Little Me has always been one of Broadway's problem children. The 1962 musical--book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh--was a personal triumph for star Sid Caesar, but ran a disappointing 257 performances. A rewritten revival in 1982 ran less than a month. Yet producers have never given up on its distinctive blend of broad humor and brassy show tunes, and this fall, New York's Roundabout Theatre produced yet another version, starring Martin Short and Faith Prince. The production earned mixed reviews but proved to be an audience-pleaser; as of this writing, a Los Angeles transfer may be in the offing.
Little Me is based on the 1961 best-selling novel by Patrick Dennis, author of the wildly successful Auntie Mame. It's spoof of tell-all memoirs by trouble-plagued lady stars, a genre that was born in the 1950s with such works as I'll Cry Tomorrow (by Lillian Roth), Too Much, Too Soon (by Diana Barrymore), and Gypsy (by Gypsy Rose Lee). Dennis' narrative recounts the many adventures of Belle Poitrine (nee Schlumpfert) of Venezuela, IL, a well-endowed innocent who, searching for wealth, culture, and social position, instead finds sex, scandal, and Hollywood notoriety. Sprinkled throughout Dennis' text are photos by Cris Alexander, which hilariously depict Belle in various compromising positions with legions of male admirers.
Simon's stage adaptation of Little Me is more of a burlesque show than a literary spoof. It's a series of comedy sketches detailing Belle's entanglements with a variety of hapless lovers, including rich kid Noble Eggleston, wheelchair-bound miser Amos Pinchley, amnesiac French entertainer Val du Val, myopic doughboy Fred Poitrine, tyrannical film director Otto Schnitzler, and dying monarch Prince Cherney of Rosenzweig. The principal joke of Little Me is that all these men--most of whom get accidentally bumped off by Belle--are played by one actor.
The 1962 and 82 versions of Little Me, with scenery by Robert Randolph and Tony Walton respectively, were classically large-scale Broadway musicals. This is hardly surprising, for the script's locations include Belle's Southampton estate, her childhood shack, the Eggleston mansion, Amos Pinchley's bank, a New York nightclub, a World War I army camp, the deck of the cruise liner Gigantic, a Hollywood studio, and a Monte Carlo casino, among others. However, for the recent revival, set designer David Gallo had to fit Little Me into the smallish Roundabout Theatre, which has no wing space, no flies, and a sloping grid. "It was a nightmare," he says simply.
The solution was to take a leaf, literally, from the book of Little Me and create what Gallo calls "the blank page approach." First, he placed the orchestra above the stage, on its own level. Onstage, a narrow donut turntable constantly brought on new scenic pieces, while a drum located at rear center stage opened to admit larger scenic pieces and, at times, the chorus. But the key element was the portal, which Gallo designed to look like a mass of pages torn from a book. This served as a surface for projection designer Jan Hartley, who created dozens of riotous images in the style of Cris Alexander, depicting Belle at various stages of her checkered career.
The production's opening sequence best illustrates the use of the projections. The preset look featured a montage of excerpts from Belle's memoirs projected on the portal (Included are such chapter titles as "The Princess and the Pauper," "The Stock Market Takes a Dive," and "Happiness at Last?"). Hanging at stage center was a black-and-white photo of Faith Prince hoisting a cocktail, with the book cover "Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of That Great Star of Stage and Screen, Belle Poitrine." As the overture began, the projections switched to a montage of Belle in various attitudes and poses. These consisted of vintage photos onto which Hartley superimposed Prince's face.
To create these projections, Hartley went to work on stock photos, using the computer program Adobe Photoshop 5.0 (she uses Illustrator for projections that involve text). "I scan the photos," she says. Then, using photos of Prince, "I cut out her face and place it on top of the photo that I want." The angles of both faces had to closely match, so Prince's features could be superimposed on the stock image. "Then I retouch it so that her skin color and tone match the photo. I also need to make sure that she retains her chin and cheekbones, and that her jawline matches, because that's very distinctive on her. If I lost that, you wouldn't really recognize her in the image."
Hartley adds that, in one or two cases, she blended facial characteristics from the underlying image into Prince's face. For example, in the number "Poor Little Hollywood Star," a series of projections detailed Belle's various film roles. These include such titles as What's the Mata, Hari? and Flaming Youth, about Joan of Arc. For Mabel Dick, featuring Belle as Captain Ahab, Prince's face acquired Gregory Peck's jowls, and for a Bride of Frankenstein-type thriller, she gained Elsa Lanchester's eyebrows. All of these images were black and white; Hartley limited her use of color photos for the final montage, showing Belle and Noble, happy at last, on a grand tour of Europe.
