There are good musicals and bad musicals, and then there are “Why?” musicals, a category invented by composer Mary Rodgers for shows that have no distinctive identity, no particular reason for being. The vast majority of “Why?” musicals are adaptations of popular films — think The Goodbye Girl, Big, and Footloose — which neither capture the charm of the source material nor provide anything new to attract an audience. One leaves such a show with the overwhelming feeling that you'd be better off at home with a DVD of the movie.
Given these facts of life, one could be forgiven for feeling suspicious when a new Broadway musical based on the 1997 film The Full Monty was announced. But the show's real achievement is the way it manages to capture the original's appeal while simultaneously finding its own identity. As written by librettist Terrence McNally and composer/lyricist David Yazbeck, this very English tale, about a group of unemployed millworkers who make a last-ditch grab for solvency by working as male strippers, has acquired a thoroughly American voice. From its first performance at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre to the smash Broadway opening at the Eugene O'Neill, The Full Monty has established itself as a smart, crowd-pleasing entertainment and, arguably, as the musical of the year.
McNally's libretto follows the narrative of the film; however, he has reset the action in Buffalo, NY, a plausible rust-belt alternative to England's industrial North. Similarly, the central characters are drawn from the film but are totally Americanized: There's Jerry Lutkowski, who's way behind on his child support; the overweight and depressed househusband Dave Bukatinsky; Harold Nicholas, who's hiding his unemployment from his spendthrift wife; and Noah “Horse” T. Simmons, the group's senior member. As in the film, there's also a touching subplot built around a pair of loners, Malcolm MacGregor and Ethan Girard, who are quietly falling in love.
Under Jack O'Brien's direction, The Full Monty is a remarkably integrated piece of work; everything onstage is there to serve the story. McNally's storyline is given thorough support by the show's design team. It begins with scenic designer John Arnone's industrial-strength setting, which provides a constant reminder of the economic desperation that drives the characters to take it all off. Indeed, the designer prepped for the assignment by going to Buffalo, where he shot 11 rolls of film of various locations, including an abandoned Bethlehem steel mill, suburban neighborhoods, bars, and gas stations.
Early discussions with O'Brien revealed a couple of key points. “We talked about the environment of the show, and how to give it a musical-comedy treatment,” the designer says, adding that the show “needed to move quickly and be seamless.” In fact, there are substantial scenes in all kinds of locations, including the stage, dressing room, and the ladies' room at Tony Giordano's strip club; a union hall; a dance studio; a cafeteria; an abandoned factory; and various homes. The designer's challenge lay in assembling all these pieces, then presenting it in a context that honored both the show's gritty undertone yet allowed for the buoyancy and fun of a musical comedy.
Arnone says that inspiration came from various places. Among other things, he delved into Susan Faludi's book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, which analyzes the discontent felt by modern working-class males. He also noticed that those rolls of film from Buffalo yielded important information about scenic materials and his color palette. “The Bethlehem Steel plant was built of corrugated sheet metal,” he says, adding that when metal rusts, it turns vivid colors along the red and green spectrums.
Thus the basic surround for The Full Monty suggests a factory building made of corrugated metal, lined with pillars shaped like smokestacks layered on metal derricks. The color scheme, of overripe reds and aqua-greens, suggests various stages of rust. A backdrop depicts a collage of factories and smokestacks rendered in the dynamo-worshipping style of such early 20th-century artists as Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and Thomas Hart Benton.
Within this environment come and go the many other units that define each individual scene. Working with a relatively small number of pieces — most often four headers and sliders, two each of corrugated metal and two each of translucent glass — Arnone's design helps keep The Full Monty on the move. One of the show's early transitions begins with the club exterior, where Jerry and Dave encounter a group of women on their way to see a Chippendale's act. The guys then sneak into the club through a window; the club revolves (and a line of bathroom sinks slides in) to reveal their port of entry, a men's room “liberated” by the ladies, where a crucial scene of establishing action takes place. Here, Jerry and Dave, eavesdropping, hear some humiliating truths in the number “It's a Woman's World.” Jerry is beat up by Keno, a gay stripper who knows how to defend himself, then starts the number, “Man,” which leads out the scene, and sets up the idea of forming a strip act.
