May 30, 2009

The Morgan Puts a Spotlight on Set Design

If you’re a theater lover, this has got to be the best time of the year. In the four-week period between the announcement of the Tony nominations and the handing out of the awards, it seems as though the whole world (and not just we theater geeks) starts thinking and talking about Broadway. And the buzz is even louder than usual this year.

The June issue of the glossy mainstream magazine Vanity Fair has a photo spread with 25 stars who have appeared on Broadway this past season. Just this week, PBS aired a documentary on the making of In the Heights, which took home Tony’s Best Musical honors last year. Recent guests on “The View's" daily gabfest have included David Hyde Pierce (star of Accent on Youth), Nathan Lane (co-star of Waiting for Godot) and, coming next Friday, Neil Patrick Harris (the host of this year’s Tony Awards show).

The New York Times has already devoted an Arts & Leisure section to the Tonys and continues to
run features about the nominated shows. There are also interviews with nominees on the Playbill website, on the BroadwayRadio podcast, on blogs, in tweets. And, of course, there are predictions everywhere; one of the best is NY1 critic Roma Torre’s chats with some actual Tony voters.

Now, even the Morgan Library & Museum, which usually celebrates printed text, has gotten into the act with a new show, “Creating the Modern Stage: Designs for Theater and Opera.” The exhibit,
which opened last week and runs through Aug. 16, traces the history of set design in the 20th century and although it displays more drawings from opera productions than the theater ones that most fascinate me, it is still a terrific introduction to a field about which I know far too little.

The exhibit is small, with only around 50 drawings, which means you can really focus on each one,
without worrying that you won’t have time to get through the whole thing as is the case with so many megashows. Most of the drawings are drawn from a gift by the widow of Donald Oenslager, the prolific set designer who got his start as an actor with the Provincetown Players but went on to create the sets for such shows as the original productions of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes and to teach at the Yale School of Drama for 45 years.

Oenslager was clearly a student of set design as well as a master of it. His collection includes dr
awings by the pioneers Adolphe Appia, the Swiss designer who led the move away from painted scenery to what he called “living” sets; Edward Gordon Craig, son of the celebrated British actress Ellen Terry, whose influential book “The Art of the Theater” advocated experimental lighting techniques and expressionistic sets like the one he did for the 1906 production of Hamlet in the drawing at the top of this entry; and avant garde Russian designers like Erté, who brought the art deco look to the Ziegfeld Follies; and Serge Soudeikine, who cut his design teeth with the Ballets Russes and later did the sets for the original 1935 production of Porgy and Bess.

American masters like Robert Edmond Jones, Norman Bel Geddes, Jo Mielziner, Oliver Smith and Ming Cho Lee are also represented. One display card tells the story of how Mielziner’s set drawing for the final act of Maxwell Anderson’s 1935 play Winterset was so impressive that Anderson changed his text to better correspond with Mielziner’s interpretation. I wish there had been more behind-the-sets stories like that one.

I also wished the exhibit had included more of what it calls the “ephemera” related to some of the productions like those in a display case near the Of Mice and Men drawing that include opening night tickets ($3.30 each for orchestra seats), Oenslager’s written account of a production meeting that Steinbeck attended, and a copy of the script, annotated by its female star Claire Luce in now-faded red pencil.

Another treat was being able to compare Soudeikine’s original 1935 set for Porgy and Bess with the one Juozas Junkas did for another production 30 years later. It all made me hungry for more exhibits like this one. And they'd be just as welcomed even when it’s not Tony season.

No comments: