the show when it will have the best effect. I never believe color-corrected HMI as incandescent, to bring across the heart of the person. If there is no heat coming out of the light it is almost otherworldly. In this case it worked well. It is not a show that takes place in nature, it takes place in somebody's subconscious. To go to that nasty place that the HMI can take you was perfect and then beautiful.”

Working with MacDevitt for the first time was production electrician Michael LoBue. “It was an absolute treat,” LoBue says. “It is a sizable show, and a little bit of a tricky hang with having to fit stuff inside the walls, but the production carpenter, Donnie Robinson, and I have worked together several times so it ended up painless.”

LoBue got to deal with some of the trickier elements in the show, the biggest involving water. You may ask yourself, “Why is an electrician working with water?” He interfaced with effects specialist Greg Meeh of Jauchem & Meeh, who created the water effects for the show. LoBue explains, “There was a lot of time spent on the water effects, operating all the water. I programmed the show and it was just easier to know it first-hand; it was a basic non-dim situation with pumps so it was just easier for me to put it through the Obsession. I put everything for the water effects on subs and programmed it into the show and use the subs as inhibits. It is all controlled with the console go button now.” Easy to do now, but there was some trial and error. “We doused the conductor, and the harp really bought it one night, so we fixed it so the water level only comes up so high.”

LoBue details MacDevitt's automated luminaire selections. “He uses the Studio Beams for a lot of the backlight and he uses the AutoYoke units quite a bit, with ETC Source Fours lamped at 750W, and four Martin MAC 2000s. The AutoYokes light a lot of the show; the followspots are 10° ETC Source Fours with City Theatrical AutoYokes and are manually operated.” Fourth Phase provided the lighting equipment. David Arch handled the programming of the automated luminaires. MacDevitt says he'd like to keep Arch a secret. “David Arch is a true associate designer,” he explains. “He sees stuff from a different viewpoint and is fantastic. I almost want to whisper that, because I don't want anyone else to know about him.”

MacDevitt also has praise for set designer Pask, with whom he worked previously on Urinetown. “We walked into the theatre when his set was being built, in the worklight, and everybody gasped. As a lighting designer you think, ‘If it is that beautiful in worklight, I would really have to work to screw this up.’”
MSE

Sound for Picture

Jon Weston is apologizing for his work on Nine. “I know most of these articles are geared toward a problem and finding a solution, but I hate to say it: We didn't have any problems.”

The fact is, Weston's work on the hit revival is as seamless and intimate as the production itself, which is just the way director David Leveaux wanted it. “In our initial production meeting it was clear that David and I had the same plan in mind: that everything be organic and emotional,” he explains. “My desire was to not get in the way of that and not do anything that would not convey the emotion of what was happening onstage or in the music.”

Weston thought initially there might be a problem adequately miking some of the cast, which includes Spanish-speaking Hollywood star Antonio Banderas. But “[costume designer] Victoria Mortimer and [hair and wig designer] David Bryan Brown were very accommodating. Antonio's hairstyle is such that we were able to get the mic in a great place and have it not be seen.”

Weston was concerned about the fact that Scott Pask's design called for the pit to be covered, but that was easily dealt with. At one point he thought he'd have to supply a sound effect for the draining of the water that fills the center stage pool in the big second act number “The Grand Canal,” but the noise from the 6" drain bounces off the tile of Pask's set and fills the theatre. “There's not one sound effect in the show,” the designer notes proudly. “Not even a pre-show announcement.”

It wasn't a total walk in the park. The Eugene O'Neill Theatre is not the best house for speaker placement. “Its design makes it hard to accommodate speakers where the sound designer feels they will serve the production best,” Weston explains. He had originally specified his speaker of choice, EAW JF-60s, for the under-balcony position, but switched to the smaller, lightweight Meyer MM4s. “The left and right proscenium speakers just happen to fit in a natural reveal of plaster, and it couldn't have been better looking head on.” The rest of the gear includes EAW 300es in the cluster and sides, Meyer USW subwoofers, delay truss of EAW JF-100s, d&b E3 stage monitors, Sennheiser SK-5012/EM3532s, an ATI 8MX stereo submixer, and Lexicon 480Ls, run on a Cadac J-Type console.

The show was originally set to play at the Virginia Theatre, but the venue was switched to the O'Neill. “The stage is deeper at the Virginia, and there's a whole different relationship with the show to the theatre,” Weston says. “But I think the show plays better in the O'Neill than it would have at the Virginia, as far as connecting to the audience.” A little speaker placement inconvenience is a small price to pay for a flawlessly intimate sound design.
DJ