Throughout the show, Arnone's scenery is all about movement and economy. A series of sliders depicting the exterior of suburban homes is designed in asymmetrical fashion, and can be used in different combinations. The aforementioned glass sliders roll into place to create a dance studio, where Jerry and Dave hook up with Harold, who becomes their choreographer. The sliders rearrange themselves, taking us from the interior of the studio to a hall just outside. The abandoned factory where the guys hold auditions and rehearsals is seen in various configurations to accommodate different scenes. The factory backdrop disappears for certain scenes; it is “wiped” out, as in a film, by a scrim painted with “blue diagonal rays, reminiscent of a Demuth painting,” the designer notes.
In all these things, Arnone is aided by the lighting of Howell Binkley. The two are frequent collaborators: “He's my alter ego,” says Arnone. “Howell is good at creating a kind of Cubist geometry out of rays of light, with strong beams of color cutting through space, to complete the stage picture.” In fact, Binkley's lighting works with Arnone's design to give the production a cinematic sense of movement. “You see everything move, which is one of the joys of the piece,” says Binkley, adding that Arnone's scenery is very lighting-friendly. “The corrugated panels are translucent so, in transitions, I could backlight them, and then, as we headed into scenes, I could frontlight them,” thus transforming from moment to moment. Also, says Binkley, the house exteriors are designed as flats; however, “there is RP screen in the windows; I could backlight the windows and then, using [Martin Professional] Macs, I could do some crosslight with breakup patterns, and the bounce from the floor gives the scenery some dimension.”
Given the show's less-than-glamorous, sometimes garish mise-en-scene, Binkley employs a varied color strategy. A number of book scenes, set in various mundane locations, feature a cool, restrained look. “A lot of times we used CTO, or color correction, in scenes like the cafeteria or the dressing room,” he says, adding, “CTO, from a front-of-house position, worked really nicely on the corrugated metal.” On the other hand, for the strip scenes, or a fantasy sequence in the number “The Goods,” he uses plenty of hot, saturated colors, including purples, oranges, and blues.
Binkley makes use of a varied lineup of automated units. “In San Diego,” he says, “I went with [High End Systems] Studio Colors® and [Martin Professional] Macs, because of issues of budget and availability. I wanted to keep the same rig for New York, because of time, money, and programming reasons. Anyway, I was very happy with them. The Macs were brilliant for area lighting, with templates, and for sculpting the scenic surround.” The plot also includes some Vari-Lite 6B™ automated units as well. “I think they all had a combined effect,” says the designer, “especially in triggering the transitions, flooding the stage from side positions.”
If Arnone's scenery helps keep the show moving, Binkley works subtly to underscore the drama in each musical number. Jerry and his fellow union workers vent their frustrations in “Scrap”; as the number builds in intensity, so does the lighting, sculpting the singers' bodies from various positions. The constant changes increase the feeling of tension and also create a strong stage picture of isolation and loneliness. In contrast, the first act ends with “Michael Jordan's Ball,” in which Jerry uses a basketball metaphor to get the guys to dance in unison. Binkley isolates each actor in his own pool of downlight; as they learn to move with each other, the moving beams trace increasingly complicated patterns on the stage floor. (The show's indispensable choreographer is Jerry Mitchell). “Programming that number was so difficult,” says the designer. “What was helpful was finding the number's rhythm, which gave us a reason to do what we wanted, without it being gimmicky.”
At other moments, the designers collaborate to create subtly beautiful effects. Arnone says he was tired of seeing star curtains used in musicals during the ballads; thus, in “Breeze Off the River,” red aircraft warning lights, placed on the backdrop's smokestacks, come on, creating a nicely melancholy effect that doesn't violate the tone of the play.
