- OnStage Blog News
At the 2018 Tony Awards, OnStage Blog was able to speak to several artists who work behind the curtain at some of this season’s biggest shows. As the nominees moved into Radio City Music Hall for the night, they stopped briefly to discuss how they brought their shows to life.
According to Ian McNeil and Edward Pierce, who were nominated for Best Scenic Design of a Play for their work on Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, one of the most important moments in the development of the design of the show was when director Marianne Elliot, also nominated for her work on the production, suggested leaving the stage empty.
“We kind of started at the beginning and started pulling a thread, and letting it lead us where it led us,” said McNeil, who was also the scenic designer for the National Theatre production in London. “Suddenly there was a day where [Marianne] said ‘You know what, I think they should all leave at one moment. I think they should just get off the stage.’ That’s a big thing to say.”
According to McNeil, that decision was what led to some of the more sparsely-decorated scenes.
“There’s a lot of stuff for scenes that feel ordinary, and then [the design] gets more spare, and then it’s just words, just interspaced human words,” McNeil said.
Elliot, who directed both the London and New York productions, mentioned that the design of the show changed between cities.
“I wanted to make things more clear at times, and we wanted to evolve the design to make it really clear what happens when he goes to heaven, and what that is, and what the concept of the whole design is,” she said. “You know, when you see a show, you look at it objectively, and after you’ve just done it, you are aware of certain things that work better than others. It’s a privilege to have another chance at it, to try to get those things, to get everything, to be brilliant.”
Later in the evening, Angels in America took home the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. The production also took home the Tony for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play for Andrew Garfield’s performance of Prior Walter, and the Tony for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play for Nathan Lane’s turn as Roy Cohn.
While Angels in America used sparser sets and, at points, a near-empty stage, Dane Laffrey took the scenic design for Once on This Island in a completely different direction with a sand-covered stage and a space that was thoroughly immersed in the action of the show. He credited the in-the-round design of the theatre for the success of the design.
“We were given a great gift when we were given Circle in the Square to do the show,” said Laffrey. “It’s the only theatre on Broadway where that kind of thing is genuinely possible, where the seating is so democratic. Every seat in that theatre is as good as the other seat, and they’re all different from each other. It’s very egalitarian, which I love, and I think we would have really been foolish to not capitalize on the advantages of that room.”
According to Laffrey, the production had always hoped to make Circle in the Square the home for their show. Also present on the red carpet was Clint Ramos, the costume designer for the production who spoke about the creation of the ever-evolving costume for the show’s four gods.
“I think when we decided that we needed something really unique to costume the gods with, I think it only made sense that we created their costumes out of the garbage that the storm, the hurricane, has brought in,” Ramos said. “The challenge was then ‘How do we use these unconventional materials to make something fabulous?’ And we all just rooted it in their characters, like we use the materials of their characters, and created something fabulous.”
Once on This Island later took home the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
Dan Moses Schreier, nominated in the newly-restored Sound Design category for his work on Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, spoke about the importance of sound design in making a production work.
“I think the best sound design helps with the storytelling of the show,” he said. “So if, through the sound, you’re learning more about the characters or you’re learning more about the plot, that’s successful sound design. And that’s what theatregoers should be listening for if they want to pay attention to the sound design.”
The play, which takes place in 1912, features original recordings from the time period as found by the creative team of the show.
“We decided to go back and find any original recordings we could from 1912,” said Moses Schreier. “And we discovered that there were these things called Edison cylinders, which were the very first commercially available [recordings]. We used those to help tell the story, those original recordings from 1912.”
OnStage also had the opportunity to speak to one of the many songwriters of Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical, which featured an entirely original score with each song written by a different artist.
“Tina Landau must have been the puppet master that was aware of all of the moving pieces,” said Alex Ebert, who wrote the Act One number “Daddy Knows Best.” “And she brought me in at the very end. They added a scene that wasn’t in it. so she told me the scene, which is super refreshing – you’d think that being told what to write about would be really dogmatic, but I can’t tell you how liberating it is. And so I wrote it, and then I handed it in. It was basically that simple. They gave me a few notes, and then they took it and made it their own.”
The creators also offered a few words on how it felt to have their work nominated for the Tonys.
“It’s fantastic to be honored and respected,” said Edward Pierce, who was also nominated for his scenic design work on Angels in America. “It’s just great to enjoy it with the rest of our team. Having the 11 Tony nominations for Angels is just fantastic, and it’s a great time.”
“It’s thrilling,” said Laffrey. “I’m humbled to be recognized, and the other nominees are incredible designers. This event is entirely overwhelming, but so far pretty fun!”
“It’s bananas. Just bananas,” said Ramos.
“It’s very exciting,” said Moses Schreier. He also noted that, now that the Tony Award for Sound Design had been restored, “all of my compadres who work in sound design are very happy today.”
“It feels really good, really good,” finished Ebert.
Marianne Elliot also took a minute to discuss how she felt Angels in America, originally written more than two decades ago, was still relevant and engaging for audiences today.
“When Tony Kushner wrote it, it was about the Reagan era and it was about the AIDS crisis in New York,” she said. “But now it’s very interesting to watch that in relation to now, because actually, politically, things are not just similar, but in fact, even more extreme, possibly, where people feel disenfranchised, not cared for, isolated, it’s about survival of the fittest in this administration, and also, back in England, it was the same sort of situation. So it’s very relevant politically, and it feels like he’s writing from now, but also he talks about how these characters are dealing with their own humanity, and that’s specific forever.”