For a hit Broadway show with six Tonys under its belt, Thoroughly Modern Millie sure could use a hug. The new musical, about a girl from the Midwest hoping to make it big in 1920s New York at the height of the Jazz Age, received wildly mixed notices when it opened on Broadway this spring, but has played to large and generally enthusiastic crowds (in case you didn't know, it's an adaptation of what many consider to be not all that good a film starring Julie Andrews). This June, Millie received the best musical Tony, but not best book, best score, or best director, which all went to Urinetown. And though Martin Pakledinaz won a Tony for his costumes on the production, fellow designers David Gallo (sets) and Don Holder (lighting) weren't even nominated, a rarity for musicals of this size.
Why such a schizophrenic reception? It's been that kind of a year on Broadway: Mamma Mia! gets savaged by the critics and sells out; Topdog/Underdog wins the Pulitzer Prize and can't give tickets away. Millie, apparently, falls somewhere in the middle. No doubt the theatregoing public was in the mood for some escapism post-9/11, and Millie certainly fit the bill; such escapism, however, may have turned off critics.
photo: © Joan Marcus
The show's design faced a similarly mixed reception. Perhaps reviewers and Tony voters were expecting a more nostalgic take on the 20s; maybe they had some issues with the vibrant color scheme clashing with the sculpted metallic look of the sets. Whatever the case, the creative team for Millie, which also includes sound designer Jon Weston, point out that the overall design for the production — a futuristic, magical vision of 20s New York rooted in the look and feel of the era — is exactly what they set out to create on the stage of the Marquis Theatre.
“The curtain goes up and there's this girl from Kansas who's seeing this place she always wanted to go for the first time,” says Gallo. “And I just didn't think that a New York audience wants to see yet another nostalgic New York of the 20s. There's no wonderment there. What's the point? This was very much the desire of the entire creative team; like it or not, this is what we all set out to do.”
What you get instead is, as Gallo notes, “a glittering vision of an urban cityscape that you could get lost in and shed your past to become a new person. It doesn't really have very much of a resemblance to the realities of New York at that time, which has been done so many times before anyway.”
Having said that, Gallo did draw on art of the 20s, particularly the minimalist sculptors of the period. Other artists of the period are represented as well: the dominant set piece, a giant metallic surround of highly stylized skyscrapers, includes a building based largely on the Georgia O'Keefe painting of the Radiator building. “Even though the skyline has no direct relation to New York,” the designer notes, “it feels like New York in its grandeur.”
The idea of representing New York as a metallic sculpture came from director Michael Mayer. In fact, for the original La Jolla production, every single object was made of metal, be it the shiny new metal of the office buildings or the rusty metal of old New York represented by Millie's home, the Hotel Priscilla, among other set pieces. It was a highly abstract design — nothing was representational — but in the end it was altered for the Broadway production. “Ultimately, it was deemed a little too mechanical, a little too cold,” Gallo says of that original design. “There were times when we really did have to invest in the warmth of the story a little more and give her a more realistic location; you can only abstract a story like this so much. But I think the original production at La Jolla helped us establish a particular style and vocabulary.”
A model of the Hotel Priscilla lobby. Photo: Zach Borovay
As a result, certain scenes for the Broadway production were more fleshed out. In the La Jolla production, for instance, the lobby of the Priscilla Hotel was nothing more than a desk. Now it also has a door, two walls, and a working elevator. The rest of the hotel, from the hallways to the various rooms, were given a more traditional musical comedy treatment, as were other set pieces such as a neighborhood speakeasy and a Chinese laundry. “The thinking was that if we're going to see New York at its glittering best in the skyline, then we should also see it at its most dirty and dismal, hence the laundry rooms and lobbies, which all have a faded Victorian quality,” Gallo says.
Metal remained an important throughline for the piece. The Madison Avenue office where Millie lands her first job has the same platinum feel as the surround; the Hotel Priscilla is filled with faded dirty wallpaper, but glimpses of I-beams can also be seen. “There are certain motifs we wanted to keep the piece visually connected,” Gallo explains. “The idea of building and construction was very important. Hence the majority of scenes have that sense of I-beams and rivets, the world being built anew.”
Gallo's color choices were rather muted; the backdrop to the skyline is all blue (“I'm a big fan of blue — it's kind of a neutral color”), the penthouse of famous chanteuse Muzzy Van Hossmere is all polished black and white and chrome, and the lobby, hallways, and rooms of the Priscilla have a slightly more colorful but stained quality to them. The colors of the hallways are all based on the Hopper painting “Early Sunday Morning.” “All the artists of the period are represented colorwise,” Gallo says. Bill Mensching and the staff at ShowMotion built almost the entire set; painting was by Joe Forbes at Scenic Arts Studios.
