Broadway went to the boroughs last season. In the fall, Chazz Palminteri retold his Bronx Tale at the Walter Kerr Theatre, and in April, A Catered Affair, also set in the Bronx, opened at the same venue. The musical is based on a film favorite of book writer and co-star Harvey Fierstein, The Catered Affair. In the 1956 movie, adapted by Gore Vidal from Paddy Chayefsky's teleplay, the delicate balance maintained by an Irish-Catholic family, the Hurleys, is torn asunder when daughter Janey decides to marry in a no-frills courthouse ceremony. Mother Aggie, who is guilt-ridden at not having shown Janey enough affection as a girl, insists on throwing a bells-and-whistles wedding, to the dismay of father Tom, who has been building a nest egg to buy his own cab and a measure of economic freedom. Faith Prince, Tom Wopat, and Leslie Kritzer assume the roles played by Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, and Debbie Reynolds in the film; taking the place of Barry Fitzgerald's uncle character is Fierstein, who has reconceived the part as a “confirmed bachelor” seeking his own place in the world circa 1953, when the show is set.
With music and lyrics by cabaret favorite John Bucchino, in his Broadway debut, this is a musical the practical Janey would approve. Director John Doyle courted controversy (and won considerable acclaim) by having the actors play their own instruments on stage in the Sondheim revivals Sweeney Todd and Company; this show has an orchestra but a similarly minimalist aesthetic and is elegantly, and sparely, designed. The evocative sets by David Gallo, including finely detailed living quarters for the Hurleys and place-setting fire escapes automated to move in and out of position about the stage, are complemented by Zachary Borovay's period-vintage projections. (The two collaborated on the quite different screen-to-stage musical Xanadu earlier in the season.) For this production, Doyle also called upon the services of sound designer Dan Moses Schreier, costume designer Ann Hould-Ward, and lighting designer Brian MacDevitt.
The five designers assembled for a roundtable at David Gallo Design in midtown Manhattan to discuss the show, which bowed at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre last fall. A Catered Affair was nominated for 12 Drama Desk Awards, including scenic design, costume design, and projection and video design, the inaugural year for the latter category. (The author was a Drama Desk nominator for the 2007-2008 theatre season.)
Live Design: How did you get involved in the show?
David Gallo: I have a long-standing relationship with the Cincinnati Playhouse, my favorite theatre in the country. They were doing the Company revival and had the idea of bringing John [Doyle] to the United States from London. That was my introduction to John, which led to that show and A Catered Affair. During the course of my early discussion with John, we decided that a projection element would be an interesting direction, and that is when I called Zak.
Dan Moses Schreier: I got involved through Sondheim…
DG: Well! (group laughs)
DMS: I did the Assassins revival, and when John was doing Sweeney Todd on Broadway, Sondheim said to him, “Use Dan.” I then did Mahagonny with John at the LA Opera, and then…actually, I think the next thing was supposed to be Barnum. Were you involved in that?
DG: Yes, we were supposed to be doing that at the Old Globe. But something happened with the rights. We had two design meetings about it.
DMS: And then the team morphed onto this project. That was about a year or so ago.
LD: What design concept did John Doyle have in mind?
DG: Of all the directors I've ever worked with, John's one I bond with on a very particular level…On the shows we've done, John hasn't come in with any preconceived agenda; we talk very much of what story it is we're going to tell…For Catered Affair, he thought in terms of his own upbringing, in a similar sort of place in Scotland. He had vivid memories of his mother putting the washing on the line and the neighborhood gossips, like in the show. Knowing that he wanted a pared-down, minimalist production almost went without saying; what was key was capturing that place and a simplicity of movement, and allowing it to be more of an actor-driven event.
DMS: Regarding the sound, John said, “Quiet.” (laughs) He really wanted the show to be as intimate and play-like and un-West End and Broadway musical as possible. He wanted you to be in that room with that family.
LD: And the lighting and projection?
DG: Let me just jump in and say that, from a scenic standpoint, I wanted the show to rely heavily on projected images and lighting.
Brian MacDevitt: After seeing the reading for this, in a tiny room at the Manhattan Theatre Club, I thought it had amazing impact. I just wanted to keep it there, do it with music stands and overhead fluorescent lights. (laughs) I got really nervous about this big white set. “Are we sure we want it to be white?” I asked at the model stage. “We can project on black, too, or on anything.” I didn't want the show to be eaten up by our work, which happens on a lot of projection shows.
I remember before our first meeting at David's studio, John said, “Let's take a walk.” and as we walked through Midtown, he would point to various buildings and say, “Look at this one.” To him, we weren't talking about projection surfaces but structures that were warm and faded. He'd add, “Don't look at that building; it's too dark. It's not West Side Story.” I got it: It didn't want to be dark. He was very convincing.
