You've no doubt read the reviews of Frank Wildhorn's latest Broadway endeavor, Dracula, The Musical. They were, in a word, negative (or is that AB negative?). Whatever the critics thought of the show's plot, music, book, and acting, praise was given to the production's design team that is a VIP list of Broadway pros: Howell Binkley's lighting, Catherine Zuber's costumes, Michael Clark's projections, Heidi Ettinger's sets, and sound by Acme Sound Partners.
There's no mistaking that Dracula is vastly different from previous incarnations that detailed the bloodthirsty count's endeavors for life everlasting, and that was a concentrated effort by the designers and director Des McAnuff, who had shepherded the show from its original incarnation at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2001 to its Broadway berth. “Dracula lends itself so easily to camp,” comments set designer Heidi Ettinger. There's a fine line that could not be crossed for the design team and they made certain to stay within that realm of tasteful otherworldliness without resorting to clichés. Otherwise the show would have become campy like Dance of the Vampires and the Rocky Horror Show, but this new, Spartan Dracula steered very clear of that, evoking an ethereal atmosphere that was haunting, to say the least.
The directive from McAnuff was to give the show a “visual elegance,” according to Ettinger, a Tony Award winner for her remarkable sets for The Secret Garden, and nominated for her designs on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. “I was just stymied,” she admits. “The last thing I wanted to do was cobwebby gothic cathedral garbage. It was about finding a different way into it.”
Instead of populating her drawing boards with castle turrets, flying buttresses, and gargoyles, Ettinger went down an entirely different road that led to Spain rather than Transylvania, Romania, or even Edwardian England. “As I was researching the period, I went to the whole world of art nouveau which then led me to look at the [Antonio] Gaudi stuff and the point of origin there is sort of wacky medievalism which seems to work really well with Dracula,” she explains. “I was trying very hard to go into an atypical direction. The danger of Dracula is that we've all seen it endlessly, so you had to go for a visual surprise and take the audience in a different direction. Otherwise it's just all so predictable.”
Predictable is the one word that would definitely not describe the Dracula sets which were built, painted, and automated by Hudson Scenic, Inc. Since Ettinger was inspired by Gaudi and the art nouveau movement, Dracula's latest haunt is not Bela Lugosi's Transylvania. “Generally speaking, what we tried to do was to never use a straight line,” she explains. “All the shapes were based on particular curves that are used in art nouveau along with parabolic arches. We also used a curvilinear treatment of surfaces and silhouettes that you don't find much in other architecture.” Ettinger cites the Hillingham parlor as the most straightforwardly art nouveau-influenced set, with its stained glass angel and plethora of curves. The inspiration for that came from Belgian art nouveau and is more delicate than the work of Gaudi, whose influence can be seen in all of the door shapes, arches, the final crypt scene, and in the details of the asylum where the fly-eating Renfield is ensconced.
Once she found her artistic inspiration, Ettinger faced more challenges in terms of the parameters of her designs. The theatre's size — the Belasco is one of the smallest Broadway houses — and the onstage aeronautics by the flying bloodsuckers provided the designer with a number of constraints. This led her to use single set pieces to dominate scenes since the amount of scenery that could be flown in was minimal. “I had to create whole scenes using one element,” she explains, “so as much as possible I tried to get one element that was really evocative to carry the whole scene visually.” For example, one scene at a dock was dominated by a grouping of ships' masts that clearly indicated where the action was. One of the most striking examples of Ettinger's scenery minimalism takes place in a cemetery. Instead of a creaking gate, rows of tombstones, or even a mausoleum, Ettinger used a solitary, larger than life sculpture of a young child gazing at a skull.
Due to the airborne vampires and the use of irising flats, Ettinger found that the only conceivable place to launch her scenic elements was from the basement. Luckily, the Belasco's basement is a huge, 40' space that theatre impresario and the house's namesake — David Belasco — used to raise live elephants and horses for epic productions such as Ben Hur. Ettinger liked this pop-up method of bringing in set pieces because it was a new way to surprise the audience.
The props were provided and executed by The Spoon Group, Bograds Fine Furniture, and Down Time Productions. The effects equipment was furnished by Sunshine Scenic Studios.
