Noises Off: Rockin’ the ‘Roof’

Guthrie Theater sailing smoothly toward $25 mil for new venue

NEW YORK — A major producer who had no money in “Hairspray” exited the show’s opening-night performance last August and remarked enthusiastically, “We saw Robin Wagner’s sets for the last 10 years. Now we’ll be seeing David Rockwell’s for the next 10.”

Rockwell’s spare, quirky, inventive designs for the season’s biggest hit, as well as his earlier “Rocky Horror Show” set, were so inventive that the architect-turned-stage designer immediately went to the top of every producer’s wish list.

It is the Nederlanders, however, who have landed his next Broadway assignment (Rockwell is perhaps best known for designing restaurants and other commercial spaces — Broadway is his hobby). Rockwell will be designing the Nederlanders’ Matthew Warchus-helmed revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” starring Alfred Molina, for fall 2003 on Broadway.

” ‘Fiddler’ is the first show I ever saw,” recalls Rockwell, who caught the tuner in the mid-1960s, when he was 10 or 11. “It was instrumental in my becoming interested in the theater. And I’ve always been a fan of Boris Aronson’s work,” he says of the show’s original designer. In fact, the microphone panel in “Hairspray,” Rockwell claims, is an homage to Aronson’s set for “Do Re Mi.”

“To reimagine Aronson’s work for ‘Fiddler’ is incredibly challenging,” says Rockwell, undeterred by indelible images from his childhood. Having lost both parents early in his life, he says the musical’s strong sense of family is “a story I want to help tell.”

A revival might not be the cutting-edge work admirers had envisioned for his next project. But Rockwell doesn’t see it that way. “David Hockney didn’t say, ‘Turandot’ has been done before,’ ” the designer-architect says of another favorite production, staged at the San Francisco Opera and elsewhere.

As for what shape the new “Fiddler” takes, Rockwell can’t say just yet. “When you go into the design process and you know the answer ahead of time, it is not interesting.”

Architecture and theater — Rockwell tries to merge the two.

“I’m interested in places that engage you emotionally,” he says. Having designed Nobu, Hollywood & Highland’s Kodak Theater and the viewing platform at the World Trade Center site, he is now working with a choreographer to build a new, perfect airport: “We’re looking at movement and how people get through an airport.” As Rockwell explains it, “This is an example of theater influencing architecture.”

Made men

Joe Dowling has a lot to celebrate this week. His production of “Tartuffe” for the Roundabout Theater Co., starring Brian Bedford and Henry Goodman, opens Jan. 9. And better yet, Tim Pawlenty takes over from Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota on Jan. 6.

As artistic director of Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, Dowling sees clear sailing for $25 million in public funding to build the company’s new venue. Ventura had vetoed the bond twice. “It is borrowing,” Dowling says of the money. “It is not direct (funding).”

Pawlenty supported the legit effort throughout his campaign. “He sees both the national and regional importance of this theater in a way that Ventura never would or could,” Dowling says. “(Ventura) had no ability to bring people together.”

A temporary victim of Ventura’s “dysfunctional governorship,” the Guthrie project has raised nearly $63 million toward its $75 goal in private funding.

As for the company’s extant venue, the Walker Arts Center owns it. “We are their tenant, which is one reason we want our own theater,” Dowling says, “to control our destiny.” Still pending, plans are to demolish the old theater and extend the Walker Art Center’s culture garden.

As for “Tartuffe” at the Roundabout, Dowling isn’t promising a radical or deconstructed approach to the classic.

“It is set in a society which is highly patriarchal. The king cannot be question, the father cannot be questioned,” he says. “If you take it out of that period, it is difficult to understand.”

Attention certainly is going to focus on Goodman. “Todd Haimes suggested him for the role, and Henry is ideal,” Dowling says, “regardless of what happened with ‘The Producers.’ I’m happy to give him the opportunity to return to New York City so soon.”

All in a name

Daniel Stern says his new play, “Barbra’s Wedding,” is not in the least bit exploitative of the superstar.

“After all, I didn’t call it ‘Barbra Streisand’s Wedding,’ ” says the actor (“Home Alone,” “City Slickers”) turned playwright. “It could be any Barbra’s wedding.” (Any Barbra who spells her name untraditionally, that is.)

In one of their rare forays into Off Broadway, the Dodgers are producing the show, which follows “The Vagina Monologues” into the Westside Arts, with its New York preem set for March 5. The comedy, shepherded by Lauren Mitchell for the Dodgers, gave its first perf last May at the Philadelphia Theater Co.

Stern’s comedy follows a troubled married couple who, living in Malibu, wake up one day to find themselves next-door to the biggest fete of the year.

“No, my wife and I don’t live next-door to Barbra Streisand,” Stern admits, “but close enough in Malibu that I can imagine it.”

Back on July 1, 1998, Stern noticed a lot of helicopters overhead. “I asked my wife what was going on and she said, ‘You must be the only person in Malibu who doesn’t know Barbra Streisand is marrying James Brolin today.”

Neither star makes an appearance in Stern’s two-hander, about an unemployed actor and his wife. “The play is about the stresses that the roller coaster of show business has put on their marriage,” the author says. “His career is in the death throes. It is the last exorcisms of the demons of fame — and what he could have been.”

While Stern has never actually met Mr. and Mrs. Brolin, he does know something about the demons of fame. With nearly 50 screen credits, the actor is best known for his co-starring roles in the “Home Alone” and “City Slickers” films. He also wrote and starred in short-lived, eponymous TV series, “Danny,” on CBS.

As far as “Barbra’s Wedding” being autobiographical, Stern returns the question with a question: “On a good day or a bad day?”

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