DG: You hold hands with him and jump off the cliff, but you will land safely with John Doyle.
BM: It extended to the actors, too. After the first tech, he said, “Okay, let's take a short break, and everyone come back with no makeup on. Let's see what it's like.” People used to traditional musical theatre just gasped; we were getting away from the painted rosy cheeks and the long eyelashes, but it comes back to that same thing that I'm so proud of on this production: There's a seamlessness between what is brick, what is brick that is side-lit, and what is brick that is projected. The architecture that is really there and the architecture that is projected by Zak merge in a way that epitomizes that kind of collaboration.
LD: Why use projection at all? Why not put the show on a turntable or some other method?
Zachary Borovay: We're trying to add an extra layer of narrative on top of the story. I've had this experience of walking around Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, looking at buildings where my grandparents and great-grandparents lived. I then imagine what those buildings were like when they lived there. There's a dual-life quality that we're trying to get out of the set. It's not just where they lived but the life within that environment.
DG: The set is a series of sliding panels that creates a natural abstraction. They reconfigure throughout the evening, providing whatever architectural necessities are required for the storytelling. With the addition of fairly realistic furniture and set pieces, I was able to give John the most minimum pieces necessary to help tell the story. John and I then conceived of using projected imagery to help set a sense of time and place.
LD: Where did the specific images come from?
DG: A great amount of the imagery came from my initial research. I found materials from a variety of sources, including the Bronx Historical Society, various books and period publications, and photographs that I took at the locations themselves.
ZB: Part of the beauty of the collaboration was that we all shared our resources. I had pictures of my great-grandfather, a cab driver, that I gave to Ann to work with, and even pictures of laundry on lines. Originally, we had scenic laundry…
DG: …there were a lot of laundry lines. (laughs)
ZB: The catering hall is an actual catering hall in Brooklyn that we did a shoot at, in HD video.
DG: It probably hasn't changed since the '50s.
ZB: Our concept in this scene — in the number “Vision” — was that the actors were going to stand still, and the imagery was going to dance. Getting a 60'-wide picture to move around is always a challenge; you either get The Woman in White or seasickness. We took one frame from the video and manipulated it to be the different states of the image: it goes from grainy black-and-white period to color in the catering hall as the lights go up and as they fade down. At the end, there's just the light from the catering hall and no support at all from the physical lights.
The Coney Island projection that comes at the end is one of those very happy accidents that comes on during tech, when we're sitting around thinking, “We really need to punch up this ending, but how?” And John said to me, “What about a picture of Coney Island?” We did some quick research and found a bunch of Coney Island postcards that we put together for our image. Structurally, it's a very strong image, with the Cyclone rollercoaster and these two fire escapes crossing in front of it. It's very immersive.
LD: How did you collaborate with Brian?
ZB: Brian, David, and I all come from the same area. There's a familiarity the three of us have with one another that kept us from stepping on each other's toes.
DG: I've known Zak since 1980 and Brian since 1984. We grew up maybe one or two towns apart.
ZB: Brian and I went to the same high school…
DG: …many years apart. (laughs)
LD: Did the show change much between the two venues?
ZB: By the time we got to San Diego, the projections were basically finished. I used a tiny Mitsubishi PK20 LED pocket projector and Apple Keynote to rough out the projection design and project onto the models David made. For me, it was a struggle to keep it the same but with a completely different technical setup. At the Old Globe, they have a booth with a 4" thick soundproof glass wall that has a great, clear shot to fill the entire space with a single projector. At the Walter Kerr, the only optimal position is three projectors mounted vertically on the balcony rail, which is the game that I learned with Wendall Harrington on Grey Gardens. We were taking pictures that were formatted for a single projector and figuring out how to display them across three, and combine that with the never-ending challenge of how to take these three projectors that are now 7' or 8' above the orchestra's heads and keep them quiet for this quiet little show.
BM: In New York, we went further and made it a black-and-white world that didn't emerge with color until after the first three scenes, and I was able to use the projection to light scenes, something unheard of just a few years ago. When the window shades open and the gossipy neighbors come out, we couldn't light them to look like the projected image, so I had Zak do it. This was in no way a territorial show…
LD: How did you go about lighting the show?
BM: I was keen on the world of incandescents, for nostalgia and because they're people-friendly. I have a hard time with arc lamps, which are useful for a presentational kind of theatre. Incandescents caress the people and bring them to life. The moving lights are ETC Source Four Revolutions…Edward Hopper's art was a big influence for everybody, so with that in mind, I knew where I wanted to place these lamps, that I wanted to have shutters in them, and that I wanted to flash the scenery with them and give paths of sunlight to help the characters find their way through the city.
