Though Roy Christopher has been responsible for the Tony Awards set for the last few years, it's been more than a decade since he designed a play, without a TV camera in sight. That changed last November, when a revival of Moss Hart's Light Up the Sky was produced by the Pasadena Playhouse. The director was David Lee, co-creator of the NBC sitcom Frasier, which is designed every week by Christopher.
"I had heard David was going to do the show, and I thought in the back of my mind, 'Gee, that would be fun to do,' " says the designer, whose other current sitcom credit is CBS' Becker. "He didn't say anything about it to me, so I thought they were probably using a designer who's worked at the Playhouse. Then in late September or early October, David called and said, 'I hesitate to ask you this, you're probably not going to want to do it, it's a small theatre and a small budget...' I said, 'Of course I'll do it.' "
Hart's 1948 comedy is about a group of New York theatre folk trying out their new play in Boston. There is one set, a suite at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where the characters gather both before and after the show's opening. "David said, 'I want you to have fun with this,' " Christopher recalls. "He said we could make a statement: this is about theatre people, and it's OK for our work to be seen. A lot of people subscribe to that tired old belief that our work shouldn't be seen, which I've never bought into."
The decision was made to set the play in 1950, "to get away from the 40s and the Adrian look just a little bit," says Christopher. All About Eve, a related backstage film of 1950, was one inspiration, and the actual Ritz Carlton was another. "In my research, I found the hotel was done in a late Georgian Adams style, very conservative. I married that with touches of streamlined Moderne, which gave it a little theatricality." He also moved away from typical period colors like gray and burgundy, which he says looked too "stodgy." The resulting palette is monochromatic--black, white, and beige--with two strong accent colors, coral and teal. "It looks really sharp when the men come in in their tuxedos, and the women in their great 50s clothes," says Christopher. "David wanted this to be everyone's fantasy of a hotel suite at the Ritz Carlton: the suite that you know someone really important is getting, and you're not."
It did take some adjustment for the designer to scale himself down from the likes of Radio City Music Hall and the Shrine Auditorium, sometime home of the Oscars, to a Broadway-sized house with a 35' proscenium. And the budget (in the low five figures) was certainly not awards show- or even sitcom-sized, either. "But it got me back to my roots, where I realized, 'Oh my god, I dont have a whole studio behind me, I don't have a staff of assistants, I really have myself and a couple of friends to do this show,' " says Christopher, who trained in theatre but last trod the boards in 1987, when he did double duty on The Boys From Syracuse and Leave It to Jane in repertory at UCLA. "I hired someone to do a model, and Ron Olson, the set decorator on Frasier, to help with the decoration. But I did all my own drafting, went out shopping for fabrics and hardware, and designed these little tables that Ron and I painted ourselves. I was sweating every detail.
"As you get more successful," Christopher concludes, "you get more and more removed from the actual work. It's so nice to step out of that and confront the work again head-on."
Light Up the Sky's limited run at the Pasadena Playhouse ended December 19.