The Solution To A Tricky Design Challenge
Set in 1915, Tin Pan Alley Rag—the new musical playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre—combines the stories—and rhythms—of two quintessential American composers, Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin— a Jewish immigrant with a penchant for writing commercial hits and a black man with a penchant for writing artistic compositions. The design team includes Beowulf Boritt (sets), Jess Goldstein (costumes), Howell Binkley (lighting), and Walter Trarbach (sound), and for Boritt the real challenge came from the fact that the action moves to many various locations. “We had to literally cram 12 realistic locations into a theatres with no real backstage,” he explains, noting that the locales range from backstage in a vaudeville house to a nightclub in Cuba.
Boritt’s solution comprises the use of three vertical periaktoi on turntables, and as he puts it, “a lot of set dressing. The locations change constantly with something in flux every few minutes,” he notes, adding that there are “big transitional moments and quick shifts of two to three minutes, as well as slow fades.” The irregular shapes of the periaktoi help make the ground plan change for visual interest.
Irving Berlin’s office on Tin Pan Alley (Manhattan's 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue) represents the most “dressed” of the locales, with shelves and filing cabinets full of sheet music to help set the mood for a musical about music. There are two pianos on stage at almost all times, and although they occasionally move off into the wings, they serve as “the constant reference,” as Boritt points out (the actors don’t actually play the pianos, which in turn don’t really make any noise. Instead the pianos are rigged with loudspeakers, although the actors finger the keys to make it look realistic).
Some of the sets are more realistic than others: from heavy Victorian-style damask wallpaper in a turn-of-the-century roadhouse for Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag to a Lower East Side dive for Berlin’s Yiddish Nightingale, where light filters though the windows and beer signs flash on the walls. “The turntables can be used to create gaps in the scenery,” says Boritt, who created some of the scenes with just fragments of the locations, set dramatically against Binkley’s background lighting, which Boritt refers to as “an inky black world.”
At one point the turntables open to reveal a theatre within a theatre, sweeping the action into a vaudeville house with footlights upstage and the actors' backs to the audience, and at the end of the show, the action jumps forward more than 50 years: “You see Irving Berlin age through a costume change,” notes Boritt. “You see him going to see Joplin’s Tremonisha, which was finally produced on Broadway in 1975. The set moves away for a very open look, and the ghostly figures from Tremonisha appear with the ghost of Scott Joplin at the very end.” Of course, the idea that Berlin and Joplin ever met, compared scores, and encouraged each other in their music, is pure fiction. But then again, this is the theatre!
Rock Steady With Rock Of Ages On Broadway, Part 4: Set Design