The sets for the Broadway production of Millie were designed and built months before rehearsals ever began; September 11, coupled with some uncertainty about when and where the production would be housed (there was a question at the time about whether the Marquis' previous tenant, Annie Get Your Gun, would close or stay open), put everything on hold for an unforeseen period. Rather than giving Gallo and his team plenty of opportunity to make adjustments during the process, the delay created unforeseen challenges. “We had designed both the way it looks and moves based on a script that ceased to exist by the time we got back into rehearsals,” he says. “And yet it was too late: all the changes you make, the scenic evolution that usually takes place parallel to the rehearsal and the playwriting evolution — we didn't have that opportunity.” Because Millie is a big, heavy Broadway show, Gallo and his team were forced to make drastic changes, jettisoning whole units that were no longer needed, playing scenes that were rewritten but had no scenery in front of neutral backgrounds, and essentially working with the set pieces that had been designed and built months before.
One of the deepest and most painful cuts for Gallo was a concept he'd had for Muzzy's penthouse, which is now a minimalist tableau with huge windows and a balcony. “I had this idea of an Algonquin Roundtable, placing a very large, circular roundtable in the center, with clear Lucite chairs all the way around, and cellophane curtains,” Gallo explains. “It was this whole see-through idea. We had to cut it, and now, in my personal opinion, when the curtain goes up, it looks like Muzzy's been robbed. There's nothing in it. She comes back from her long tour, she comes in and says, ‘Who ripped me off!’”
Lighting the Skyline
Millie Dilmount is determined to be modern, but she has nothing on Donald Holder, whose lighting design makes use of some of the latest in lighting gear. Check out the opening number, set in front of Gallo's New York skyline drop, with each building backlit by iColor Coves from Color Kinetics. It's a highly original use of a new technology, which is ideally suited to the designers' needs. “David wanted each layer of the drop to float,” says Holder, who adds that he considered neon but went with the iColor Coves because “they're bright, easy to install, and focusable. Their only drawback is the cost, which is pretty astronomical. But they have a very long lamp life of 10,000 hours and are DMX-addressable; we run them off the show's control board.” In addition, says Holder, the iColor Coves “gave us the ability to do what David wanted, which was a series of color à vista changes — to have movement in color at certain moments.” During the opening number, the stage wash, a combination of frontlight by theatrical units and backlight from the iColor Coves, undergoes a series of rapid-fire color changes that accentuates the music's jagged Charleston rhythms.
The theatrical units employed by Holder are a mixture of conventional units from ETC, Selecon, ARRI, Lighting & Electronics, Robert Juliat and Lycian followspots, plus automated units from High End Systems, Vari-Lite, Martin Professional, and DHA Lighting. However, the big question was where the designer was going to fit any of this gear — due to the extensive scenery, especially that elevator, there's very little space overhead. Holder says, “It was very important for the lighting to bring warmth and specificity to the space. The piece needed a celebratory voice, which required a lot more from the lighting, including very specific angles, colors, and ideas for specific spaces. It also meant using light to create smaller areas in the larger space, but with limited lighting positions and shiny surfaces.” Thus, he opted for sidelight as much as possible, although, he adds, “Even getting low sidelight into the space wasn't easy, because of the constant movement of scenic elements at deck level. All the dance towers, in side positions, were rigged on automated ladders that flew in and out for an actor or scenic element to come on, then got repositioned.”
As for that celebratory voice, Holder achieves it with lots of vivid colors, a strategy that is apparent at the top of the overture, when the show curtain is in saturated reds, violets, blues, and greens; in a speakeasy sequence bathed in purple and yellow haze; and in the deep colors that flood the cyc behind Gallo's drops. “The scenic treatments are designed to accept another layer of color ideas from the lighting,” he says. “It's a lot of aluminum and metal. There's no attempt to create a gritty New York — it's New York from Millie's perspective.”
Another innovation: Thoroughly Modern Millie is controlled by a grandMA console from MA lighting (distributed in the US by ACT Lighting). This is the Broadway debut for the console, which is gaining acceptance in the concert market. “Warren Flynn, my programmer, was very interested in using the board,” says Holder, adding that the grandMA has “been very reliable.” Flynn adds, “I like the grandMA because it has every feature you'd want right now. The big word today is speed: With grandMA, I can program as fast as, if not faster than, other consoles. The operating system is constantly updated and MA Lighting is adamant about releasing the software with no bugs in it.”
The LD calls Millie “a labor of love,” adding, “I wish I had as much fun on every project.”
