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THEATER

Not Just Horsing Around

With mega-musicals leading the way, the set designer's role is getting bigger too.Witness 'Carousel,' the latest production to hit town with a set clearly in the starring role.

July 07, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

A giant clock hangs high above the kerchief-covered heads of young women slaving away at factory looms, ticking away the final moments of toil. Within a few beats, the workday is done and the captives spill out and make their way to a fairground.

To the strains of the "Carousel Waltz," the scene fills with barkers and townspeople shedding their reserve as they lose themselves in the whirl of the spring carnival.

The dionysian revelry increases until, as the prologue ballet draws to a close, a full-size carousel unfolds downward from the sky, merging seamlessly with the revolving floor and its dancers. It's a singular moment, capturing the joyous abandon of the music, even as it hints darkly at what Nietzsche called "eternal return"--the life cycle of morality and mortality--that is the show's theme.

It's also a moment whose visual spectacle usually draws a round of applause from the house.

No wonder then that, in review after review, the scenic design of this Royal National Theatre staging of "Carousel"--with its impossibly lush blue backgrounds, starry vistas and piquant Maine village--was singled out for praise, both when the show opened in London in 1992 and when it moved to New York in 1994. The New York Times, for instance, called it the "most beautiful" musical on Broadway.

Indeed, it is the set, not one of the actors, that is the star of the show. Yet this "Carousel"--which opens Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner--is hardly the only recent show with a set that's upstaged its players.

The last decade has seen an unprecedented expansion of the scope and importance of scenic design in contemporary theater. And while many such sets first came to the fore on the commercial stage--in the British musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh (who is also backing "Carousel")--they're no longer only there.

Recently, the trend toward spectacular sets has spread to the more serious stage, including the nonprofit arena and non-musical dramas as well. "Carousel," for instance, began at a subsidized theater and moved over to the commercial arena.

More important, it may be the most sophisticated example yet of a scene-as-star production. It has neither the gimmicks nor the hokey effects of the 1980s mega-musicals.

Yet "Carousel"--which won Tony Awards for best revival, direction, choreography and scenic design--stands as further proof that people go to the theater today as much for the spectacle as for the script.

"We are living in an age of visual spectacle," says Bob Crowley, the Irish designer and frequent Hytner collaborator who created the sets and costumes for "Carousel." "[The set] is a major character."

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The notion of a play backing a set, rather than vice versa, is an idea that would once have been considered radical. Theater, after all, used to belong to the people who wrote the words and the actors who spoke them.

The rise of big, bold design is no fluke trend, nor is it likely to be a short-lived one. "Even straight plays are becoming more and more events rather than the actual play script," says theater and film producer Noel Pearson ("An Inspector Calls").

"The thinking [had been], 'The play's the thing,' but I think, unfortunately, we're drifting away from that now. You have to have the play plus to get people to go to the theater--and the 'plus' has to be either unusual casting or the spectacle."

To be sure, there've been periods--before the current British-dominated boom--when American theatergoers saw stage designs more memorable than the plays for which they were created. The current surge of spectacle is different, though, in part because the designers' technical capabilities have expanded so much.

Today, designers are among a production's most major players. Often present at the conception, they are the director's partner in creating a vision.

"What happens is that you are there at a very early stage," says Crowley, speaking by phone from New York, where he is designing his first musical since "Carousel," a new work by musician Paul Simon, "Cateman." "[Design] is as much an intellectual thing as anything else. You're asked to participate in conceptualization."

Crowley, 43, wouldn't have it any other way. "I was trained to be part of a team, that I wouldn't just come in to pick the wallpaper," he says. "That was thrown out the window in England in the 1950s and 1960s."

Parlors and drapes don't hold much appeal for designers of Crowley's generation. "I am definitely amongst a movement in England that has no interest in designing someone's living room," the designer says. "I don't want to perpetuate the kind of work that I don't want to see."

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