Even though Peter Shaffer's Amadeus is now over 20 years old, it seems like early days for a Broadway revival. After tremendous initial success in London in 1979, it reached New York in 1980 and lasted 1,181 performances, making it one of the longest-running straight plays in modern memory. Then came the 1984 film version, directed by Milos Forman, which won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Clearly, we are not discussing a forgotten piece of dramatic property.
Nevertheless Amadeus is back on Broadway, a year after its London revival (and after a previous engagement at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre), and for good reason: This is an entirely fresh look at the show. Shaffer has rewritten the script, looking more deeply into the soul of protagonist Antonio Salieri, and actor David Suchet has returned the compliment with a strikingly original performance. Furthermore, an enterprising design team has given his production its own highly original look and sound.
Any designer might look upon this revival of Amadeus with trepidation. The director is Sir Peter Hall, who staged the original productions in London and New York. Furthermore, the original design--sets, costumes, and lighting--was by the legendary John Bury, who was, for decades, Hall's artistic partner (On Broadway, also credited were Bury's US associates: Ursula Belden for scenery, John David Ridge for costumes, and Beverly Emmons for lighting). One of the most celebrated designs of its time, it won Tony Awards for scenery and lighting.
Despite Shaffer's innovations, the plot of the revamped Amadeus remains the same. The action begins in Vienna in 1823, as the elderly, possibly mad, composer Antonio Salieri is planning his own death, even as the city buzzes with rumors that, many years before, he murdered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. To purge himself of his sins, Salieri confesses all: how, as a complacent, middle-aged court composer, he encountered the eccentric young genius Mozart, was made insanely jealous by his younger rival's divine gift, and, finally, plotted to destroy him.
Amadeus is a tricky production in many ways. Salieri may be telling the truth, or the entire play may be the ravings of a failing, distorted mind. The script revels in theatrical artifice: Salieri speaks directly to the audience; he sheds 42 years by a quick change of costume, in front of the audience; the action moves instantly, cinematically, from location to location, from the 19th to the 18th century and back again. All of this is captured brilliantly in William Dudley's scenic design.
At first glance, Dudley's set is a rather shallow and gloomy affair, a representation, in black, of the elderly Salieri's home. There is a small playing area, downstage center, with two large Scandinavian stoves at right and left (looking like large funeral urns), and two side walls. At rear is a series of mirrored glass doors. The one touch of color is the yellow parquet pattern painted on the deck. But as soon as the play begins, and the citizens of Vienna are revealed in silhouette behind the glass doors, the set looks dramatically different. In fact, Dudley's set is an optical illusion--when lit from the front, it is smallish, black, with a mirrored background. Lit from above and behind, a triangular playing area is revealed behind the doors, where a series of projections provide an ever-changing landscape. At different times, we see the glittering chandeliers of Emperor Joseph II's court; the backstage of a Vienna opera house; a narrow, threatening streetscape; a park filled with greenery; the bare apartment of the poverty-ridden Mozart; and the cemetery where he is ultimately interred. At other times the projections are more subjective; when Salieri recalls his pious youth, we see an august image of God the Father. Virtually all of the images are distorted, oddly angled, creating a disorienting effect.
Dudley says this scenic concept came from the play itself. "In the original script, Peter Shaffer calls for a 'light box,' " he says, "a place where you can change and compress locations." The designer also spent time in Vienna working on a previous project, the musical Dance of the Vampires with Roman Polanski before beginning Amadeus; while there, he took inspiration from the local architecture. "The 18th century was a period where the technology of glass-making was getting very good, so good that there were great rooms filled with mirrors. It was done partly out of vanity--so people could see themselves--and partly to pick up the light from chandeliers. That was our starting point--a glittering, dreamlike landscape, an endless vista of rooms opening up, shimmering in distorted glass--because the glass made then wasn't perfect, like modern glass."