Other projections were used to advance the plot. Tabloid headlines were projected to keep the audience up to date with the troubles of both Belle ("Girl Guns Geezer") and Noble ("Drunken Governor Impeached"). Other images were used to set individual scenes--balloons and confetti for Noble's birthday party, theatre marquees for Belle's brief career in vaudeville, the famous Hollywood sign for Belle's film career, and recruiting posters for the WWI scenes.
Much of Hartley's job involved researching and assembling the correct images. "The trick of my research has to do with copyright issues," she says. "For the overture sequence, I had to find antique photos." The Hollywood star photos required actual film production stills, but the designer notes that, in this case, copyrights were not an issue, as her work was covered by parody laws. "Everything else," she notes, "was bought and paid for."
The shape of the portal provided a major challenge for Hartley, who had to match up her images with its odd angles and uneven lengths. "I had to do three sets of test slides, which would line up with the set," she says, "so I would know where things were projecting--I had 15 slide projectors at odd angles." The designer used Kodak Ektagraphic slide machines placed on a pipe in the center of the house (all of the show's images are front-projected). She credits lighting designer Kenneth Posner for giving her this key bit of grid space, and for creating a design that allowed her projections to stand out--"I have to tip my hat to Kenny," she adds, laughing, "because without a lighting designer on my side, I ain't got nothing."
Gallo agrees that Posner had plenty of challenges, including a white set, that portal, the projections, and the placement of the orchestra. But Gallo had challenges of his own, even with his elegant design. To create the basic white stage environment, the irregularly shaped setting was constructed out of poplar over a minimal steel frame, with unbleached Leno stretched over the wood. "I now use Leno instead of velour," says the designer, "because it doesn't wrap around corners very well--plus, it only comes 54" wide. Leno comes 30' wide and can be dyed in any color."
The white look was carried out in the opening scene, at Belle's mansion, which was defined by a zebra-striped bar, with matching chairs and a white piano. This limited palette allowed Prince to make a real star entrance, wearing a spectacular pink evening gown. After that, each scene was sketched in quickly with one or two scenic pieces. When Belle sings the number "The Other Side of the Tracks," she is literally standing on one side of a tiny railroad spur. Other details included a giant safe for Amos Pinchley's bank; a quonset hut and gunny sacks for the WWI hospital, a tinsel curtain for Val du Val's cabaret act, and a giant royal purple bed where Prince Cherney plays out his farcical death scene, surrounded by loyal peasants. The headboard behind the prince's bed sports a gag worthy of Simon himself--the royal shield, featuring a giant "R" (for Rosenzweig) pierced by two swords, one bearing a kosher hot dog and one skewering a pickle.
Gallo, who has garnered considerable attention for his colorful, two-dimensional "cartoon" sets for the plays Bunny Bunny and Jackie, adds he went for a different approach this time, making sure each piece was fully dimensional. The Little Me set was constructed and painted by Showman Fabricators, with automation by United Theatrical Services. Other scenery was constructed and painted by Atlantic Studios, and John Creech Design and Production. Robert Bissinger was associate scene designer.
Gallo's biggest effect was the sinking ship Gigantic, for which he provides a large, forced-perspective prow big enough to accommodate the entire cast (the scene began with director Rob Marshall's wicked spoof of the "King of the World" sequence from Titanic). As the boat began to "sink," a giant blue wave rose up out of the stage. "The wave is made of poly cyc," says Gallo, adding "I chose a fabric that wouldn't wrinkle."
Gallo originally added a Titanic parody of his own, designing a miniature ocean liner that would cross the stage, as happens in Stewart Laing's design for Titanic, the musical (whose associate designer was, incidentally, Gallo). The gag, however, got cut, along with a number of ideas that were cut or scaled down to fit the Roundabout. Still, he adds, it was no easy matter to fit the scenery into the limited backstage space. "The scenery pieces are all hung inches apart from each other. During the load-in, Rob kept saying, 'Where's all the scenery going to go?' But each piece was designed to fit in a specific space, and the height of each one was determined by the same criteria. There's a very low grid in that space, and it slopes. The lowest pieces are stored all the way upstage. I'm pretty good at cramming junk in a theatre." Thanks to him, and to Hartley, the Belle Poitrine saga is told with maximum speed and considerable wit.
