Based on real-life brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner, an artist and con artist who exploited the Yukon Gold Rush and the Florida land boom between the late 1800s and the 1930s, Bounce turns on a series of devastations: A father declares that anything is possible, then drops dead. A mother tells her two sons she loves them equally, then casts an adoring look at her favorite. These two brothers bounce up — and down — all the while singing upbeat songs testifying to their resiliency.
A dark vision painted with a bright brush by a team headed by Hal Prince, Bounce is the American nightmare told as if it were the American dream. Eugene Lee designed the witty sets for the frankly theatrical production that brought spectators into a cartoon world, and Miguel Angel Huidor created the costumes that grounded the musical in reality. Howell Binkley gave depth to Lee's 2D universe, and sound designer Duncan Robert Edwards set location and tone with his effects. The long-awaited Sondheim-Weidman show — it's been in serious development since the mid 90s — premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in July to mixed reviews, and comes to the Kennedy Center this month. The ultimate destination, if things go according to plan, is Broadway.
BRING IN THE DROPS
“Less,” came the call. No, the producers weren't telling the designer he was over budget. It was Lee, telling the shops to make it less beautiful. Although Huidor sometimes found it frustrating to design Broadway-bound costumes on a resident theatre budget, Lee says the scene and properties shops “probably spent more than I wanted.”
Behind the scenes, crews buzzed about “bus and truck,” but Lee says he was inspired by summer stock, where he washed flats during his college years. “Why don't we just do it simply?,” said the designer who simultaneously worked on Wicked, a show featuring oversized dragons and heavy automation.
“Why,” he asked, “can't this be actor-driven?” In this show, a chandelier doesn't fall by way of advanced technology; one is removed by actors playing creditors. A narrow platform resembling a playground seesaw serves as a boat ramp when Addison travels the world. “Everyone tried to make it more complicated,” says Lee of the see-saw, who insisted that Addison (Richard Kind) could learn to balance on it and make it go. “We built the teeter-totter first, so we could put it into rehearsal,” says Scott Conn, associate technical director. “It's just a big piece of shaft and some pillow blocks on a frame and railings that pivot with him. He tips it back and forth and actors push it on and offstage.”
Could the prop shop create a bedspread from a fantastic Victorian fabric? Not when there was a painted curtain behind it. “Every time we tried to do something, he would tell us it couldn't be too nice,” says properties supervisor Alice Maguire, who picked up a $15 vase in Chinatown instead of using the $150 allotted. “We had bought a really beautiful desk for the Honolulu scene. But they wanted hokey, so we built a box and covered it. It cost $20, and it was almost a duplicate of something that costs $1,200. I came in under budget.”
This approach has a precedent. In 1973, Lee and Prince collaborated for the first time on Candide. The Chelsea Theatre Center production put spectators into scenes where pieces of a rough-hewn set fell from above or jumped out, opened, closed, came together, or broke apart. When the pair began talks about Bounce, “Hal was thinking about old Ethel Merman musicals,” Lee recalls. “We spent a lot of time talking about it, with our whimsical hats on. And we came up with something a little like Candide, without the environment.”
Lee's scenery for Bounce makes strong entrances. A table gets a huge laugh when it comes through a slit in a drop, pushed through by a crew person on cue. When drops roll down aggressively, and one hit the floor hard, the gasp is audible. “It's so bad, it's good,” says Lee.
Bounce relies on double casting — of props as well as actors. A character dies in a chaise, which gets a cover to become a settee in the following bedroom scene. With another cover, it changes into a lawn chair that rests beneath painted trees in Palm Beach. An ingenious piece switches from a bed to an altar and back. F & D Scene Changes in Calgary built the steel frame and base structure for the altar-bed, and the Goodman shops adapted it. “It had to be easy for the actors to transform it on stage,” Conn says. “As you pull the bed out, it raises the canopy for the altar.” The shop tried different set-ups and counterweight systems before achieving the goal.
