In the Wings
by Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
When Mel Brooks first assaulted the sensibilities of American moviegoers in 1967 with The Producers, much of its effect depended on the then-unspeakable notion that anyone could ever produce a musical called Springtime for Hitler. However, times change; in the intervening years, Broadway has seen musicals about serial killers, Latin American dictators, and murderous chorus girls. In the meantime, The Producers has become a cult classic, especially among theatre people who've seen Broadway produce any number of musical bombs that come perilously close to Springtime for Hitler.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that The Producers should come to Broadway. With every bit of its riotous bad-taste humor intact, it has become the kind of phenomenal hit that Times Square is lucky to get once in decade. Having won virtually every available award this spring, and with competition for tickets verging on the homicidal, The Producers is the first great hit of the millennium.
All of which is a little surprising for a show that features tap-dancing storm troopers, swishy gay theatre folk, a chorus line of libidinous old ladies, and various other tasteless jabs at blacks, nuns, the Irish, women, and virtually anyone else. But on the road from the screen to stage, something happened. What was once a rather abrasive, shocking farce has been transmuted into the goofiest showbiz valentine ever seen.
The Producers simultaneously mocks and celebrates the old-fashioned book musical; audiences get to thrill to big production numbers and star clowns even as they laugh at the silliness of such pleasures.
Much of the action is set in the offices of Max Bialystock (played by Tony Award winner Nathan Lane in a riotous tour de force), a questionable Broadway producer who shamelessly seduces little old ladies as investors for his productions. When Leo Bloom (charmingly played by Matthew Broderick) stumbles into his office, Bialystock comes up with a plan to raise millions for a guaranteed flop, with Bloom as his partner. They select a sure-fire failure script, Springtime for Hitler, and set out to get a flop-indicator director, Roger De Bris (portrayed perfectly by Gary Beach). Ulla (embodied by the long-legged Cady Huffman), a statuesque blond, better described as a bombshell than an actress, doubles as the office girl while Bialystock raises his millions to make her a star.
Fully expecting Springtime for Hitler to be an enormous failure, Bialystock and Bloom raise millions more than needed. When the show turns out to be the sensation of the season and the biggest hit in town, the producers find themselves in plenty of hot water. Bloom and Ulla have flown the coop, leaving Bialystock in Sing Sing, singing the blues. But all's well that ends well, and pretty soon, Bialystock and Bloom are back where they belong, as producers on Broadway.
To move The Producers from the screen to the stage, the award-winning design team employed a combination of brand-new technology and old-fashioned techniques to create a production that recreates a Broadway book musical of the 1950s in strictly 2001 terms. This was especially true for set designer Robin Wagner, who describes the sets for The Producers as “technically very retro, not new or experimental.”
Faced with multiple set changes and very little space backstage at the St. James Theatre, Wagner found he had to design in a horizontal, or sideways, manner rather than vertically to create his Tony Award-winning sets (this is Wagner's third Tony; he won previously for On the 20th Century and City of Angels). “This is the shallowest musical stage on Broadway,” he says, noting that the stage is just 28' deep. “The size of the venue has so much to do with what you can and can't do.”
To combat the lack of depth, Wagner designed the sets to move on and off into the wings, rather than fly in and out. “The sets are very straightforward. This is a musical done the way musicals were done in 1959, the year in which The Producers is set,” says Wagner, who himself was working for scenic designer Oliver Smith in 1959. “It's fun to explore old ideas. That can be more interesting than breaking new ground. Many of the scenic elements are manual, and moved via strings pulled by stagehands.”
The designer reports that in his early meetings with author Mel Brooks, director/choreographer Susan Stroman, and the other designers, the initial idea for the musical version of The Producers was to “put the film onstage. We never talked about another concept. We discussed the needs for each scene, in terms of entrances, exits, mannerisms, and behavior. It's all based on the Mel Brooks text.”
Although Wagner hadn't seen the popular film in years, he ultimately watched it, fairly far into the design process. “We used the film as a guidebook,” adds Wagner, who worked with associate designer David Peterson and assistant designer Atkin Pace. Technical supervision was provided by Juniper Street Productions (Hillary Blanken and John H. Paul III); the head carpenter is Jack Cennamo, with assistant carpenters Michael Cennamo, Guy Patria, Richard Patria, and Robert Valli.
