Jerome Sirlin got the call last spring — it was Arthur Laurents saying he remembered Sirlin's Tony-Award nominated scenic design for Kiss of the Spider Woman and wanted to know if he'd like to work with him on the design of a revival of his own 1967 musical, Hallelujah, Baby!
A Broadway legend with West Side Story and Gypsy already to his credit, Laurents won his first Tony Award with Hallelujah, Baby! for which he had written the book while Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the lyrics and Jule Styne the music. The musical, staring Leslie Uggams, had a 293-performance run but closed before it was awarded the Tony Award for Best Musical of the 1967-68 Season.
Laurents wanted to use projections to simplify and clarify the storytelling in his century-spanning, time-twisting tale, which used show business as a vehicle to survey the African-American experience of the twentieth century. For the new production, Laurents wanted to expand the story to cover the entire century, but streamline it for a cast of nine. He wanted to use a single set featuring a projection screen to present time and place information so the audience could easily follow the chronology. An added incentive was the involvement of Theoni V. Aldredge, who designed the new production's costumes.
Sirlin signed on for a production which would be mounted first at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse in October and then at Arena Stage in Washington DC in December. The George Street, with its 385-seat, three-quarter thrust configuration would be a bit different than the 514-seat Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage, but the footprint of the playing space would be similar. The major difference would be that the George Street has enough backstage depth to support using a rear-projection system while they would have to go with front-projection in DC. At both venues, the sets were constructed by the theatres' own inhouse team.
He devised the single set as a stage on the stage, with curtains that drew back to reveal the projection screen on which about 75 images would set the tone and look of individual scenes with visuals as well as labels for the decades. During the run at Arena Stage the screen could be flown to reveal an on-stage band of seven, but the lack of fly space at George Street meant they would have to keep the screen down but reveal the band by lighting them through the scrim.
Laurent's concept called for maximum streamlining and efficiency, with a minimum of clutter or even furniture. A few folding chairs filled in for both a USO show audience and a bus on which three principals deal with the “back of the bus” syndrome of World War II-era Georgia. The depression-era Federal Theater Project production of Macbeth was evoked with a single, slide-on, bubbling cauldron for the “Witches Brew” number renamed “Double, Double” for this production.
Sirlin wasn't familiar with Hallelujah, Baby!, so he simply began working his way through the script as it existed at the time. (Laurents was still very much in the revising and re-writing mode.) “I began by working up a montage of images and ideas and then we began the process of selecting those to be developed,” Sirlin says, adding that he probably developed some level of detail over a thousand image concepts to get the less than 100 that were used in the final production.
“At the start Arthur gave me a handful of visual ideas, sort of a laundry list of main themes that could link scenes together as well as distinguish them from each other,” says Sirlin. For example, the image of a stove is common to a number of scenes. They use the same photo of the same stove but in many different backgrounds. “I found that particular stove in a shop up in Ithaca. I photographed it there and then we worked the shot into a number of different collages.”
The Confederate flag appears in multiple images with varying degrees of whimsy. For example, that emotionally charged symbol was used as the curtain for a small-town theatre in the South of the 1900s and shows up again flying on the porch of a Tara-like plantation mansion.
Given budget constraints at regional theatres, Sirlin chose not to build animation into the concept. “We had multiple image sequences to create some feeling of movement and evolution,” he says, “but we simply couldn't afford true animated sequences. For example, I really wanted the flag to wave but we just did without that effect.”
One of the benefits Sirlin sees in the extensive use of projections is that the audience quickly grasps changes in time, place, and mood. He points to the speed with which Laurents' script makes the transition from the roaring 20s to the depression-era 30s. “There are only two lines in the script marking the shift, but Arthur liked the use of a street scene with a failed bank to represent the era,” he says. Roosevelt's New Deal was quickly communicated with a montage of the alphabet soup of government agencies — NRA, TVA, WPA, etc.
All these images were loaded into Adobe® Photoshop® for Sirlin to manipulate. “Everything I do goes into Photoshop and then comes out again” to run on Powerpoint for the projector. The projector in this case was the 6500 lumen Sanyo XF35. The projector was provided by Washington Professional Systems in Wheaton, MD. The computer and lighting equipment were from the theatre's inhouse stock.
A major challenge for LD David Lander was to devise a light plot that would minimize interference with the projections. They were doing a very theatrical musical, so the use of followspots was important. He had to devise placement and blocking to avoid washing out the projections either striking the projection screen directly or through reflections off the floor. “We did a lot of experimentation with floor texture, sheen, and surfaces in order to avoid wash outs,” says Lander, pointing out that “we even had multiple paint calls as we changed the color of the floor.” Among the items in Lander's rig were 144 ETC Source Fours® (in 19°, 26°, 36°, and 50° versions), 10 Wybron Coloram scrollers, 14 Wybron Forerunners, five High End Systems Studio Spots®, all controlled by two ETC Expression consoles with encoder wings.
The use of the Sanyo XF35 for the front projections at Arena Stage gave Lander some leeway since it produced such a bright image. “We actually heard those unusual words from a director: ‘The projection's too bright. Take it down a notch,’” says Lander.
The shift from one house to the other not only necessitated changes in some design elements, it allowed refinement of the look of the show. The basic color scheme of the set changed with the shift from New Jersey to Washington. While more grays and blacks had been used at the George Street, Laurents wanted a change to a brighter palette of reds, golds, and browns. The move to Washington gave the team the opportunity to make that change.
The sound design was by Shannon Slaton, who found the greatest challenge was the shift in the acoustical attributes of the room at Arena when the projection screen was flown to reveal the on-stage band. “We had to go with very different levels and time delays once the screen was removed between the audience and the band,” he says, pointing out that there were really three different acoustic environments for this show. “Not only did you have the band revealed after being behind the projection screen, you had the grand drape which was closed for two musical segments as well.” The sound equipment was provided by One Dream Sound in Long Island City and included a Richmond SoundBox, Shure U series wireless mike system, Countryman B6 lavalier mikes, EAW 300Es (mains), EAW JF-80s (front fill, stage monitor), Meyer MM4s (under balcony), EAW JF-60s (stage monitor), EAW SB200s (subs), and EV-ES8s and Galaxy HotSpots (band monitors). The show was mixed via a Yamaha O2R console.
Brad Hathaway is the editor/reviewer of Potomac Stages covering theatre in the Washington DC area. For more information, visit www.potomacstages.com.