Dear Reader: In this issue you'll find a special spread on video projections, the presence of which, as we note in that section's introduction, has been a recent trend in entertainment design. It's one that shows no signs of slowing down, either: This fall in New York alone, several new productions, ranging from the Off Broadway play Game Show to the new Isaac Mizrahi one-man show, Les Miz-rahi, are utilizing complex video projection as part of the overall design process.
There are several other industry trends I'd like to discuss this month, some of which we cover in detail, while some are much subtler. To wit:
Set design on concerts. This was the year that set design came into its own on the concert stage. Used to be that all you needed were a couple of amps and the band was ready to go. Then lighting became an integral part of the standard rock show. Now it's the sets, and we're not talking tiny Stonehenges dropping awkwardly from the rafters here. Giant collapsible sculptures, elegant soft goods, and huge slabs of moving scenery - on tours both large and not so large, elaborate sets worthy of a Broadway show are becoming the standard. Whether this trend is the result of the performing artists trying to give the audience their money's worth or the producers' attempt to bolster flagging ticket sales in a soft market is largely irrelevant; the bottom line is that some great work is being done right now. Check out this month's story on Mark Fisher's design for AC/DC and you'll see what I mean.
Rising rental costs. When we met last August with PRG president and CEO Jere Harris to discuss the rebranding of his company's lighting group, he confirmed what we'd been hearing from Broadway and Off Broadway designers for weeks: New York rental houses had raised their prices across the board, in some cases astronomically. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone following the business climate in this industry; shops had been undercutting each other on prices for years, cutting deals with designers in order to get their business on a regular basis. As time progressed, the equipment specified grew in quality and in quantity, yet the bill hardly rose at all. It was a situation that couldn't last - shops rarely made any money on a Broadway or Off Broadway show, and usually ended up losing money - and this past summer, the bubble finally burst. Though it's not clear who initiated the price increase, all the other shops quickly followed suit. But guess who got caught in the middle? Designers, unprepared for the increase, were submitting budgets that were giving producers aneurysms. Adjustments were eventually made in most cases, but I suspect that the full effects of this have yet to be felt.
Blaming the designer for everything. David Barbour's new column, "You'll Know Who", discusses the recent meltdown behind the scenes of Seussical, in which director Frank Galati and the producers Fran and Barry Weissler decided that all the problems with their troubled Boston tryout could be traced to costume designer Catherine Zuber's costumes. The New York media had a field day with this one, especially The Post. That paper's theatre columnist, Michael Reidel, followed up with a dissection as to why it's so difficult to mount a new musical out of town. "If you have a set problem, you can't concentrate on anything else," producer Jim Freydberg told Reidel. "On Big, I spent two days explaining the danger of the sets to the actors. That was two days I did not spend on the book and the score." Oh, boo-hoo! The producer controls the purse strings; the director handles all the creative aspects of the show. Both of them can say no to a design they don't like, don't want to spend the money on, or don't think will work. And yet it's the designer who can bring down a show? Sorry, but to use a baseball analogy, if you field the team, you're responsible for what transpires on the basepaths. When a baseball team doesn't play well, it's not the players who get the boot; it's the coaches, the managers, or the general manager. The body rots from the head down. Sadly enough, blaming the designer for an ailing production is something that happens far too often, and it's one trend I doubt will go away any time soon.
Lastly, here's one weird little trend: recently deceased Broadway producer David Merrick pops up in two stories this month, once in George Van Buren's reminiscence of his work on Merrick's 110 in the Shade in "Tales from the History Project", and once in Davi Napoleon's story on designers replacing other designers. What does it mean? I haven't a clue. But it's probably some designer's fault.