He is the consummate set and costume designer and is reaping the rewards for playing this double role: Bob Crowley, the London-based, five-time Tony Award winner, will receive the 2009 Robert L. B. Tobin Award For Lifetime Achievement In Theatrical Design at the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards on March 27 in New York City. “I was thrilled, over the moon about this one,” he says.
In terms of designing in multiple disciplines, Crowley notes, “I don't know any other way; that's the way I was trained. It's more a part of the European system than in the US, where they seem separated at birth for the most part.” After studying in his native Ireland, where he was born in Cork, and England, including at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Crowley quickly rolled up his sleeves and got to work. “I began as a scene painter,” he says. “I started at the bottom and worked my way up.” He made his Broadway debut in 1987 with the scenic and costume design for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, after making his mark in the UK — from The Royal National Theatre to The Royal Shakespeare Company — and has been a presence on the Great White Way ever since.
Crowley may well be considered the scenic “voice” of playwright Tom Stoppard in New York, where his Stoppard productions range from Hapgood and The Invention of Love to the three parts of The Coast Of Utopia (in collaboration with Scott Pask), for which he won one of his Tony Awards. The others are for Aida, Mary Poppins, Carousel, and The History Boys.
“I think you need to take a different approach to Tom Stoppard,” says Crowley, who oddly enough has just designed his first Stoppard in London, a revival of Every Good Boy Deserves A Turn, at The National's Olivier Theatre. “He is, of course, an intellectual writer but also has a phenomenal amount of humanity inside him. He is a poet, and I think you need to apply a sensual aesthetic. I love his language, and a poetic and sensuous approach changes the way you hear his words. People are generally too literal about Stoppard, but I don't think you should be.”
The Tony-winning The Coast of Utopia was staged by Lincoln Center Theatre in the Vivien Beaumont, a space once considered awkward to design for and where Crowley also designed a stunning production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. “I love the Beaumont,” says Crowley, who cut his teeth on such difficult stages at the RSC's theatre in Stratford and the Olivier. “I have no fears at the Beaumont. You have to embrace these spaces. If you love them, they love you back.”
How does the “voice” of Stoppard also design big musicals like Mary Poppins? “I've loved Mary Poppins since I saw the film as a child,” he says. “It was groundbreaking back in the '60s. I saw it five times in one week, and it was seared on my retinas. I may be a designer because of seeing that film. It certainly opened up doors in my imagination.”
One of Crowley's upcoming projects is designing the sets and costumes for Andrew Lloyd Webber's sequel to The Phantom Of The Opera, to be directed by Jack O'Brien, who also directed The Coast of Utopia in New York. Set in Coney Island during its heyday in the early 1900s, ten years after the Phantom's adventures at the Paris opera house, this production gives Crowley the chance to recreate a quintessential landmark of American popular culture. “From the candlelit world of Phantom, the sequel is set in the age of electricity. I want to create a spectacular city of light.”