Little Me is an exercise in the art of the quick change, not only for the performers who jump in and out of roles as quickly as scenes change, but for costume designer Ann Hould-Ward, who outfitted the outlandish cast of characters. No stranger to creating costumes with personality, the designer, who won a Tony Award for her work on Beauty and the Beast, approached what could have been the daunting task of spanning several periods and styles of dress in the true spirit of the musical comedy--with a sense of humor.
"There were initially 187 costume changes," remembers Hould-Ward, who says economizing the scale was a necessary decision made early on with director/choreographer Rob Marshall. "We realized we had to have a way to do this that was affordable not only fiscally, but space-wise at the Roundabout. So Rob and I started to talk about the idea of basic costumes that were added to or taken away from to get different looks. That's how we came up with the idea that everybody has cream-colored base costumes."
In the opening scene, at Belle's book party in her Southampton mansion, the base color is well established in a monochromatic palette, with all guests decked out in white 60s-style cocktail dresses and suits. This sets the scene for the entrance of the starlet herself, who stands apart from the rest in a pink hostess gown. "With Belle, it became a matter of experiencing pink differently within each different framework," the designer explains. "We tried to figure out how pink she was in relationship to the other characters, and get it so you saw some fairly pale pinks at different times in the beginning, with the maternity skirt and her first little skirt when she's on Drifter's Row to the end, when she's a star wearing a bright pink marabou coat."
While pink is established as Belle's color, form-fitting clothes are definitely her cut, according to the designer, who says the character is all about accentuating the positive. "What Rob and I thought as we were developing her costumes was that Belle Poitrine is based on the idea of beautiful breasts, so we needed a way to realize that, but we both wanted something that was also feminine and sweet," explains Hould-Ward, who dressed Belle in tight black leggings and a corselet with ruffles as her base costume. "The ruffles enlarge her breasts, but also have a sweetness to them. From that, we created different versions of clothing to add on, but still underneath, she stays the same innocent, sweet person she always was."
Belle's outward transformation, however, required more planning than in previous productions of the show, where the roles of young and old Belle were played by two performers. Combining the roles, which in this production are played by Faith Prince, added to the logistics of a show already laden with tricky costume changes. "Many times, Faith does not go off stage," says Hould-Ward. "So it is a matter of how many elements do we have to get out to her onstage, and how do we make it look graceful."
For Martin Short's vast array of costumes, the designer was well prepared. "Rob, Martin, and I went through costume by costume, talking about the fit, the look, and also the makeup and hair," she says.
Although fitting time with Short was limited because he's onstage for most of the show, a series of "marathon fittings," Short's easy adaptability, and a remarkable team of dressers made the process seem almost painless, according to the designer. "We got into the theatre, tried the changes, and his dresser [Keith Shaw], who was wonderful, did a lot of rigging, and that was it. Everything just worked."
A laundry list of Short's costumes include miserly banker Amos Pinchley's green velvet embossed robe with a lining printed with money signs ("That was really just for Martin," Hould-Ward confesses.); a vaudevillian getup with "padded bum and stomach" as showman Benny Buchsbaum; a World War I uniform ill-fitted with upside-down shoulder pads and oversized sleeves as the hapless Fred Poitrine; and a purple-and-white uniform completely over the top with trim for "a royal prince of Europe look" as Prince Cherney.
And then there is the chorus, which fleshes out the background characters, playing mod party guests, Noble's snotty rich-kid friends, ragtag Drifter's Row townspeople, Fosse-style courtroom dancers, passengers on the Gigantic, and extras in Belle's Hollywood bible epic. To change looks, Hould-Ward added color elements to their base cream-colored costumes, referring back to extensive color palettes she had originally envisioned for each scene. "When we initially talked about doing the show with many costume changes, we had color-coded the scenes," she says. "But when we realized we wanted just a unit costume as a neutral base, then we decided to use the color palettes for the add-ons."
Costumes were built by Barbara Matera Ltd. Millinery and accessories were by Arnold Levine Ltd. Jewelry was created by Dean Morgan and vintage jewelry was by Ilene Chaznof-NY. In addition to assistant costume designer Susan Ruddie, who Hould-Ward says was indispensable in tracking the numerous costume changes, the costume team included assistant Mitchell Bloom, shopper Katrin Nauman-Hutchinson, and intern Dean Morgan.
"One of the things about doing a show like this is the dedication from the team behind the scenes," says Hould-Ward, who also credits the dressers as an integral part of the process. "They really have to be totally prepared for the actors. Everyone's really done a great job. You are able to watch it out front and marvel at it, but you really don't have any idea about the number of people backstage making it happen."