The three walls that make up the light box are, says Dudley, made of "flameproof plastic polycarbonate, the same material used for police riot shields. We treated the plastic with a silver foil, called Polycoat, which is put on as a film. It makes an effect like a two-way mirror." In other words, the light box is a triangle, with the front, horizontal wall (A) and two rear, angled walls (B and C). Because of space restrictions backstage, the images are projected from 6K Panis, then bounced off mirrors, through walls B and C. An image is sent through Wall B and lands on Wall C, and vice versa. "An image comes through the wall, and the opposite wall reflects the image back," explains Dudley. "Some of the light gets stopped by the polycarbonate and holds the image, but some light travels on and hits the opposite mirror, then gets refracted back."
The result is not only a striking visual effect, but a good metaphor for the play, which is controlled by Salieri's possibly unreliable, memory-fogged narration. "If you step between two mirrors, you get dying cadences of light," Dudley says. "That seemed to me to be like the effects of memory--the further back you trawl into your memory-scape, things get foggier, more golden--because, I guess, of age." Furthermore, the images' distorted quality provides a teasing suggestion that Salieri may be criminally insane.
Dudley says that he pulled his images from many sources, making alterations to them in his Macintosh, using Photoshop, to get the desired look. For example, Mozart's house, which is defined by a series of large, bleak windows, is taken from an 1811 painting by the German romantic Caspar David Friedrich. To create the cemetery, he made a collage of elements. "In the background," says the designer, "is the actual church of the cemetery where Mozart is buried. The gates and the trees are from a contemporary location. The crosses are from an engraving of a cemetery of that period."
One of the most striking scenic effects, however, is not a projection at all. At one point, Mozart, egged on by Salieri, writes The Magic Flute, which exposes many of the secret details of Freemasonry (a secret organization which was prominent in Austria at the time). The opera results in a scandal, which cripples Mozart's career. During this sequence in which The Magic Flute is performed, a drop flies in, showing a collage of Masonic symbols. The drop has an almost iridescent quality: "It's a technique from the 1780s," says Dudley, "developed by Philip DeLoutherbourg, who worked for David Garrick as his principal set designer. It's a silhouette cloth; you paint the drop to be front-lit, but you also paint black areas on the back of it, leaving windows where you can backlight it. The interplay between front- and backlight can give you a hallucinogenic sense of depth.
"It's a very theatrical play, about illusion and showmanship and stage management," adds Dudley, but in his position as costume designer, he also set out to introduce a note of realism to the production. "The way the 18th century men and women dressed is not properly understood," he says. For example, "If you look closely at the photo-realistic paintings of the period, you'll see that most men dressed their own hair. They occasionally put in a small amount of white powder, but this notion of everybody looking like platinum blondes in massive hairdos is false. It grew up, really in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when theatre producers made wigs out of yak hair.
"I have a painting of George Washington," Dudley continues. "The artist is so scrupulous that he actually painted flakes of white powder on Washington's shoulders--I suspect the white powder made everyone look like they had terminal dandruff, which is probably why producers always put everyone in white yak's hair or white nylon. But that approach turned everyone into sugar candy--it took away from the reality of the people."
In general, Dudley's approach to the costumes is historically accurate, he says. "It's based on the notion of French silks, which then dominated Britain and Europe. The late 18th century is the sexiest period--it and the French Empire style were the best periods for men and women's clothes, especially in terms of the elegance and the balance of masculinity and the peacock in the men. It's much nicer than, say, the middle of the 18th century, when the women all wore tea cozies. What you get in the late 18th century is the beginnings of modern tailoring--it's all about line and cut, and narrow, elegant sleeves. The good Saville Row suit springs from this period."
Salieri, as befits a man of wealth and accomplishment, wears a succession of elegant wear, once he is out of his old-man costume; he first appears in a striking red velvet tailored suit. "You never stop learning about fabrics, how they're going to behave under light," says Dudley. "If you saw the fabric in the shop, you'd think it was black. It's the deepest black red I've ever seen, but under the light, it just glows." Later, when Salieri achieves the high court position of Kapellmeister, his black suits acquire more and more detail, such as elaborate gold embroidery. ("My own taste was for simple things," he tells the audience ironically, earning a laugh). The other men in the emperor's court are dressed in silk brocades and damasks. "They are mostly French silks," says Dudley, adding, "there are a couple of suppliers in London who have their own jacquard looms to do bespoke lengths of fabric; they're wonderful, because that's how they were done 200 years ago." The palette for the members of the court runs to black, red, gold, and brown.