The set for the theatrical office of Bialystock & Bloom stays onstage for a great deal of the show. This is built on a steel armature that is rigged into the floor and remains in place throughout the production. Some of the set elements are hung from the armature, while others move into place on wagons from the wings.
ShowMotion of South Norwalk, CT, built, painted, and electrified much of the scenery, with additional scenery fabricated by Entolo/Scenic Technologies in New Windsor, NY, and Hudson Scenic Studios in Yonkers, NY. Scenery automation is by ShowMotion, using its AutoCue Computerized Motion Control System; show control and scenic motion control is via the Stage Command System by Entolo/Production Resource Group; all soft goods used in the show are by I. Weiss, which also supplied a new show curtain for the St. James.
The office set is “redecorated” during intermission, becoming completely white for the second act. The set pieces for the second act are stacked in the wings, with a massive changeover in just 16 minutes. The second act comes in; the first act flies out. “The scenery is choreographed within an inch of its life,” notes Wagner, indicating a ballet of manpower and chain hoists that takes place backstage during the brief intermission, when time and space is at a premium.
One of the most colorful sets is the Upper East Side townhouse of Roger De Bris. The set provides the perfect backdrop for the show-stopping musical number, “Keep It Gay,” featuring the director and designers for Springtime for Hitler, with Bialystock and Bloom egging them on to unwittingly create an unstoppable flop. The choice of furniture and colors for this scene was again collaboration between Wagner, Brooks, Stroman, and costume designer William Ivey Long. “The choice of a lavender color palette may look like it's intentionally leaning in a certain direction,” says Wagner, who denies that there was any specific intention in using the pastel shades. “These are colors we hadn't used yet and saved for this scene.” Wagner approached the “Little Old Lady Land” scene, in which Bialystock frolics with his elderly “angels,” like a theme park. “It's based on the ‘Loveland’ number from the original production of Sondheim's Follies,” he notes. The set establishes the scene, then slides off to make room for the “ladies” to swing their walkers about.
Jerard Studio, Inc. (located in Brooklyn) and David Johnson built the prototypes for the storm trooper puppets that create a swastika pinwheel in the show-stopping “Springtime for Hitler” musical number. “These are a puppet rig with an actor in the center and a life-sized puppet on either side,” explains John Jerard, director of Jerard Studio, a specialty prop house. A double-axle system runs behind the puppets and the actor, and is attached to the actor's legs. “When the actor goose-steps, the puppets goose-step as well,” Jerard adds.
The actor is also belted into the puppet rig, which is on wheels so that the actor does not have to bear all of the weight. Jerard Studio built the lightweight aluminum prototypes, while Entolo built the actual rigs.
Flying the Coop
by Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
Jerard Studio also built the incredibly clever pigeon puppets, which appear in their coop in a scene set on a Greenwich Village rooftop, where Franz Liebkind, a former Nazi and author of Springtime for Hitler, sings to his pigeons (in the film they were real birds). “We wanted to be able to choreograph them, so we built pigeons that can move,” notes Jerard.
“There are eight pigeons in the coop,” he adds, “four on the top row and four on the bottom.” The puppets can be manipulated independently, with heads that bob and wings that flutter, by dancer-puppeteers standing behind them. “They are then plugged into a bar so that they move in tandem,” Jerard continues. “One dancer can now move four pigeons.”
The mechanics for the pigeons are built with steel for the non-moving parts and polyethylene (a hard, slick plastic) for the moving parts. The non-stick plastic slides easily against itself and assures fluid movement. A frame structure, made of aluminum and Sintra plastic, sits over the mechanics.
On top of this is the outer surface of the pigeons, created using air-brushed painted fabric with feathers and sequins. The birds' eyes are made of jewels, and their necks are made of stretchy fabric so they can elongate. The wings are designed to move up and down, and at the end of the song (”Der Guten Tag Hop Clop”), one wing does a Nazi salute and a swastika is flipped over the wing.
For the finale, a series of signs appears, announcing the titles of other successful Bialystock & Bloom productions. These signs are designed like standard exterior theatre marquees, with light bulbs running in a metal trench around the edge. They are extremely heavy and permanently attached to the back wall of the theatre, with a black scrim in front of them until they are lit.