Actors crawl under the bed and dance on it. Choreographer Michael Arnold asked that a trampoline substitute for a mattress, and the shop hid one under blue fabric. After completing the elaborate mechanical work and extensive drapery, it cost more than building two scenes — but they couldn't have been as much fun to watch.
While some props double, others have understudies. The shop rented two chimpanzees from a taxidermist, should one deteriorate during the run. The real Addison had a monkey, and Lee says Prince wanted the character to have one, too. “Mr. Prince really considers his projects before he goes into them. He wanted the prospector to have a gun on his pack, and he asked for a ceramic elephant under the table [in the Florida scenes].”
These three-dimensional objects live in a two-dimensional universe. When Addison returns after a series of business failures, his mind fills with images, influenced by the architecture of places he's traveled. Piece by piece, his sketched mansion takes the stage, black lines on a cream background. The act curtain is a map, framed by blow-ups of postcards from Addison's travels. Inspired by a post-9/11 New Yorker cover of a map of a divided New York, the colorful Bounce map is more inventive than authentic. “Harold kept saying Bunker Hill was not where it belonged,” says Lee, “but it balanced Pike's Peak.” They had considered making the curtain look like a slot machine with lit up panels, but the postcard portal can change size to adapt to other theatres.
Lee also used research, some collected by the Prince office. Much came from the Palm Beach Historical Society, which copied Addison's original drawings and provided photos of the Breakers Hotel, where the brothers stayed, and of Addison's Mediterranean revival-style architecture, with terracotta tile roofs, tile floors and stucco siding.
Painted didn't mean small or simple. “The entire loading dock filled with props,” Maguire says. A wall advertisement that comes on an automated track near the end of the show has panels that open to reveal doors for actors to enter. “The portals were all done with vaccuform brick, but the back wall itself is a muslin drop with a brick texture painted on it with a roofing material that hardens,” Conn says, explaining that part of the methodology has to do with plans for a quick load-in at the Kennedy.
“It was a simple concept but a complicated process,” Conn reflects. “Eugene pushed us all to think about the way scenery was done years ago and to not overbuild.” Lee says there are “small things he never quite solved” that he will adjust, but he's happy with the overall look. “Nothing would make me happier than to see it stay simple on Broadway.”
It fell to Howell Binkley to sculpt what was flat, while creating mood and location. “It was a major challenge to be able to work the text with the color,” says the lighting designer, who normally adds sculpting to defined forms and is not in the habit of lighting a show almost entirely from the front. “With those drops, sidelight is not your friend,” he says.
Binkley broke up the space and gave each scene a color motif, coordinating palettes with scenery and costumes. The production is framed by two scenes set in Heaven, with a very blue sky and white puffy clouds painted with light. One bedroom scene is dark and moody, until a curtain opens. A showstopper set in Boca Raton, on a bridge and a beach, with beach balls and umbrellas, required warmth and brightness and a break-up so the front of the boardwalk wasn't flat.
Lights travel with characters, following journeys and journeys within journeys. “There were so many layers within scenes that Hal let me amplify to keep the storytelling going,” says Binkley. “So many unique things had to be pumped, not in an abstract way but with subtlety to be able to release back out and restore into where we were. Sometimes characters were in one location and we had to abbreviate out of that.” Wilson tricks his brother into digging for gold in the Alaskan snow, for instance, while he enjoys the attention of a woman in a salon. “We made the salon warm, with a golden feel, so we had a place to go when we had to jump back out to the cold,” Binkley explains. The darkest scene is set in Addison's conservatory late in the evening and during a storm. “We had to work the text there,” Binkley says, adding that he enjoyed the rare chance to light something from the back and have movement shoot through it.
Binkley used many moving lights, “not the way you would in a big rock-and-roll show, but for sculpting and for color palettes, and being able to put dapplage and breakup on all the drops,” he explains. With the help of Tim Rogers, his automated lighting programmer, he used High End Systems Studio Spots and Studio Colors to establish scenes with color.