Handbag of Tricks
Martin Pakledinaz delved into his bag of tricks for Millie, even going back to what he refers to as “costume 101,” to get the show's look just right. Take the year Millie is set: “They say it's 1922 and actually 1922 was really dowdy,” he says, adding that he, Mayer, and choreographer Rob Ashford talked about how they could jazz up the timeframe and make the look more irreverent. “That was a little tricky because Rob has the cast do a lot of choreography that wants a wider skirt than the 20s had. The 20s tend to be very cylindrical, with the Charleston and little things where the feet don't do a high kick — that turns more into the 30s. So I had to play with the silhouette a little.” Pakledinaz used modern trickery — strong nylon or polyester netting — under some of the more fragile-seeming garments so they could withstand the vigorous choreography.
Pakledinaz's sketches for (l-r) a Chinese brother, Mrs. Meers, Muzzy, and a Sincere Trust Insurance Co. typist .
Pakledinaz also used Cubist motifs, the best example being the hilarious attire on Millie's co-workers at the Sincere Trust Insurance Company. “I thought, if you were Cubist and being crazy with the pinstripe, which is the classic business wear, how would you fracture it and turn the angles against one another?” he says of the stripes-every-which-way outfits they wear. “You go to the office and everyone looks exactly alike except no one's exactly alike.” The designer also placed Cubist pockets and patches on the Chinese brothers' costumes. “I thought they weren't getting the importance that they needed,” he says of the villainess Mrs. Meers' henchmen. “So I went back to Costume 101 and said, they are very, very poor. So their clothing is patched, and it's patched in a Cubist manner. Carelli Costumes made those and they're works of art.”
“It was tricky figuring out all the palettes for the show,” Pakledinaz says, adding that he likens Millie's experiences in New York to a kaleidoscope. “Every time she turns it and goes into a different experience, the palette changes and the way she sees the people changes too.” The opening number features Millie (Sutton Foster) in bright yellow, contrasting with the beige and gray costumes on the ensemble. Jimmy enters the scene in a blue suit. “What we do is move them from this neutrality into the color world that's going to take over the rest of the show,” he adds, noting that the director always wanted Millie in intense color. One of her many party dresses is a painted blue velvet number with bead embroidery made by Barbara Matera. “It's a tricky little dress,” he says. “The skirt is made up of petals and each petal is lined in pink chiffon. At the bottom of each petal is an ellipse of double pink chiffon. It's not for the faint of heart.”
Unlike Millie, the poisonous Mrs. Meers (Harriet Harris) sticks to one color — green, which often blends perfectly with the green walls of the Hotel Priscilla. The marvelous Muzzy Van Hossmere (Sheryl Lee Ralph) also matches her surroundings, but with a little more leeway colorwise — and otherwise. “Sheryl Lee is a fabulous personality and we had to create stuff that made sense for her,” Pakledinaz says. “She's a very voluptuous woman, so we threw the quote-unquote 20s silhouette out the door here; we just had to luxuriate in it the same way they did with Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.”
Next, Pakledinaz takes his bag to the Roundabout revival of The Boys From Syracuse and to Glimmerglass for Orlando Paladino, a Haydn opera — “it's all black and white, that's nice,” he laughs.
Thoroughly Modern Sound
In designing the sound for Thoroughly Modern Millie, Jon Weston and his assistant Jason Strangfeld first had to solve certain problems found in the Marquis Theatre. “The theatre has unique acoustic properties. It is pretty much a dead room,” says Weston. “I wanted to try to simulate some reflective quality.” To do so, he used a surround-sound system featuring 22 flat-panel loudspeakers by Sound Advance. “In a way, having this much control over the room acoustics was fun,” he says, adding, “Lexicon's 960L plays a big part in the show. It is the vocal, band, and surround reverb unit.
A model of Muzzy's place. Photo: Zach Borovay
“We also chose certain sources from the orchestra to sound more acoustic, such as the strings, woodwinds, and the brass,” he continues. The orchestra pit itself needed to be addressed. To begin with, it sits 12' below the stage level. In addition, it was all lined with carpet. “We threw all that out and replaced the pit floor with hardwood. This really allows the instruments to be heard more acoustically,” he explains.
The main system includes Meyer Sound and EAW loudspeakers, with USW subwoofers, and EAW KF695 and KF300 units used for the vocal and band system. d&b E3 loudspeakers with dedicated d&b amplifiers are used for delays and front fill, as well as stage monitors. XTA DP200 and DP226s provide the system EQ and delay. They are controlled by a wireless blackpad system that allows the designer to make adjustments to the entire system from anywhere in the room.
The console is a Cadac J-Type with three frames allowing for 108 input positions. There are also two Cadac eight — input rackmounted submixers used for the percussion section. Additional amplifiers range from Crest 7001 and 8001 series to Yamaha H5000s.