“I wasn't really surprised by the success of The Producers,” admits Wagner. “It is my favorite film, even though I hadn't seen it in years. I saw a read-through of the musical and fell on the floor laughing, as did the other 50 people in the room. I haven't had one this big since A Chorus Line.”
The Lights of Broadway
by David Barbour
The Producers marks Peter Kaczorowski's sixth show with director/choreographer Susan Stroman, and it's a project that in some ways reveals the full intimacy of their collaboration. Here, Kaczorowski's lighting seems at times to be an extension of Stroman's musical staging, adding grace notes and gags to every number. The Producers is a musical about theatre people, and, as a result, the fourth wall is regularly breached. “There are many winks and asides,” he says, “moments where actors break character and address the audience. I tried to do some of that with the lighting as well. In shows like The Music Man or Contact [other Kaczorowski-Stroman projects], it's about keeping one long spell going for the duration of the evening. But when Mel makes the rules, he breaks the rules, and I went along with it.”
Take, for example, the number “I Want to Be a Producer,” in which Leo escapes his arid existence as an accountant by dreaming of fame, fortune, and showgirls. It's a model of seamless cueing. The song begins with Leo's fellow accountants lamenting their dreary lives. “There are six Martin Mac 2000s acting as downlights on the six accountants,” Kaczorowski says. When a black accountant bursts into a Paul Robeson parody, the lights switch colors, casting the actor in an appropriate blue downlight. The colors return to a dull downlight, with Matthew Broderick's light cued to a different intensity, to pick him out as he takes up the number. Then, as each of six file cabinets opens to disgorge a beautiful chorine out of Leo's fantasies, the Mac's iris open to focus on the girls, while corresponding units on the house truss pick them up as well. One look transitions into another with cinematic ease.
As the number builds, a sign flies in, with the words “Leo Bloom Presents” spelled out in lights. At the finale, however, Leo must return to dull reality. Kaczorowski says, “He gets to the last line of the song, which is, ‘I want to be a producer/Because it's everything I'm not.’ As the sign recedes and the office comes back into view, each letter on the sign goes off individually, until it gets down to ‘O.’ It's a nice parallel to Leo's realization that he's not cut out for producing.” (Electric signs, by the way, are a major design element in The Producers. Not only is there the Leo Bloom Presents drop, there's the finale, in which we see Leo and Max's lineup of future hits, including South Passaic and She Shtupps to Conquer, all depicted in lights. Because several of these signs had some chasing element, they required three circuits. There's also an electric sign over the Shubert Theatre set in the first scene.)
In the Act II duet, “That Face,” Leo and Ulla, the Swedish secretary/chorus girl/all-around bombshell, fall in love. The number is equal parts romantic and farcical. As Leo sings about Ulla, Kaczorowski uses the Macs to project her face all over the walls of the set. When Ulla sings about Leo, the opposite happens. The effect is goofily sentimental and perfectly in keeping with the tone of the song.
Of course, the designer's chef d'oeuvre was “Springtime for Hitler,” which has been turned into the extravaganza of extravaganzas. “It had to be completely spectacular,” Kaczorowski says, adding that the number breaks down into several discrete sequences. First comes the opening staged in front of a drop, with Tyrolean peasants delivering the verse. Then there's the “Follies number,” in which girls with beer and sausage headdresses do their stately procession, while a tenor leads the chorus. Next is the “Judy Garland” moment, with Roger De Bris as Hitler sitting on the edge of the stage for an intimate moment with the audience. This is followed by the “tap challenge,” in which Hitler competes with other Fascist leaders. “Then the storm trooper line, the tilting mirrors, the curtain call — it doesn't stop,” says Kaczorowski, who had to zoom from full-stage tableaux to tight closeups throughout the number, while providing chase sequences for the lights on the stairs and the German eagle drop. The sequence concludes with a Mac picking out Carmen Ghia, Roger's lover, as he dashes up the theatre aisle with a bouquet of flowers.
