David Korins has been taking Broadway by storm, as he’s racked up scenic design credits for Lombardi, The Pee-wee Herman Show, Chinglish, Godspell, An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, Magic/Bird, Bring It On The Musical, and now Annie, just in the last two years.
The producers of Annie must have sensed a trend, as they started talking to Korins about the revival of the beloved musical approximately two years ago. He had been collaborating with director James Lapine on Little Miss Sunshine, an adaptation of the movie for the La Jolla Playhouse, at the time.
“I knew the show really well, but to me, the profundity of being chosen to be the first person to ever really reimagine the show—it was the first non-Martin Charnin [the original conceiver, director, and lyricist] production—and Annie has such a specific time period, that, of course, we started with research, but it had to be surprising—fresh and exciting but also completely inevitable,” he says. “I kept thinking that people have an expectation of what the orphanage and mansion and oval office look like. How could we deliver it in a new way and not have it be questioned where we are?”
Korins, who calls the show “a visual love letter to New York City,” notes the juxtaposition of the Lower East Side to the Upper East Side, Times Square, Bergdorf’s, and other iconic locations in Depression-era Manhattan in creating a “vivid, specific visual vocabulary for that time period,” but he adds that the story is still rather timely, as many of the themes, such as economic uncertainty, apply today.
Korins worked closely with Lapine, whom he calls a “very visually-minded director” on graphic design, perspective, and style, creating initially abstract designs of locations and representations. “But the show really works well just as it is,” Korins says. “It’s different from working on a new show and adapting a story. You have to shoot for the middle, but you can’t dumb it down for the audience, and you also can’t entirely reimagine it. This is 1933 Depression-era New York, and that’s it.”
Recreating this production required more subtlety, the scenic designer says. “The way the show moves—the scenes and the worlds between the worlds—make up some of the more unique parts about our production and what defines our production,” Korins says, particularly noting a scene where Grace takes Annie from the orphanage to Warbucks’ mansion, and they stop at Bergdorf’s on the way to buy a coat. “What was interesting for us was telling the story of what happens when Annie leaves the orphanage on her way uptown for the first time in her life, so we literally designed the trip uptown—complete with the store window, the view of Central Park West, people on the street shopping—and so when she arrives at the mansion to sing ‘I Think I’m Going To Like It Here,’ we’ve shown that physical and mental journey.” Korins adds that choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler was highly involved with those transitions.
Because the story is based on a comic book, but is also for all ages, Korins notes he had to find a sweet spot of creating whimsy and excitement, without the set appearing cartoonish. “For the mansion and the orphanage, the idea came about to create a pop-up book, or flipbook, but it’s been done so many times that it had to be different,” he says, adding that Lapine had sent him a flat, die-cut card of Manhattan that was two-dimensional but opened to a three-dimensional pop-up that was what Korins calls “beautiful, evocative, sophisticated, and elegant, and really unlocked a lot of the design for us. It wasn’t cartoonish at all.”
The orphanage opens up and moves around like a book, with just two pages—a front cover and back cover, with the staircase in the middle as a page, but Warbucks’ mansion is more elaborate. When Annie first arrives there, for example, she is taken on a tour, and it has to come across to the audience as a grandiose space. “I landed on the idea of this flip book, which is essentially these big pages that can be moved by the cast and Warbucks’ servants,” says Korins. “So Annie can stand in the middle, and the world can move around her. There’s the contrast that the poor orphanage only has one page, and that Daddy Warbucks has basically a rolodex of many, many pages. And of course, there are the obligatory columns and chandelier and staircase that make it a mansion.”
Korins adds that every scene, including the Oval Office at the White House, bridges, and various scenes in New York City, carries this theme of cutouts—“flat pieces of scenery stacked in layers to make it a dimensional picture,” he says.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our discussion with David Korins and check out his set models here.