Sometimes, it was essential to isolate areas, too. When Addison travels the world, for instance, the teeter-totter takes center and each destination occupies a different part of the stage. Binkley paints Guatemala bright green and Hong Kong red. With texturing and the Studio Spots, he funnels in on a train that took Addison to Florida and to new places in himself. He also reinforces the vaudevillian quality of the show. The brothers have a fight in a hard-edged spot before they ever come to blows in a quasi-realistic room.
Binkley says the footprint is largely the same in DC, with small adjustments to compensate for space differences.
COSTUMING TWO WORLDS
“At one point, Hal was interested in the clothes being made out of painted muslin — in other words, looking very costumey,” Miguel Huidor recalls. “I felt the show had a strong sense of drama that also needed to be supported.” So the designer opted for real clothes “with a strong sense of character and humor.”
He researched the Mizner brothers and the periods of a show that moves from 1896 to 1933. Early issues of The New Yorker helped. “The illustration style informed the set colors and line work, and for me, informed the spirit of the clothes,” Huidor says. “We also looked at lots of 20's advertising for the final segment. It especially helped me for color.
“I thought of the show in terms of two different worlds,” he adds, “the turn-of-the-century look and the Palm Beach look. So for the first act, my colors are dark and the textures woolly. When they arrive at Palm Beach, everything went light. The colors go to beachy sherbet colors and the fabrics go to chiffons and linens.”
The company of 19 wear 160 costumes, too many to build. Huidor built suits for the leading men and outfits for Wilson's love interest. “It was important to me to really try to communicate character arcs through their costumes,” he says. “Since they were seen the most, that's where I wanted the most control.”
He will build more for New York. “Miguel had to make compromises because of the budget,” explains Good-man costume shop manager Heidi Sue McMath. “We had to rent or shop some things he would have liked to build. “It's always a challenge doing period fabrics today,” adds McMath. “Contemporary woolens are lightweight, and men's suits are very floaty. Period suits are more fitted to the body, and it's hard to do that with contemporary fabrics. It's become harder and harder to find vendors who can sell decent weights of woolens, so we had to substitute lighter fabrics.” For Florida, shoppers sought cotton linen suits for the men and period-influenced dresses for the women. “He added guards and shawls, and we built period hats,” McMath says.
The brothers are dressed for the 1930s when the play begins, and the opening ends in a fistfight which segues into a similar fight the brothers had in the 1880's, calling for breakaway costumes. “They had to hide their [1880s'] look and rip away in one swoop while they were dancing on stage,” Huidor explains. “At first, we were going to use existing suits and just open them up and add snap tape.” One look at the choreography changed that. “The rehearsal costumes were popping open left and right. In the end, we built the costumes with built-in gussets in the sleeves and other tricks so they could move around without popping open any of the seams.”
Otherwise, changes were few. “We were constantly busy,” says McMath. “We didn't get on stage with costumes as early as we planned, but given the size of the show, the process was remarkably calm.”
REMOVING THE FIFTH WALL
Bounce opens with two deaths, each punctuated by slamming doors and heavenly voices — eight stereo tracks of prerecorded “ahhs” coming out of speakers in assorted locations, sweetened with ‘heavenly’ reverb. Doors continue to slam whenever anything unhappy happens, as when the Florida land rush falls apart. Some cues move scenes forward, literally: A suggestion of wheels and tracks accompany Addison to Florida. Others set the tone: Comical gusts of high winds help locate the freezing Yukon, and thunder heightens tension in the conservatory scene. “We wanted at some point for the sound cues to be comical, and we wanted cues to be big and bold and support the action,” Edwards says, recalling a funny boat horn and the sound of live pistols from the wings, vaudeville-style. Most of the cues, however, were prerecorded onto a hard drive; a couple were on sampler.