Scenery and lighting really come together for the finale, when Jerry and his gang, now known as Hot Metal, appear onstage at Tony Giordano's, to perform the big number “Let It Go.” It's the moment everyone has been waiting for, and Binkley catches the excitement with lots of color, movement, chases, and patterns. At a certain point in the song, the action jumps to another level, says Arnone: “It's the final moment of a Broadway musical. You want to leave the audience with the impression that a real event has taken place.”
In fact, moving scenery, and lighting work together with hugely effective results. The act begins with the guys, minus Jerry, onstage in front of a typically tacky rain curtain. The curtain then angles around to provide a sideways view of the act, while Jerry confronts his son, and decides to join the rest of the guys onstage. Right after he enters, the big transition occurs; the curtain flies out and is replaced by a much larger rain curtain. At this point, says Arnone, we're seeing a fantasy come true, as the act goes over like gangbusters. Then, he adds, “Their achievement is metaphorically expressed, and also topped,” by the appearance of a giant sign, spelling out the words “The Full Monty,” in lights.
“It's a metal frame, with star strobes [and 40W R-20s, with Coemar C5 7s around the edge] built in,” says Binkley, who also notes that “it requires 48 dimmers. It flies in to 6' from the deck, then slowly comes in.” At the big moment, when the guys bare it all, the lights go up enough to blind the audience, as the actors disappear behind the sign and get into robes for their curtain calls. Binkley adds that, bright as the lights are, “The [wattage of the] sign never goes up to full. We tried it, but then you could see more of the actors than you wanted. Now, they drop their hats and the lights go up to 70%.” By that time, the audience is out of control with delight anyway.
Binkley's light plot includes approximately 475 ETC Source Four units, of varying degrees, along with 16 “Pepper” fresnels, one “Inky” fresnel, four MRs, 25 L&E Mini Strips, 20 Orion strips, two Lycian 1278 HMI followspots, and six police beacons for a chase scene, plus the aforementioned star strobes and moving lights. An ETC Obsession, linked via MIDI to a High End Systems Wholehog II (for the moving units), controls the lighting. Four Star Lighting was the supplier. Other personnel include associate lighting designer Mark Simpson, moving light programmer Timothy F. Rogers, head electrician Jon Mark Davidson, and assistant electrician John Van Buskirk.
On the scenery side, other personnel include associate set designer Brian Webb, head carpenter Hank Hale, automation carpenter Bill Partello, and production property master George Wagner. The original scenery and property fabrication was done by the Old Globe Theatre; for Broadway, scenery fabrication and automation was provided by Scenic Technologies/Entolo. Additional scenery was fabricated by Hudson Scenic Studios, with painting by Jane Snow at Hudson Scenic.
Both designers say repeatedly that O'Brien's strong leadership is the key feature in the success of The Full Monty; it is clear that these designers enjoyed a productive collaboration. That enjoyment is communicated each night to the audience at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. “This kind of show is meant to engage and delight,” says Arnone and in this he and his colleagues have succeeded magnificently. Thanks to them, the audience travels The Full Monty as well, achieving a maximum state of joy.
“I tried to keep it as real and human as possible,” says Robert Morgan, costume designer for The Full Monty, in regard to his take on the clothing. “It was clear we all wanted to tell the same story about friendship, courage, and family values. The central story is about the father's relationship with his son and his struggle to maintain his sense of honor.”
With this in mind, Morgan designed The Full Monty costumes, first at the Old Globe in San Diego and then for Broadway, to “avoid assumptions. There are no cliches and no stereotypes,” he says. “The audience response should be to the actor, rather than what the clothing might tell you.” And although the main thrust of the concept is reality, Morgan admits to a sense of heightened theatricality in some of the costumes. “They are larger than life, yet real,” he insists.