In contrast, Mozart and Constanze, his wife, are dressed in what Dudley calls "sweetie colors: mint-green with decorations." Constanze's dresses are elegant with a more simple line, while Mozart's more elaborate wear reveals a touch of the dandy. "They're living beyond their means, putting everything they have into their frocks," the designer says. "Gradually that changes, and they end up in rags." Indeed, in Mozart's later appearances, his worn-out clothing makes him look not unlike a modern homeless person. Dudley also adds that Michael Sheen, who plays Mozart, appears with his own curly, unruly hair ("You couldn't get a wig to do that and survive what it has to do in this show," adds the designer).
The costumes for Amadeus were built by a number of English specialists, including Fran Bristow, Mr. Bruno, Bristol Costume Services, Keith Bish, Naomi Isaacs, Kit Reading, and Judith Darracot. (Dennis Sitou and his staff at the Ahmanson finished the costumes in LA.) Wigs are by Pam Foster, with millinery by Sean Barrett, and masks by Roger Allsop. The scenery for the production was built by F&D Scenic Changes, in Calgary Alberta, Canada, with additional scenery for Los Angeles by Ironwood. The forte piano and other furniture pieces were built by Russell Beck Studios, and furniture and props were painted by Simon Kenny of Souvenir. Other credits include soft furnishings by Helen Petit, painted cloths by Victor Mara Ltd. of London, and large-format projection artwork by Wyatt Enever at DHA Lighting. Technical supervision was provided by Tech Production Services. Other personnel include associate scenic designer Nancy Thun, advance carpenter Paul Iversen, and Robert Anderson, who handles production props. Douglas Petitjean is the wardrobe supervisor.
In many ways, this current revival of Amadeus is a tribute to Dudley's fascination with the basics of stage illusion. "When you work for film directors," he says, "they don't believe there's any magic in the theatre. But of course theatre has its own magic. I have to keep saying to film people, when they come into the theatre to direct, 'You're not slumming. You're in a medium that's fully operational in its own right.' " Amadeus provides the proof of that assertion.
William Dudley's setting for Amadeus is, in many ways, brilliant, but it posed a number of daunting challenges for lighting designer Paule Constable. Just to make things interesting, she was also the third lighting designer to take on the project. Hugh Vanstone was the first; when the production was postponed, because of a changeover in producers, scheduling conflicts forced him to withdraw. Another designer took over for the pre-London tour, but then left because of creative conflicts with Peter Hall. Constable, whose last Broadway credit was the Royal Court production of The Weir, then took over for London, Los Angeles, and New York.
As a result, Constable's design work on the production has been ongoing. In London, she inherited a rig specified by Vanstone, a complex set design, and a director with strong ideas about lighting. First, the set: "The floor is difficult to light, because it's yellow and not a natural texture," Constable says. "And, yeah, having the mirrored walls is very hard. Also, I can't do much crosslight, because of the side walls." Then, Peter Hall was mostly concerned with seeing the actors' faces, "which meant," Constable adds, "they'd put on the front-of-house lights, at full, all the way through the show."
Constable went to work revising the lighting, as the production moved to London's Old Vic Theatre and on to the United States. She made changes in Vanstone's rig to suit her own taste, then went to work, "trying to keep Peter happy with the light levels and yet give it a more aesthetic look." The result is, remarkably, a design that appears to be a fundamental part of the production concept.