Dying is easy, comedy is hard, as the saying goes. But comedy can be even harder for sound designers when it's of the vaudevillian, Borscht Belt variety, where the sound gags are as important as the sight gags. With its medley of foghorns at sea, airplanes flying overhead, and the "boom-booms" of a French balladeer, the sounds in Little Me come fast and furious, and it was up to Brian Ronan to combine them with the music from the show and create a cohesive, if wacky, mix.
The most challenging sound cue in the Roundabout production takes place in a restroom, as Benny Buchsbaum (Martin Short) walks into a toilet stall, closes the door, and argues with his brother Bernie Buchsbaum over who should direct Belle Poitrine's next picture, all the while awaiting a luncheon delivery. When lunch finally does arrive, who should their delivery boy be but the once-famous film director Otto Schnitzler (Martin Short), even as Benny and Bernie continue arguing. The legs peeking beneath the stall are, of course, a plant, as Short makes a quick change from Benny to Otto, even though Short's voice is heard the entire time. And it was up to Ronan to make the audience fall for the switch.
"Everyone was nervous about this from the get-go," Ronan says. "We had to wait and see what the set piece was going to look like, and David Gallo created this little toilet that worked out well, and once we had the visual of the substitute actor's feet, I had a picture of what we were going to do. So the first thing I did was record Martin's voice. We did several takes of that, one by himself and one with the other actors; we had set up so that he was in an isolation booth and the other actors were piped in so he could hear the dialogue in real time. It's all quite fast--that older, vaudevillian Jewish humor that just comes right at you--so his reaction and intonation was dependent on how the lines were delivered to him. It was really important to get the other actors involved with it, and those were the tapes we wound up using.
"And then it was all a matter of making it sound like he was really in the toilet," he continues. "What we did was have somebody sit with a microphone in the toilet for a while, and just amplified it to see what that would sound like, and then we tried to match the recording to that sound. With a little delay and the placement of a speaker within the toilet, it worked nicely. I then delayed the rest of the PA system to that as well, because we'd been listening to Martin on mic all night, and our ears were used to hearing from the PA system. I couldn't vanish him down to the toilet, because it would seem too natural--unnaturally natural."
French entertainer Val du Val and his Boom-Boom Girls provided Ronan with more fun cues, one of which occurred during a phony tap dance interlude. Originally, the creative team was going to mike one of the other dancers offstage and then pull back the curtain to reveal him, but that was eventually nixed in favor of using the percussionist. "It's always tough to get the miking correct on all the toys of a percussionist," Ronan notes, "so what I did for the first time was put a wireless on him, as well as on his wrists. That way I had real close contact on his mallet work, and also on the tap cue. For that, we set up a block of wood, he put a pair of tap shoes on his hands, and just whacked those on the wood. I had some speakers built into David Gallo's set, and I piped the tapping down so it sounded like it came from Martin's feet."
Later on, Val du Val suffers from a bout of amnesia, but recovers his memory during World War I as the boom-booms of the cannons jog his memory. For this series of cues, Ronan started the boom-booms in the back of the room and slowly moved them up to the stage; he dubbed the noises into the keyboard player's sampler in order to keep the rhythm of the booms in time with the music.
The barrage of cues convinced Ronan to use another operator on sound effects for the first time. John Sibley served as production sound engineer, while James Uphoff served as the digital Foley engineer. Sound designers who work at the Roundabout are usually asked to use the in-house equipment, but Ronan was able to bring in some of his own stuff on this production, including his favorite, LCS, and a computer with Pro Tools software in order to edit onsite. "There were so many cues that I didn't want to run back and forth from the studio," he explains. "I went to Masque Sound and John Kilgore helped me burn a CD-ROM from a big library of stuff, and then I brought that back to the theatre. We created some cues onsite as well, such as the voiceover announcements made between scene transitions."
For amps and speakers, he stuck primarily with the in-house equipment. "Tony Meola helped the Roundabout put in a system that includes a delay system of Apogee AE-2s, which fills out the back of the house nicely," he notes. "You can use Meyer UPAs or Meyer UM1s to fill up the room, and then another couple of UPAs for the band. And then I brought in some additional Meyer UPAs to surround the house, because I knew [director] Rob [Marshall] wanted foghorns over here, and planes flying overhead, and 'boom-booms' approaching from a distance. I made a grid system over the whole top of the theatre, and broke it down into three zones, and used LCS so we could have sounds fill wherever and whenever we needed it."