Ninety percent of the costumes worn in the musical are store-bought, to keep them looking as real as possible. “This kind of design requires a lot of sensitivity on the part of the designer,” says Morgan, who considers himself more of a classical or period designer. He shopped the musical as if he were shopping for a modern-dress film. “There were no sketches,” he says, describing the process as “talking to the director, buying clothes, talking to the actors, buying clothes, going into the dressing room and working it all out. The shopping allowed us to discover the nuance of each character. I followed my instincts after seeing them in rehearsal.”
For the San Diego production, Morgan had some original designs built but discovered “they were too big. They all went away after the first dress rehearsal.” The clothes he bought have an all-American look, the kind of things one can find in any mall across the country. “Buffalo is a metaphor,” Morgan notes. “The clothing is blue-collar, but never condescending.”
Dressing the women in the musical was even more challenging than costuming the central male characters. “This is a story about the men, but the women have to be exactly right or the men don't look right either,” says Morgan. “The women play broadly and are often humorous in terms of character, yet they also have to stay real. They are not trashy.” Morgan credits his assistant, Michelle Short, for helping to pull him back from heading in the wrong direction, especially in terms of the women's clothes.
Once the production was in rehearsal in New York, Morgan discovered that some of the clothes that looked right in San Diego were no longer appropriate and had to be replaced. “They were the right design, but the wrong execution or the wrong weight of fabric,” he notes. “Some things just didn't look right on the East Coast.” Certain items he purchased were dyed to fit into the show's color palette.
“This was a complex issue,” he says, in reference to the colors he used. “Each of the guys has four or five different T-shirts in different shades of the same color, such as red, blue, purple, or olive green.” The idea here is to be able to keep the color the same, but change the intensity as the action moves from a book scene to a musical number. “They need to look real in some scenes, yet really pop up in others to support the musical intensity of a given number.”
Perhaps the least real clothes are those worn by Keno. “We needed to set up an expectation of what the guys would have to look up to, and have to do. Knowing what these guys really look like helps keep up dramatic tension in the piece,” explains Morgan. “The director's feeling was that this is a third — rate touring stripper who does his own costumes.” Even here, Morgan did not focus on the costumes, but rather on the character. “The focus is on the body and taking the clothes off,” he indicates, adding that even the cowboy stripper costume is subdued; no fake pony fur or Las Vegas sequins.
Once he got the male characters into their costumes, Morgan then had to get them to take them off. The uniforms worn for the final striptease scene were built especially for the show. “We purchased a first set of uniforms in San Diego, and rigged them for rehearsal,” explains Morgan, who had the uniforms made out of wool. “We couldn't get cotton or a synthetic blend to work correctly,” he adds.
The breakaway trousers have snap tape along the outer seams, while the skimpy red bikini underwear has Velcro along one of the side seams. “Choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who does Broadway Bares, was very helpful with this,” Morgan says. “He would come into the shop and talk it through with the cutters. We also made sure the lighting cues were perfect when the actors rehearsed this number and they were eager to get on with it. They knew what they were getting into.” Or out of, as the case may be.
Morgan took the winter off to enjoy his family and their home in northern Vermont. But additional productions of The Full Monty are on the horizon, including the national company, and perhaps a production in London's West End. “Each production looks a little different, as you have to shop for new actors,” says Morgan. “This helps keep the exercise fresh for me.”
A Full-Bodied Sound
Inquiring minds want to know: where on earth did sound designer Tom Clark place the mics on the six male leads in The Full Monty's final, there-for-all-to-see strip scene? And for heaven's sake, what about the bodypacks?
Never fear: They're all housed in the actor's hats. Prior to the second-to-last scene, which takes place in the strip club dressing room, the actors rip off their head mics (DPA-4061s) and bodypacks (Sennheiser SK-50s), and replace their regular security guard hats with versions containing both mics and transmitters. The hats then stay with the actors for the big finale, as clothes and underclothes are stripped away during the song “Let it Go.” And so it can be told: the packages you see on each performer ever so briefly at the very end of the show are not the bodypacks.