Like Ettinger, costume designer Catherine Zuber wanted to keep her distance from what had been done in other Dracula incarnations. “We wanted to move away from spiders and skulls and creepy things like that,” she says. So Zuber found her inspiration in silhouettes from the 18th and 19th centuries as well as photos of Europeans during those times. “I was looking at costume research, not really honing in on one particular year, but rather a composite,” she continues. “I was sort of borrowing from that time frame and selecting things that had an architectural component to the silhouette of the costume that would be on the same page as what Heidi was doing in terms of the set design.”
It was those photographs that Zuber kept in her mind's eye for ideas. “I kept going back to that photographic image and used that as my beacon to not have the clothes become too realistic; they are heightened,” she explains. “If you were costuming a contemporary play, you wouldn't look at the pages of Vogue or fashion magazines because that's a heightened sense of what people actually wear. Nobody wears those clothes to go to work!”
Of course it was vital for the eponymous title character to have the right look. McAnuff certainly did not want Dracula to be dressed in a shiny black, collared cape, a la Bela Lugosi, nor did he want him to be reminiscent of other European bloodsuckers from newer incarnations of the Stoker classic or from Anne Rice's own vampire canon. When the audience first gets a glimpse of the count, he is aged and — due to his gray hair piled high with a long ponytail — resembles Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker's Dracula, a coincidence that Zuber tried hard to avoid. “We wanted him to be an 18th century figure and old,” Zuber says of Dracula's first appearance, but adds that the resemblance to the aforementioned movie was unfortunate. “I don't like to see movies or be influenced when I'm designing because you feel that you can't have a reaction that's organic. But if you haven't seen things, then you feel a little more like you're just having a reaction based on your sentiments and what the production is dictating in terms of what the director and the other designers are feeling is the way to go.”
Dracula is set in 1904, which allowed Zuber to draw on many influences when dressing the count. “Even though Dracula was from the 18th century, I wanted his look to feel like there were some concessions he made over the centuries,” she says. “I decided that he didn't like to wear breeches so he embraced long trousers and wore an 18th century vest. I wasn't slavish to one period. A lot of their costumes were dictated on what they needed to do.”
And what the vampires needed to do was take to the air, so Zuber had to amend her designs to allow the characters to float, fly, and levitate. Luckily, in terms of planning there was a workshop in Purchase, NY that allowed the costumer to see how the clothes would look as they moved in the air. She also worked hand-in-hand with flight choreographer Rob Besserer, who was delighted at how the costumes could embellish the aerial choreography. “He loved the way the fabric moves through the air and how it could support and heighten their movement,” she says, adding “I was very pleased how the clothes looked in flight and happy with the way they moved.”
During the fittings, Zuber made sure that fans were present at Parsons-Meares costume shop so she could see how they looked when they caught air. “We had fittings where people were suspended because once you have that harness on, it changes your point of gravity and changes how the costumes fit,” she explains. “The harnesses add a little bit of bulk to the hips but it was hardly detectable when they had them on.” Euroco Costumes, Dodger Costumes, Ltd., Carelli Costumes, Inc., Timberlake Studios, and La Jolla Playhouse Costume shop also created the show's wardrobe.
Despite the number of flying characters, there had to be a differentiation between them. For example, when Dracula was flying, he was more composed and stoic and flew rather than, say, walked from one part of the stage to the other. The vampire girls, on the other hand, flitted about the stage like blood-hungry moths and were a bit more manic. “I made sure their legs were free and not caught up in skirts,” Zuber says. “Fabric out the sides would be fine, but their legs could not be enveloped so they could move more successfully. It was nice to see what the legs were doing in movement and see what the body was doing.”
LIGHT AFTER LIGHT
LD Howell Binkley has been lighting the famed bloodsucker since its original incarnation in La Jolla back in 2001 and although the concept of the Broadway staging did not differ significantly, with a new scenic designer on board, Binkley was essentially starting from scratch for the bow at the Belasco. “Basically Des wanted to keep the show very mysterious and very sculpted which meant I had to carve in at a lot of different angles and directions to sculpt scenery and actors and keep the show as mysterious as possible within each moment,” Binkley says. “I think that challenge was well supported by the lighting. Each scene was quite isolated and sculpted and even though there was a lot of flying the audience saw no flying lines.”