Ronan has worked on several shows at the Roundabout now, and it's an experience he finds rewarding, if a bit challenging. "The Roundabout is an interesting place because it really draws on your raw talent," he notes. "You don't really have a budget, and you have to use a lot of their stuff to make it work, but that's good to do once in a while. You don't have all those exotic things to draw from; they really want you to use their in-house stuff, so you kind of blow the dust off and make it sound good. But I've done a couple of shows there now, and I like the room."
For Little Me, lighting designer Kenneth Posner has gone Technicolor. Following his restrained palettes for the Roundabout Theatre's acclaimed drama Side Man and the Tony Award-winning revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, Posner has unleashed a riot of purples, pinks, blues, and reds on the company's latest production. Little Me pops in and out of colors as frequently as Martin Short pops in and out of roles.
Given white-on-white sets and costumes, the designer says saturation--and lots of it--was the only way to go. "There was no such thing as too much on this show," he laughs. Working in his personal "light lab," using colors from a number of different manufacturers, Posner devised hues made to order for an intensely collaborative show. This followed meetings that began late last May, when Posner first sat down with director/choreographer Rob Marshall, set designer David Gallo, and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward to map out how best to bring a show that spans several decades into the 60s.
The overarching concept was to have the show unfold as the pages of the autobiography recounted by its central character, Belle Poitrine. The designers then chose how best to fill in those blank sheets. "We looked at a lot of big studio musicals, and other research materials, from the time period covered by the show," Posner recalls. The rich coloring "came right out of Ann's fabric and dye swatches for her costumes; I either complemented the color accents she had, or went in another direction to give the lighting a different base to sit on." Initially, he says projections were only a small part of the design, but Jan Hartley's inventiveness soon broadened their use. "We had to bring those pages to life somehow," Posner recalls. "Rob wanted to use them in specific places, like the Hollywood star montage, but David and I convinced him that Jan could fill in the story in ways more literal than what scenery or lighting could do."
Transforming, with color and texture, the blank pages of the set into individual scenes proved a considerable hurdle for the author of the lighting design. Criterion Center Stage Right at the Roundabout is far more intimate than the proscenium theatres that housed prior incarnations of Little Me--"Any time you're doing a white set with no sidelight positions, it's a challenge," Posner says. But problems posed by the sharp angles of the scenery and the specific lighting needs for the projections were surmounted by the designers being "on the same page. Everything was painstakingly storyboarded, so the show always looked like it was designed by a team, not four people working in four different corners."
The lighting designer had a number of "excellent" people working in his corner: associate lighting designer Jeanne Koenig Rubin, assistant lighting designer Michael O' Connor, house electrician Nick Lyndon, and production electrician Graeam McDonnell. "We spent a lot of time at the drawing table trying to figure out the various angles and where shadows landed, and how to maximize what the Roundabout had and add to it [with contributions from Four Star Lighting]. We spent a tremendous amount of time in the theatre refining--moving lights around, getting the exact angle to slice perfectly. We had to illuminate the set in saturated color, but not cast unwanted shadows of the actors in weird places."
With space for equipment at a premium, Posner turned to automated luminaires for an assist. "I had the budget to afford 14 moving lights--High End Systems Cyberlight(R) SVs--which varied the lighting and gave it a contemporary sensibility. In the front of house, they supplemented the three Lycian followspots we had to pull the actors out of the background saturation, and filled in colors up on the walls of the set. They contributed textured stage washes as well." The moving lights, which contributed 450 cues programmed by Josh Weitzman on an ETC Expression 3, "moved the story along." (Conventionals were programmed on an ETC Obsession.)
Colorams and Goborams from Wybron also helped the production shift unflaggingly from settings that range from the backwaters of Illinois to the deck of the Gigantic. Additional mileage came from units from Lighting & Electronics and Altman, and City Theatrical accessories. Chicago, the stage musical, is doubly parodied in a trial sequence, with a layering of highly saturated red that mimics Ken Billington's Tony Award-winning lighting for its ongoing revival and white-on-white duds that send up the black-on-black costuming by William Ivey Long for that same production.
Posner talked to ED via cell phone on a train en route to Wilmington, DE, where his latest production, a revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, is trying out. Most of the design team from Little Me is reuniting for Charlie Brown, which is scheduled to begin previews at New York's Ambassador Theatre on January 23.
The lighting designer is using High End's convection-cooled Studio Spots(TM) on the show, which should enhance an already solid working relationship with sound designer Brian Ronan. "His biggest issue with me on Little Me was overcoming the noise from all those lights, and 15 slide projectors, besides." Fortunately, he says, manufacturers are sensitive about making their next-generation equipment quieter, ensuring that the bold colors promised for Charlie Brown, and delivered on Little Me, will be seen and not heard.