“There are a few uncomfortable moments during the dressing room scene,” notes Clark, “where they're not actually wearing their hats, but still talking. So there's a fair amount of sometimes careful, sometimes not-so-careful holding of hats to get a reasonable distance between voice and microphone during that exposed period.”
Clark credits the production's previous sound designer, Jeff Ladman, for solving that miking problem in the show's San Diego tryout. Clark himself came onboard to handle the Broadway transfer of The Full Monty last summer. The composer David Yazbeck was eager for the New York production to achieve the full power of the rhythm inherent in his score, and it was up to Clark to balance that with the quieter book scenes. “You don't want the audience to feel like they're in some kind of roller-coaster ride where they were being assaulted one minute and straining to hear the next,” he explains. “There was concern from the get-go about making sure we weren't hurting people in the theatre; nobody wanted reviews that said, ‘Blisteringly loud,’ yet at the same time everyone recognized that the music needed a certain amount of punch to be effective.”
Such challenges were resolved once the band was brought in to the Eugene O'Neill; Clark was able to box the band up in the orchestra pit, completely enclosing the drummer and virtually eliminating electronic instrument amplifiers. “It's actually the quietest orchestra pit I've ever worked in, because everybody's got headphones and reasonably comprehensive mixing capabilities at hand,” says Clark. “All of this enabled us to get the volume level of what was actually coming out of the pit way down, which in turn gave us more freedom onstage and in the auditorium to get the balances we were after.” The acoustic instruments are miked with a combination of Electro-Voice RE-20s, AKG D-112Es, Sennheiser MKH-40s and MD-421s, and AKG 414B-ULSs.
One of the most unique aspects of Clark's design for Full Monty was the use of the dV-DOSC system from French loudspeaker manufacturer L'Acoustics. This production marks the Broadway debut of these speakers, and Clark, for one, is impressed. “The best thing about them is that they have extremely wide horizontal coverage, so you can basically cover the entire main floor with multiples of one box in the horizontal plain,” he explains. “Which simply means that there are no splice points between speaker systems as you walk across the auditorium. And in the past, given the shallowness of classic Broadway houses, you have almost always had to use two or three loudspeakers to get the horizontal coverage that was required in the front part of the room, and that makes for interactions between speakers that are not altogether pleasant to listen to.
“The other remarkable thing about them,” he adds, “is that, although it's a very narrow vertical coverage, it is an extremely well-engineered vertical coverage, so that you build a cluster by stacking multiple cabinets one on top of the other, just like with the V-DOSC system.”
The rest of the rig is made up of Meyer CQ-1s, UPA-1Ps, UPM-1s, D&B E-3s, and custom-made Quality Music Systems subwoofer cabinets loaded with Aura 1808 drivers, powered by Crown MA Series amps. The system is run via a Cadac J-Type, with 25 — slot and 56 — slot frames, and Cadac Sound Automation Manager software.
Clark may well be the busiest man on Broadway right now. In addition to The Full Monty, he's got Jane Eyre and The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe running as well, and he's working on two more shows scheduled for the spring — a revival of Bells Are Ringing and A Class Act, a musical based on the life of Chorus Line lyricist Edward Kleban And he's still serving as director of ACI Sound Solutions, a division of Artec Consultants.
Such a full load recently led Clark to form a new company called ACME Sound Partners with fellow sound designers Mark Menard and Nevin Steinberg. “All of these shows were pretty much on top of each other, and that put me in a strange situation,” Clark explains. “I had to decide whether I turn one or more down, or whether I find some good collaborators. Mark and Nevin were two folks with whom I'd worked on Side Show, and I felt like we had very similar kinds of approaches to the business of Broadway sound design for musicals. I certainly liked them both. And from a selfish point of view,” he jokes, “I could see them both as people whom I didn't want to have as competitors in the future.”