Therein lay the biggest challenge for the veteran Broadway LD who has designed everything from South American prisons (Kiss of the Spider Woman) to Sesame Street gone awry (Avenue Q). While Binkley feels that Besserer's aerial choreography was beautifully done, the flying apparatus took up a lot of space in the theatre. “Those flying rigs are about 30” and we had three rigs in the show: upstage, center stage, and down stage, that took up a lot of real estate,” he says. “That's a lot of room already gone and ladders and sidelight can't be in front of the flying rigs. It's really tough.”
To get around these constraints, Binkley used L&E Nanostrips in the deck to shoot straight up in the air and a lot of low side light via VARI*LITE VL1000s™ angled upwards to catch the flying actors. He put UV lamps in several automated units and trained the lights on the actors, who were often clad in long, white, flowing gowns; Binkley honed in that specifically to “model the fabric from different angles to keep you from seeing the harness lines.” He also had to keep non-flying characters lit simultaneously; for that, he depended on ETC Source Fours and Source Four PARs in the overhead rig. VL3000s were also used for rear accents on the actors, both airborne and on the stage.
Binkley notes that he only used about 130 conventional units and 55 automated fixtures, relatively small for a Broadway musical. However, he sites the VL3000s as the rig's work horse. “They carved through everything,” he says, adding that he likes to seamlessly combine the conventional and automated fixtures as much as possible. “I like to marry the palette of the two systems and blend them in a way that one is not overpowering the other.” That being said, Binkley says that with Dracula, 99% of the show was sculpted with automated units, he utilized automated lighting programmer Tom Celner's capabilities to realize that goal. Also among the rig were Martin MAC 2K Wash units and Atomic Strobes, which, along with the VL3Ks, brought plenty of Transylvanian lightning strikes to life. Other effects gear included MDG Atmosphere Hazers and Le Maitre G300 Foggers with LSG MKII high power low smoke generator. The lighting package was supplied by Fourth Phase, NJ.
In addition to Binkley's stark, sculpted lighting scheme, Michael Clark designed a number of projections to provide a “liquid mood” concept that he and McAnuff worked on together to enable the projections to go beyond simply being scenic reinforcement. “Liquid was our overwhelming driving force,” Clark says. “We have a lot of swirling blood and pulsating liquid in Dracula's chamber at the end of the show and we have water effects on the deck of the barge. A whole sense of anything liquid and organic seemed appropriate for the projections.”
In order to maintain as much control over the projections as possible and not reveal the flying lines, Clark used two High End Systems DL1 4000 lumen digital light fixtures. “Traditionally with video, a lot of times you suffer from ‘video black’ when the projector is on but not emitting an image, and there is a lot of gray light spill,” Clark explains. “That spill would've given away a lot of the magic and mystery of how the people were flying or reveal someone in the wings. So I had to find a solution that would allow me to put projection specifically where I wanted. These units had both focus and zoom so they could be quite specific.”
At their largest angle, the DL1s could only cover half the stage so when Clark needed full-stage coverage, he put the two images together and overlapped them to create a soft-edge picture that gives the audience a full stage projection.
The lighting department used a Virtuoso console for control but Clark needed to use one that would allow him to work with the DL1 and compensate for keystone correction. “So the choice came down to the Catalyst or the [Virtuoso] EX1 [media server],” Clark says. “Since we used the EX1 as the lighting controller, we used it as the video controller as well because it integrated better with the show and the lighting environment.” In addition, an Obsession 2 console was also used for lighting control.
Think of sound effects, and one generally thinks of plays, not musicals. The most detailed musical might clock in at a couple dozen effects tops, whereas a complex play might require something in the hundreds. Dracula is a different creature altogether. The team from Acme Sound Partners — Tom Clark, Mark Menard, and Nevin Steinberg — recorded enough effects on this production for 10 average musicals, ranging from the usual winds, wolves and other genre-appropriate sounds to extended voiceovers and pitch effects. Talk about scary.
