In the Oscar-winning movie musicals “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” the actors limit their singing and dancing to the stage. In the 2005 contenders “Rent” and “The Producers,” they do it everywhere — on real streets and rooftops, on sets designed to look like streets and rooftops, even in the theater itself.
It’s a new approach to filming Broadway tuners. It’s also the old way.
Howard Cummings, production designer for “Rent,” points to Oscar’s top pick for 1961. “There’s that moment in ‘West Side Story’ when we see the tough guys walking down the street,” he recalls, “and then they start to dance.” Even four decades ago, auds were known to giggle.
“We also had that style problem with ‘Rent,’ ” he says. “In the theater, everyone knows they’re going to a musical. But it’s different with film.” So for the opening number, “Seasons of Love,” he says, “We thought, Why not put it in a theater?”
From there, the film uses a combo of real locations and sets. When it came to the former, “We made it true to what (the streets) were, but it’s a musical, so you have to pump it up,” says the designer.
The production team took more liberties designing the set of Manhattan’s Lower East Side on the Warners lot. “I took real locations — a bar, a Laundromat, a Chinese restaurant — that existed back in the 1980s and put them all in the same locale. The New York Times took me to task for that.”
An even more stylized sense of reality permeates the look of “The Producers.”
“Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman were going for a homage to a ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ type film,” says production designer Mark Friedberg. “As a result, we always acknowledged that we were in scenery, a very stylized world.”
“The Producers” uses fewer real locations than “Rent.” But when the moviemakers did venture outside, “We heightened things,” says Friedberg. “When we went to Central Park, we added a lot of pink foliage, to give it a Technicolor feel, almost as if you were in L.A. trying to find New York City.”
The stylization required of a movie musical also challenged the costume designers of “Rent” and “The Producers.”
“I love films where the costumes look like found objects,” says “Rent” designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers. “I love to do that most, where the clothes are clothing, not costumes.” To make her aesthetic work for a movie musical, “I had to goose it with jewelry,” she says. “I drove the producers crazy, because I kept buying more and more jewelry.”
Since he won a Tony for his work on “The Producers,” William Ivey Long did not start from scratch when it came to designing the movie’s costumes. But there were adjustments. “In the ‘Springtime for Hitler’ number, my sausage did get bigger,” Long jokes. And he is quick to note, “There are 350 costumes for the Broadway show; the movie has 7,000.”