Constable achieves one of her most striking effects right at the start, when we first encounter the aged Salieri in the company of the Venticelli, a pair of gossips who act as a kind of stage chorus. "I thought the Venticelli scenes needed to be separate [from the rest of the action], and I wanted to lose the floor [in these scenes], so I used head-high, dance-style crosslight," using units placed far downstage, near the proscenium. All three actors are dressed in black, on a black stage; the light makes their faces float eerily in the dark, creating a creepy intimacy with the audience. "I pulled the action down into the auditorium; I knew if I crosslit from the sides, Peter wouldn't buy it, because the actors would shadow each other. I wanted those scenes to have a Victorian, graphic quality, like 19th century silhouettes."
These scenes feature very little color, Constable notes, mostly "color-correction blues--Lee 201, 202, some R65, and a lot of flame correction, Lee 205, 147. The great thing about the Venticelli crosslight moments was, whenever you went back to [one of the court scenes], it looked warm and rich again, because your eye had cooled down by looking at something bluer. It meant I didn't have to compensate by adding more and more saturated color."
For the light box area, Constable says she relied on top light, "because I didn't want to hit the mirrored walls at all. Fortunately, I get away with it because of the amount of bounce light." On the other hand, there is a moment in Act I when Salieri invokes the audience in the theatre; the auditorium lights come on, as well as front lights from the balcony rail. The audience sees itself in the mirrored walls, turning the entire theatre, for a moment, into a light box--it's a thrillingly theatrical effect. At other times, the designer frames the entire proscenium arch with light, a choice made for two reasons. "I did it because the architecture of the Music Box Theatre could have been made for the piece," says Constable. "Also, I wanted, again, to pull the action forward, because the playing space downstage of the mirrored walls is very shallow. There are times when you want to feel Salieri and the Venticelli are in your lap, distanced from the world behind the mirrors."
One potentially difficult issue for Constable was the use of followspots on David Suchet. "I inherited them," she says frankly, adding, "They became very important to David. I've used followspots in opera, but I like to use very, very steep bridge positions. I don't like front-of-house followspots. We managed, however, to make them small, soft, and as steep as possible." Easier said then done, however; the Music Box didn't have the necessary lighting positions. "So," she says, "at huge expense, we had to build followspot towers that sit above the entrance to the [mezzanine]. They've been painted to match the architecture of the theatre, and they give us quite a steep position. They run at about 30% through most of the show, and they're very tight, from head to waist, so you're not fully aware of them."
The light plot includes approximately 180 Source Four units from ETC, along with a number of Altman fresnels, Wybron Coloram scrollers, and Robert Juliat followspots, among other items. Control was provided by an ETC Expression 2X. Equipment for the Broadway production was supplied by Four Star Lighting. Other lighting personnel include associate lighting designer Tony Simpson, production electrician Jon Mark Davidson, and assistant electrician John Van Buskirk.
In spite of the production's many complications, Constable adds, "Every time it moved, I had more of a chance to make it closer to what it should be. It certainly looks best in New York." One other complication: "When I first did the show in London, my second child was 10 weeks old, so I had him on my lap, breast-feeding the whole time,lighting it." It's a feat not even Mozart could have accomplished.
It would seem that a play about Mozart and Salieri would offer rich opportunities to a sound designer. Certainly, Amadeus is a play filled with music, with excerpts from Mozart's greatest hits lineup, including The Abduction >From the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte, the Requiem Mass, the Jupiter Symphony, the Mass in C Minor, and several others (not to mention a pair of Salieri's works). To sound designer Matt McKenzie of Autograph Sound, however, the music presented a big challenge: "To make it something other than a series of snippets of Mozart that come in from time to time. You know the sort of thing: the play is trotting along nicely and then--oh yes! Here's another snippet of Mozart."
It's a point worth noting. Amadeus is a play about people obsessed by music, driven mad by it, who may even kill for it. It's about Mozart, a composer whose impact on music can be felt centuries after his death. Salieri is haunted by the sound of Mozart's music, music he is unable to match as a composer. This is also a play where a character describes the sound of opera as what the world sounds like to God. McKenzie's goal, therefore, he says, was a design "that actually makes the music come out of the piece."