In working on the vocals for Millie's large cast, Weston was confronted with lots of period hats, especially close-fitting fedoras pulled down to eye level on the men. “Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz was as unwilling to compromise the look of the show as I was unwilling to compromise the sound,” notes Weston. “The good news is that I wanted the show to look great and he wanted the show to sound great. Together, we found the answers. The wireless system is Sennheiser EM3532s and SK50s. We are using Sennheiser MKE-2 Gold microphones for the entire cast. When the actors take their hats off, XTA DP200 changes the EQ. “The hats can create a cavernous effect,” says Weston. “If you place a barrier around an omnidirectional microphone, it alters its behavior. The sound can be hollow as a result.”
Like all sound designers today, Weston was confronted with the noise of the moving lights in the lighting rig. “We have to suffer through it,” he explains. “We can't compensate for it. With the moving light and scroller fans running, the ambient level in the room is already around 87dB, so an intimate moment can never be quieter than that. Since moving lights are a necessity in today's complex productions, it would be nice if the manufacturers could find a quieter way to cool.”
When complimented on the crisp, clean sound he designed for Millie, Weston says, “People aren't usually aware of good sound. It's usually only when they think it is too loud or they are struggling to hear that they are aware of it.” In spite of the challenges encountered in the theatre, Weston gave Millie thoroughly modern sound.
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Director: MICHAEL MAYER
Music director: MICHAEL RAFTER
Choreography: ROB ASHFORD
Sets: DAVID GALLO
Costumes: MARTIN PAKLEDINAZ
Lighting: DON HOLDER
Sound: JON WESTON
Orchestrations: DOUG BESTERMAN & RALPH BURNS
Hair designer: PAUL HUNTLEY
Makeup design: ANGELINA AVALLONE
Production manager: THEATERSMITH INC./CHRISTOPHER C. SMITH
Production stage manager: BONNIE L. BECKER
Stage manager: PAT SOSNOW
Assistant stage manager: CHARLES UNDERHILL
Associate scenic designer: ROB ANDRUSKO
Assistant scenic designer: ROB BISSINGER
Model builders: FRANK MCCULLOUGH, ANITA TRIPATHI
Associate costume designer: MARKAS HENRY
Assistant costume designers: CHRISTINE FIELD, EDEN MILLER, KEVIN BRAINERD, MICHAEL McALEER
Costume intern: LEE ELDER
Assistant wig designer: AMY SOLOMON
Associate lighting designer: KAREN SPAHN
Associate lighting designer/automated lights consultant: WARREN FLYNN
Assistant lighting designer: HILARY MANNERS
Assistant lighting designer/slide artist: MICHELLE HABECK
Projection programmer: PAUL VERSHBOW, G.A.S.P. INC.
Assistant sound designer: JASON STRANGFELD
Production electrician: JAMES MALONEY
Production property supervision: PRISM PRODUCTION SERVICES LLC
Production carpenter: GERARD GRIFFIN
Production flyman: MICHAEL MAHER
Production automation: CHARLES HEULITT III
Head electrician: CARLOS MARTINEZ
Assistant electrician: KEVIN BARRY
Production sound: PATRICK PUMMILL
Production properties: NEIL S. ROSENBERG
Wardrobe supervisor: DEBORAH CHERETUN
Assistant wardrobe supervisor: FRED CASTNER
Dressers: TODD BERGMANS, SUZANNE DELAHUNT, ANN IPPOLITO, JULIAN HAVARD, DAVID HEMENWAY, JIM HODUN, MARY ANN OBERPRILLER, ADELADE LOURAINO, JANNA NOTICK, GEOFFREY POLISCHUK, ELLYSE PRENDERGAST, CHARLES van de CRAATS
Hair supervisor: DARLENE DANENFELSER
Assistant hair supervisor: JEAN HENRY
Hair dressers: CHRIS CALABRESE, RUTH CARSCH Scenery and scenic effects built, painted, electrified, and automated by SHOWMOTION, INC.
Lighting equipment: FOURTH PHASE
Sound equipment: PROMIX
Costumes built by BARBARA MATERA LTD., PARSONS-MEARES LTD., CARELLI COSTUMES INC., SCAFATI UNIFORMS, JOHN KRISTIANSEN, and TIMBERLAKE STUDIOS
Muzzy's male ensemble tailoring: BENJAMIN J. MORELLI/PHILADELPHIA COSTUME CO.
Millinery: WOODY SHELP, GARY J. WHITE/THE CUSTOM HATTER, ARNOLD HATTERS, CARELLI INC., AND RODNEY GORDON INC.