All this and more had to be accomplished in the St. James Theatre, a venerable Broadway musical house with a shallow stage space that can be a designer's nightmare. “I basically did the show with three light pipes and three ladders,” says Kaczorowski, who achieved the rest of his effects with striplights and some front-of-house positions.
Partly because of the space challenge, Kaczorowski took a chance on the new Martin Mac 2000. “I knew I had to get a lot done in a small space. The Mac is 1,200W. It's an HMI source, which is quite bright. I needed to get some serious color onstage. I looked at a lot of other lights that were okay, but they were only 750W or 575W.” In fact, the unit's color-mixing abilities was a major selling point, he adds: “I'm over moving gear that can't do color mixing. It's pointless not to have that, especially for theatrical applications.” With the Macs, he says, “You can do a vista color changes, without going to a color chip or changing wheels; you can easily fade into another color.”
The Macs, he adds, are not perfect. “Their motor speed is a little slow, especially if you want a big bump with all the units coming together at the end of a number. But they're fantastic lights. They're hugely bright, they're really clean. Even their tints are pretty darn good — you get a nice pale pink, a nice bastard amber. You can match the color quality to the other conventional lamps in the rig — and they're accurate and they repeat themselves.” The rest of the light plot consists of Martin Mac 500s, ETC Source Fours and Source Four PARs, Altman fresnels and Micro-Strips, L&E Mini-10s and Mini-Strips, Lycian xenon followspots, Wybron ColoRams, and MDG Atmosphere haze machines.
Another way Kaczorowski coped with the lack of space was to create “a number of systems that changed color and were not dependent on scenery to get focused. There's the system that falls off of the alpine drop in ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ for example, or the system of sidelights that fall off the sides of the ‘Leo Bloom Presents’ drop. In Chicago [during the tryout], because we had the space to store scenery in the wings, I had the open stage space to focus lights. But at the St. James, the scenery is hung six stories high. At work calls, if you wanted to fix a piece of scenery, they had to fly in everything else first and stick it someplace. That meant the stage was filled with sets. I didn't have a prayer of getting an empty stage to point lights. It was the same story with Steel Pier [another Stroman musical], so I laid the show out with very open systems that worked in multiple locations, and they all scrolled.” In addition, the automated units then worked overtime as refocusable specials on the couch in Max's office, on Franz's swastika-ed pigeons, and for tight pinspots in intimate moments.
For control, Kaczorowski used the ETC Obsession 2000 for the conventional units, and the Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II for the automated lights; the two boards are MIDI-linked together. Again, with the Obsession, the designer took a bit of a risk. “I had heard a lot about Obsession 2000 bugs,” he says, so he chose the Obsession 1500 for Chicago. However, he adds, “I knew there would be a lot of chases in the show, and I had heard that the Obsession 1500 had problems coping with chases, because of its processor. Sure enough, during ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ when the stairs and the eagle were chasing, every time we hit the ‘go’ button to execute internal cues, we could see a burp in the ongoing chases. The 2000 eliminated that problem.” The switch to the Obsession 2000 happened when the show came to New York. “We sent the disk from the 1500 to ETC, and they did the conversion. Paul Miller, my first assistant, went to the ETC office and worked with them. Some things had to be reprogrammed manually, but most of it was easy to do.”
In addition to Miller, a number of others provided Kaczorowski with key assistance on the project, including automated lighting programmer Josh Weitzman, assistant lighting designers Mick Addison Smith and Philip S. Rosenberg, production supervising electrician Rick Baxter, head electrician Joe Pearson, and assistant electricians Todd Davis and Tom Furgeson. Lighting equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase New Jersey.
Challenges aside, Kaczorowski seems to have entered into The Producers' contagious spirit of fun. Viewers of the Tony Awards ceremony will long remember the riotous film-noir spoof, in which he discussed the art of the lighting designer. His next assignment is almost not to be believed — he's lighting the Ring Cycle for the Seattle Opera — and he is very amused by the irony of moving from “Springtime for Hitler” to the Ride of the Valkyries in a matter of months. This fall, he takes up his seventh collaboration with Stroman, for the new musical Thou Shalt Not, a sexy musical melodrama based on Therese Raquin, Emile Zola's novel of adultery and murder.
top photo: Paul Kolnik
set model photo: Richard Lee