Marguerite, a new musical inspired by the Dumas novel, La Dame Aux Camélias, debuted at London's Theatre Royal Haymarket to rave reviews in May. Although the work is the first collaboration of Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Michel Legrand, and Herbert Kretzmer, Marguerite was the third production designed and directed by the same team. “It was the most amazing experience,” says sound designer Paul Groothuis, “We did the whole season there, and the best concepts are developed when there is an open relationship among the creative team.” That team also included Paul Brown on sets and costumes, Mark Henderson on lighting, and projections by Sven Ortel.
Marguerite is set during the height of WWII, but the set and costumes are unlike anything Londoners of the period would have experienced. The first scene is of a party, and unlike Britain during this period, occupied Paris could still be opulent. Brown notes that the Parisians here didn't feel the brunt of war. “They were collaborators,” he says. “They were not having a hard time, and there was no sense of austerity, politically or socially.” Brown clothed the collaborators luxuriously, and he points out that Coco Chanel was still designing for some women and living in the Ritz during this period.
The title character of the musical, the mistress of a high-ranking Nazi officer, has the means to dress well, and being glamorous is a prerequisite for the job. Unfortunately for Marguerite, her stylish clothes are rigged so that they can be ripped off and restitched every evening, and her hair, courtesy of The Wig Room, is shorn when she is punished for her collaboration. Brown found inspiration in photographs of the period by Robert Doisneau, Brassaï, and Robert Capa, and from the 1946 book, Under The Boot Of The Nazis.
A pivotal moment arrives during the party thrown for Marguerite by her Nazi lover. A swing band arrives, and Marguerite is attracted to the piano player, Armand. That night, the Allies bomb Paris, and a window in the apartment is blown out. Harsh reality intrudes Marguerite's world. Brown's set is of an ornate, mirrored room. “The glass room is meant to illustrate the sophistication and luxury of this woman's life, but it is a fragile room of glass and mirror, easily destroyed by passion,” he says, “It can't be mended or put back.”
Brown and sound designer Groothuis worked together on the acoustics of the room. “We had to make an adjustment to the mirrored room,” Groothuis says. “Initially, it was a three-sided square, and two walls were parallel, so the sound would have been too reverberant. I didn't want to just amplify it, because I knew the director wanted some of the scene to be very intimate.”
After consultation, Brown moved the sidelines in 4° so that the walls were no longer parallel and added flourishes to the set. “We used an old theatre technique and put beading and decoration on the mirrors to break up the sound,” Groothuis says. “As a sound designer, that is the purest way to make it sound reasonable. I can't take reverberation away; it has to not be generated in the first place.”
Lighting designer Henderson did not have any problem with the set. “Mirror sets can be tricky, but generally, if you keep the light off the surfaces and rely on the reflections to do their own thing, then you can use the mirror to your advantage,” he says. “The [set] calls for very tight areas of light, so the [Vari-Lite] VL1000s are used to shutter to tight corridors and shapes.” The set also fills most of the stage, and the theatre is not a large one, so all rigging positions and beam angles are tight. “Space was at a premium,” Henderson adds. He chose cool whites to keep the feel a vintage black and white and says the arc sources are key to keeping the color tone sharp. Henderson and “Wholehog wizard” Stuart Potter chose a High End Systems Wholehog 2 for the production.
Ortel's approach to the lack of depth in the theatre was unorthodox, especially on the upstage projections. “There are two projectors projecting one half of the images each, but they could not be rigged anywhere near to a right angle to the surface, so we are projecting a trapezoid image from off-stage which is squeezed into the right proportions by the [SAMSC Designs] Catalyst,” he says. Ortel also had to compensate for the short throw on a high projection surface. “I had to direct the projectors via two mirrors sitting on their sides so that the width of the projector chip filled the height of the screen,” he says. He chose the Catalyst because “it is a very modular system, which I can configure to serve exactly the kind of show I am designing,” and he adds that it worked well with his Mac-based image gallery, an important consideration with only eight weeks to finish the project. Ortel programmed the show on his Wholehog 2 PC with programmer wing and then transferred it to the Jands Hog 500 for the length of the run.
The projection surfaces were unpredictable, but Ortel says, “I like these challenges — mirrors, translucent materials,” and he treated the projection images to complement the style of Brown's sets to create a “glassy, cold” look to give them depth. Ortel went to the source — Paris — to get some of his content. “My favorite image is that of a little blue street up at Montmartre which tracks with the wall upstage during a beautiful song,” he says. “It captures the mood of the scene somehow, and I was lucky to take the picture right after the street cleaner had washed the cobbles in the early morning.”
Brown solved the space challenges of the theatre by using a double-ring revolve created by Scott Fleary Ltd. and Stage Technologies. This solved practical problems, but Brown also wanted the scene changes to take place in view of the audience, to show the inexorable shift from gaiety to catastrophe. Two revolves, one inside the other, have four doors for props and set pieces, and two sliding, mirrored walls act as a backdrop. A square iris in one wall opens to allow access for actors.
Despite a fairly small stage area, the Haymarket does have a good amount of space in the upper gallery, which is very far from the stage and has a rectangular, letterbox opening, where Groothuis used E3 and JBL Control 1 delays. “It is all about inclusion,” he says. “I'm saying to the audience, ‘I'm going to put you where the drama is.’ I make no attempt to make it come from the stage up there. What I want to do is halve the distance. If it was heavily amplified in the front row, it would sound wrong, but in the gallery, you have to include them.”
Groothuis prefers to use Meyer MSL2 speakers on musicals, but in this case, there was no room on the proscenium. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the Haymarket was the first theatre to build a picture frame proscenium back in the 1870s.) Instead, he says, he used Meyer UPAs. “You don't need any more power than six UPAs,” the sound designer notes. He also chose a Yamaha PM5D console to run the show with production engineer Stephen Owen, and Autograph Sound supplied all the equipment for the entire season. Many of the sound effects came from the designer's own collection, but he also bought some from www.sounddogs.com.
Unlike poor Marguerite — spoiler alert! — who is shot by the resistance, all four designers, plus director Kent, survived a season of collaboration and live to work another day.
12 Vari-Lite VL1000 Tungsten w/Shutters
3 Vari-Lite VL1000 Arc w/Shutters
6 Vari-Lite VL500
4 Vari-Lite VL3000 Wash
14 Martin Professional MAC 600 Wash
8 Martin Professional MAC TW1
8 Clay Paky Alpha Wash
5 ETC Source Four Revolution
72 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal
8 ETC Source Four Scroller
18 ETC Source Four PAR Plus Scroller
40 PAR64 Fixture
18 PAR64 Scroller
14 4 L&E MR16 Mini-Strip Light
4 6' L&E MR16 Mini-Strip Light
14 1kW 4-Cell Cyc Strip Light
8 CCT Minuette Fixture
20 Howard Eaton Lighting Ltd
Two-Way Fluorescent Batten
1 High End Systems Wholehog 2
2 Panasonic PT-D7000 Projector
2 Barco CLM R10+ Projector
2 SAMSC Designs Catalyst V4 HD Media Server
1 Jands Hog 500 Triggered by Lighting
E3 and JBL Control 1 Delays
Meyer UPA Speakers
Yamaha PM5D Console