This means the designer had to approach every single musical moment as an individual entity, with its own specific needs. When Mozart plays a march by Salieri on the piano, the sound is relatively naturalistic, coming from a speaker placed inside the instrument. On the other hand, when Salieri peruses a score by Mozart and falls to the floor in a shocked appreciation of its genius, there is an overwhelming blare of music, to signify its devastating effect. By carefully calibrating the timing and levels of intensity, McKenzie transforms the musical selections into the insistent underscoring that ravishes Salieri's soul even as it drives him to commit ever more monstrous crimes. In this way the music becomes a leading character in the drama.
None of this, of course, is easily achieved. "The difficulty," McKenzie says, "is to make a system that can be both quiet and very loud without introducing too much noise, because obviously you need much more gain in the system to produce something gut-wrenching and deafening than to be quiet and delicate. Of course, a lot of the music is under dialogue, too. And there are many moments when there will be loud music, then a line of dialogue, then more loud music. The timing between the music and the actor has to be very accurate." (Most of the musical selections are taken from recording by the Academy of St. Martin's in the Fields, with Sir Neville Marriner conducting).
There are other, non-musical sound effects as well. Act I begins with the harsh sound of whispers, dominated by an array of sibilant "S"s (as in Salieri) as all of Vienna gossips about the aged composer; the sound is created by a mixture of recorded effects and live actors speaking into Crown PCC160 and Sennheiser MKE2 microphones. Act II begins with almost a parody of this disturbing effect, in this case, the nighttime yowling of cats, as Salieri awaits the dawn. At Mozart's funeral, there is the sudden, startling sound of flapping bird wings, conceived by McKenzie as "a combination of the atmosphere you might get in that stark place with the thought of his soul flying off. The moment just makes you shiver, I think."
McKenzie's design makes use of Meyer speakers and Crown amps, mostly placed in the side walls of the set, around the doors. "Ideally," he says, "you want a pair of speakers placed 2m on either side of the center halfway upstage, and about 6' in the air. Sadly, you can't have that, as the set has the impervious-to-sound yet highly reflective wall in the middle of it. The Music Box Theatre has a very wide opening and it's difficult to make the music sound as though it's coming from Salieri's head. Also, the audience is so close; if you're sitting on the left-hand sideof the auditorium, it's difficult to perceive anything from anywhere but the speaker that's pointing at you. But the nice thing about the Music Box is, because it's so intimate, you can use the rear and surround speakers much more than you would in a bigger auditorium. There is also a little subtle foot miking from Crown PCC160s, just for the rear of the under-balcony area and the back of the mezzanine."
To mix Amadeus, McKenzie chose the O2R, from Yamaha, which he praises as "a 40-input mixer in a space that's two seats wide"--always an issue in the theatre, where technical equipment often takes up valuable real estate. Also, he says, "With the O2R, you can automate as much as you want, and yet leave the operator with the flexibility to do things by hand that requires absolute timing precision."
Other parts of the equipment lineup include an Akai 2300SL sampler. "What I find particularly exciting in sound design at the moment," says McKenzie, "is the way that DSP technology is producing very powerful tools. They allow the designer to create sound moving in space and time as never before." Equipment was supplied by ProMix in New York. The whole system is coordinated by the Windows-based show control software written by McKenzie (http:// www.mckenzie.demon.co.uk), which, the designer says is in use in many theatres around the world. Other sound personnel included sound consultant Sue Ayliff and operator Wayne Smith. "Sue Ayliff," says McKenzie, "was the sound operator for the London production and, indeed, the original production in 1978. She was really assistant designer, as she made an enormous contribution in the rehearsal process both in London and Los Angeles."
This is a busy New York season for the designer, who will return in May with the Royal Shakespeare Company revival of T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Perhaps it's just as well that his time with Amadeus has come to an end; when asked whether he likes the works of Mozart, he hedges a bit. "Well, I like Mozart," he says. A pause. "I'm really a Bach and Stravinsky man, more than anything else." Given the paucity of dramas about Bach, his finely honed work on Amadeus will have to do.