On Tony press day 2003, nominee Jayne Atkinson stunned reporters by saying her performance owed a debt to the movie version of the play “Enchanted April.” The actress revealed that when she looked out over the audience at the Belasco Theater to describe the Italian countryside, what she envisioned is what her character saw in the Mike Newell-helmed movie from 1992.
Atkinson stands almost alone in giving a nod to the movie that preceded her legit project. This year’s nominated scenic designers for musicals, for the most part, don’t acknowledge much debt to their respective predecessors, even though all of those tuners are based on pics: “Ghost,” “Newsies,” “Once” and “Spider-Man.”
“I’m afraid it was no help,” set designer Rob Howell says of “Ghost” the movie. “I have a rule: If there’s source material, I won’t visit at the time I’m scratching my head. I stay away from it.”
Howell is especially proud of a couple of illusions in “Ghost the Musical”: the dead hero’s walking through a door and his appearance and disappearance at the end. He isn’t saying how it’s done, but does reveal, “It’s not for nothing that David Copperfield and Teller of Penn & Teller came to see the show and both those people say they were fooled — and they are scholars of this stuff.”
“Ghost’s” video designer Jon Driscoll points out a third special effect: the show’s final image of the hero-ghost. “That is projected on smoke. That’s difficult,” says Driscoll, the first video designer to be nommed for a scenic design Tony.
Equally impressive visually are what Howell describes as “the kinetic panoramic cityscape that can morph into specific locations and abstract moods” and feature a dozen dancers.
” ‘Ghost’ is the most genuinely collaborative project I’ve ever worked on,” says the designer. “We’re very proud of how accurate we have to be — that I can get the walls there and Jon has his videos and the actors get there so the imagery make sense. Everyone has to do the same thing at the same time.”
“It goes up and down in temperature,” Driscoll says of the visuals. “It has its key moment and then it has to settle down. The set is three big walls of an LED screen. You have to set a balance. You can’t switch it off. It still has to have energy flowing through it.”
Regarding “Once,” Bob Crowley hadn’t see the 2006 movie, so producer Barbara Broccoli sent him a DVD.
“I wasn’t sure of the approach for the musical, but I knew we weren’t going to duplicate Dublin,” says the set designer. “It was all about finding a style.”
Regarding his design philosophy, Crowley adds, “I like things to be a little bit vague around the edges, and use the audience’s imagination. It is such an underused tool in the theater.”
For the “Once” workshop at Harvard U., Crowley inherited a set that was being used for weekend perfs of “The Donkey Show.” He recalls, “It was this club, a 1980s disco.” He supplemented it with furniture from thrift shops that he painted. “There was no actual set.”
Then, for the full production at the New York Theater Workshop, it evolved into a pub. “We knew we’d have to find a theatrical metaphor, it had to be really simple, we had to get out of the way. The show is directed and designed and choreographed within an inch of its life, but it has to look like it’s improvised. It’s a real space but it isn’t a real space,” he says of the pub set that’s used for a variety of locales.
A major design element are the mirrors. “When (lead actress) Cristin Milioti sat at the piano, you couldn’t see her play. With the mirrors, you could show the actors playing their instruments from different perspectives — that’s where the mirrors came form.”
For an outdoor scene, “I watched rehearsals one day where (actor) Will Connolly throws his jacket on the floor and the outline of his body looked like the mountains outside of Dublin, he looked like a hillside. Gosh, what if I put little lights in his clothes and the floor as well. The actor becomes the landscape,” saysCrowley.
“Newsies the Musical” set designer Tobin Ost recalls the 1992 movie. “I had watched it once and put it away. It’s a blessing not to be influenced by predecessors,” he says.
For the tuner, he and director Jeff Calhoun started with “chicken scratch” illustrations of the set, showed them to Thomas Schumacher, who was especially attracted to Ost’s design for Medda’s theater in the show. The Disney Theatrical topper liked its “jungle gym” aspect. “And that got Jeff excited,” says Ost. “That singular word opened up doors” on how to conceive the entire production.
The 1990s pic, however, did have its influence.
“One sequence is a bit of homage to what happens in the movie,” says projection designer Sven Ortel. And that’s when the press prints the leaflet, called the Banner, that advertises the strike. “Having images of this machine and its cogs and wheels and plates was appealing. You see, Oh, that’s how it works!” says Ortel, who is only the second projection designer to be Tony nommed for scenic design. (Timothy Bird nabbed the first, for the 2008 revival of “Sunday in the Park With George.”)
Of all the pics-to-stage projects, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” arguably had the greatest aud expectations to overcome.
“On the one hand, we were trying to get as far away as possible from the movie, but you also can’t help but judge yourself by it,” says set designer George Tsypin. “How do we make it as exciting as the movie and yet different for the theater? It’s the fusion of the sets, the flying, the movement, the video. And the audience is a very big design element as well. To get that special excitement, we had to take the set into the house and out into the entire theater.”
Gordon Cox contributed to this report.