Although Edwards loves to make sound cues, he spent most of his time on reinforcement. “Hal Prince is a high-powered guy, completely committed to the technical aspects being perfect in every way. He also moves very fast and this requires a tremendous amount of preplanning and preparation,” Edwards says, explaining that ease of operation, simple mixing, and accurate SFX playback were among his goals.
He wanted the main mixing desk to be a Cadac J-Type and the orchestra submixer to be the Yamaha DM2000. He also wanted a Lexicon 960L reverb and minimal outboard processing. Fortunately, the Goodman had an LCS system, perfect for the complex demands of the design. “And,” he says, “the staff was up to the challenge of using it.”
The core of Edwards' system design is a dual vocal/orchestra house speaker system (made up of Meyer UPA-1Ps and USW-19s) that provides complete audience coverage and can support multiple actor/musician image zones. “The A/B system, with its two identical sound systems hung side-by-side, with male RF mics in one and female RF mics in the other,” allowed him to switch people around as they neared each other. He placed speakers and subs upstage left and right, and orchestra foldback speakers in the wings for sound effects. “Because I had chosen the A/B system convention in addition to the complex routing required of the zoned imaging, I needed to choose speakers with wide horizontal patterns that could cover the intended areas as a single box or device,” says Edwards, who augmented house equipment with Meyer M2D and UPM-1 speakers, addressing each cabinet individually from the LCS outputs for flexibility of SFX playback and vocal and orchestra routing. “I felt very strongly that a pair of line arrays for the center speaker positions was an imperative,” says Edwards. “I didn't want to run a loud show, but for a musical comedy, on occasion it's appropriate to get loud, and at the very least be able to pop out key lines a little bit to give the audience the freedom to laugh without fear of missing the next line. Though it is true that all line arrays have phasing issues in the high frequencies, I find that they are far superior to conventional clusters of single boxes for smooth, even frequency response in the vertical and horizontal planes. In addition to the coverage advantages, the gain before feedback advantage is huge.”
Edwards says he sometimes feels “as if we have added a fifth wall between the actor/orchestra and the audience,” that it is common for the actors' microphones to be so loud in the speaker system that it is hard to hear the actor over the sound system. For Bounce, he uses Cadac routing and MIDI abilities, the LCS DSP power, and the complete separation of the speaker system to make sure spectators can not only hear sound but can tell where it is coming from, even as it gets louder. This sources the image to individuals as they pass lines or lyrics back and forth. “The difficulty is that for a Sondheim musical, where the lyrics are so specific and the music so tightly orchestrated, as the volume increases and one can hear the lyric, one can also lose the sense of the show because it is difficult, if not impossible, to locate the person singing or speaking,” Edwards explains.
Edwards, who has been experimenting with imaging for some time, found the Goodman “a perfect sized and shaped venue where I could install the appropriate reinforcement system. Imaging requires a good center cluster to cover 100% of the audience from one spot and at the very least 75% coverage from the proscenium positions,” he says. “The Goodman had an existing LCS system of two LD88G 8X8 boxes which I augmented with four more plus a spare. I used the LCS outputs for system equalization, delay and level setting. Following the Cadac and DM2000 bussing and routing, I used the LCS inputs for system bussing and matrixing capabilities for dynamic routing of vocals, orchestra and reverb” and relied on LCS Wild Tracks software and hardware for sound effects playback. I used 48 inputs plus 16 Wild Tracks and 48 outputs. Though complex to setup, this was simple to operate.”
In DC, he has made adjustments to accommodate less vertical space for the center cluster line array, and has slightly modified the Cadac layout.
Edwards says Prince's openness to new ideas and the Goodman staff's know-how made for an exceptional experience, and everyone seeed to echo this feeling. When Huidor was stuck, he says Prince “would just speak two sentences to me, which would trigger ideas. Tech went smoothly because the amazing costume shop troublshot before we even got onstage.”
“We had the best time working on this piece, [better] than anything I've done in recent memory,” says Lee. “Hal was in a particularly creative mood. Stephen was in a terrific mood, and I was in a great mood, too.”