“Des wanted it to be scary,” says Clark. “There was no doubt that it was to be taken seriously, rather than tongue in cheek. Des had come up with about 75 sound effects in rehearsal before we ever arrived in La Jolla, with the help of a keyboard player. And then we took that material and refined it or changed it completely, and ended up with over 100 sound effects related to various movements and supernatural perceptions that various characters experience during the course of the piece.
“It became very unusual from our perspective for a musical in that it was so heavily dependent on sound effects,” he continues. “I've never done a musical with more than 15 or 20, and though I know they've been done, this is the first time I've ever worked on one that was so dependent on effects.”
The designer estimates that approximately one third of the effects used in the show came from existing material the Acme team had used on past shows — all plays, obviously. The thunder effects alone, Clark notes, have been heard multiple times on previous Acme efforts. But a lot of that existing material was actually blended, pinched, prodded and stretched into a variety of new effects.
The spookier effects include a range of supernatural sounds related to Dracula and his influence over other characters. “He would raise his arm and cause someone onstage to act in some way they normally wouldn't,” Clark explains. “That arm raise was a recurring theme throughout the show, with some variations. We also had a whole variety of sounds related to crucifixes and other means of keeping vampires at bay.”
Clark notes that a majority of the spookiest sounds came out of a session during tryouts in La Jolla when all three Acme partners happened to be on site. “It started with the hanging of seven or eight door keys off a microphone stand boom, tinkling them together, and then going to town with the various effects processors, pitching them down, speeding them up, slowing them down, and filtering them in various ways so that they ended up becoming a pretty good palette. From that we ended up with 30 minutes of material, which we used as the basis for the group of effects that were finally used.”
Perhaps even scarier for the Acme team was the change in orchestrations between La Jolla and New York. The tryout production boasted an 11-piece orchestra, with two keyboards and nine acoustic instruments; when the production moved to Broadway, the orchestra dropped to six, consisting of three keyboards, a percussionist, a reed player who quadrupled flute, clarinet, oboe, and English horn, and a cellist. On top of that, they were informed that there would be pre-recorded orchestral tracks in New York, which were based in the orchestra pit and triggered entirely by the conductor/keyboard/string player, Con-stantin Kasopolous. “The nature of the score became much more synthesizer-based, and the tracks were all sample- and synth-based as well,” says Clark. “There were no live recordings that were made and then replayed, they were all sequences that orchestrator Doug Besterman built and turned into .wav files for us. It was played as an audio track from the sequences Doug had developed with [composer] Frank [Wildhorn] and Des.”
To handle what ended up being quite a prodigious sound effects system, the Acme team combined Stage Research SFX with an Outboard Electronics Ti-Max to run show control for the entire performance. SFX also drove the console (a Yamaha PM1D) and the reverbs, and provided the playback audio. There was also a second SFX system in the orchestra pit.
Reinforcement was comprised of L'Acoustics ARCs for the stalls cluster, Meyer MSL-2s for the proscenium left-right, Meyer UPA-1Ps for the balcony cluster, d&b E3, EAW UB12, and Meyer UPA-2P for the underbox and overbox left/right, further E3s for the front fills and stalls underbalcony, and Meyer CQ-1s, 650-Ps, and EAW JF80s as effects speakers. Other gear for Dracula, supplied by PRG Audio, included XTA signal processors, DPA 4061 miniature mikes with Sennheiser SK5012 transmitters and EM 3532 receivers.
Clark notes that dealing with the pre-recorded track within a relatively short time frame was the biggest challenge on this production, but also noted that the show's young board op, Daryl Kral, faces an even bigger challenge every night of the performance. “It's about the hardest thing to mix that any of us has come across in a while,” says Clark, “because the sound effects are so dependent on the moment. If you miss even a heartbeat, you're throwing everybody off, from stage management to automation operators to actors; everybody's dependent on that flow continuing properly. Oh, and by the way, you also have to mix all the voices and the band. Daryl's an amazing mixer and a good stagehand, and he's just a kid.”