DMS: I will add that Brian really embraced cutting the fan noise to a bare minimum, which I'd like to thank him for. That doesn't happen in musicals anymore, and it's a fantastic collaboration between a sound and a lighting designer. It's a great joy to me that the theatre gets so quiet in key moments, like when the flag comes out.
LD: How does the costuming come into play?
ZB: Ann and I had many discussions about the color palette and how to create projection environments that didn't swallow up the actors. In New York, the women in the windows were dressed to reflect the sepia tone of the projection in that scene, another way to light the women with the video and make them part of the slide.
Ann Hould-Ward: It's period clothing but not so far removed from our time. My Irish-Catholic neighbors across the hall were a font of information, as we all shared examples from our families. And I minimized, too; the wedding dress — in the number, “One White Dress” — was simplified. There are details you might not notice; Faith is wearing her mother's earrings, a very resonant touch, and I think David did amazing work on things like the stove, which is actually cooking those eggs on stage.
LD: One scenic element that is definitely not projected is the yellow taxi that comes out at the end.
ZB: John enjoyed sneaking around scenes during rehearsals and quietly removing props that he felt were unnecessary, putting them in a box. That went on until the last day of tech, but he always had to have a reason for doing so: The coffee cup, which told the audience that it was morning, could stay, but the table it was on could go. It was all about the bare essentials. We thought about projecting a taxi image, and then decided it was very important for the show to pay off with something physical. Certain things have to be real.
DG: Putting a musical into a theatre that is meant for plays is tricky enough; getting a taxi in there is trickier still. (laughs) But John and I, from the very beginning, felt that the audience needed to see this very large automobile that all of the characters have been discussing throughout the story.
LD: As we're at the end of the show, any final thoughts on the experience?
BM: I'd like to say something about the costumes. When you see the actors on stage in their costumes, the whole design is unified and completed. What Ann designed is so sensitive and balanced that someone wearing different color socks during an afternoon rehearsal would throw the whole show out of whack. It's not the light that holds it together but those clothes.
ZB: Such was the closeness of the collaboration that if any one element is missing — if say an actor's shirt didn't come back from the dry-cleaners — we couldn't do the show that night.
A Catered Affair
CREDIT AND EQUIPMENT LIST
Scenic Designer: David Gallo
Lighting Designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound Designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Costume Designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Projection Designer: Zachary Borovay
Scenery construction and show control: PRG Scenic Technologies
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Sound Equipment: PRG Audio
Video Equipment: PRG Video
Associate scenic designer: Josh Zangen
Associate Lighting Design: Jennifer Schriever
Assistant Lighting Design: Peter Hoerburger
Production Electrician: Mike LoBue
Head Electrician: Drayton Allison
Moving Light Programmer: Timmy Rogers
House Electrician: Vinnie Valvo
Associate Sound Designer: David Bullard
Production Sound Mixer: Patrick Pummill
Assistant Sound Engineer: Stephanie Vetter
Associate Costume Designer: Sidney Shannon
Associate Projection Designer: Austin Switser
Projectionist: Brian Beasley
15 ETC Source Four 5° Ellipsoidal
15 ETC Source Four 10° Ellipsoidal
31 ETC Source Four 14° Ellipsoidal
57 ETC Source Four 19° Ellipsoidal
135 ETC Source Four 26° Ellipsoidal
40 ETC Source Four 36° Ellipsoidal
5 ETC Source Four 50° Ellipsoidal
52 PAR 64 ACL
10 ETC Source Four PAR MFL
24 ETC Revolution, with rotating gobo and shutter modules
7 City Theatrical AutoYoke Source Four 10°, with Auto Iris
45 Wybron Coloram II 4" Color Scrollers
25 Wybron Coloram II 7.5" Color Scrollers
1 City Theatrical WDS Transmitter
6 City Theatrical WDS Receiver
6 City Theatrical WDS Dimmer
1 ETC Eos Console
1 ETC Obsession II Console
2 High End Systems Wholehog 2 Console
Console: Cadac J-type
Speakers: Meyer UPJ-1Ps, UPA-1Ps, UPM-1Ps, USWs; d&b audiotechnik E3s, E0s
Wireless: Sennheiser SK5212s with DPA 4061 Lavalier Microphones
Orchestra: Schoeps Microphones
Processing: Lexicon 480L, Vavlotronics Gain Ryder 3 Compressor, Aphex Distribution Amplifiers
3 Panasonic PT-D10000U DLP Projectors, 10K Lumens with 1.0 - 1.2:1 Zoom Lens
2 Medialon Show Control System PCs
4 Dataton Watchout PCs
4 Magenta Research AK500 Video over Cat5 Distribution
1 Panasonic Quad View Processor
1 Raritan Paragon KVM Distribution System
3 Gefen DVI Detectives