March 26, 2009

We often talk (and write) about Broadway designs being adapted to go on the road to tour — but the opposite happens as well. 33 Variations, the new show at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on West 49th Street in Manhattan, features a design developed in regional theatres that transferred to Broadway.

Moises Kaufman’s exploration of creativity is a time-spanning piece about a contemporary researcher, played on Broadway by Jane Fonda, who is obsessed with Beethoven’s own obsession as he composed not one, or a few, but 33 variations on a single middling waltz. It didn’t have the same cast when it opened on Broadway as it had at Washington DC’s Arena Stage or California’s La Jolla Playhouse, but it did have the same design team.

Set designer Derek McLane’s involvement began with the very first workshop on the piece. He says that some features of his design were in place even then. “The rolling frames holding sheets of music were in that first workshop where we found they fluttered in the breeze, which was a happy accident. We re-designed these rolling structures for Arena,” where the play had its world premiere last August. There the frames had their own lights to illuminate the sheet music.

Since so much of the play takes place in the Beethoven Archive in Germany, and all of it has ties to the material stored there, McLane surrounded his setting with row after row of archival record boxes, creating something of a proscenium out of storage boxes. Lighting designer David Lander provided many of the boxes with their own soft light to give the collection a warm glow. “We decided to have all the boxes light up at La Jolla,” says McLane, and that is the effect seen on Broadway.

According to McLane, the dimensions of the stage at the O’Neill are “pretty similar” to the stage at La Jolla, but the proscenium of Arena’s Kreeger Theatre in Washington was much lower and could only accommodate a single row of boxes above the playing space. When they got to California, they added an additional row and retained them on Broadway.

Kaufman wanted to project musical notation onto music paper “from the very start,” says McLane, so projection designer Jeff Sugg joined the project for its workshop at the Krannert Center in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

The designers worked together to find the right papers to be used as the sheet music. Sugg needed to have surfaces that would work for the projections, while McLane wanted to be able to vary the shade and texture to avoid too much sameness across the set. “Not every sheet is the same shade,” he notes. “And the necessity for flame retardant paper added to the complications.”

One key feature of Sugg’s projections was a visual effect showing the face of the lead researcher as she undergoes a diagnostic MRI for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). “We used a live camera for that,” he says, “a little Sanyo VCC M 30” which is one of Sanyo’s day-night security cameras.

The transfer from regional houses into Broadway didn’t bring many changes to Sugg’s effects, although he says he enjoyed the fact that he could go to a higher resolution camera set up, increasing from 1,000 pixel widths to 1,500 for the New York run. He used the Watchout system to control the cluster. As a result, when Fonda and the archivist played by Susan Kellermann pore over Beethoven’s compositional sketches, the audience sees what is revealed behind them as a much clearer image than before.

The increased resolution improved one important scene in a subplot involving Fonda’s daughter (played by Samantha Mathis) and her male nurse (Colin Hanks). They sit in two theatre seats on an elevated structure backed by a projection of a concert hall on their first date. On Broadway the image of the concert hall is much cleaner and clearer.

While McLane feels that there weren’t any significant changes to the artistic elements of the design as they transitioned from regional theatres to the Broadway house, he says that the New York version is much more automated. “We used many of the same set pieces but had them re-worked in PRG's shop in New Windsor [NY]," he explains, adding that he hadn’t approached the original designs as pre-Broadway. “I approached it as just trying to do the best we could at each stop,” he says. “In New York there was more pressure and we wanted it a bit more polished, but it’s essentially the same design and there was no more money involved.”

The bottom line for McLane, however, isn’t the automation, or even the way the original design seems to hold up. It is that “it takes some very ordinary objects— file boxes, sheets of paper—and makes them into something beautiful,” he says. That fits the overall scope of the show, for Kaufman’s script is about how Beethoven took an unexceptional waltz and created a work of beauty.

33 Variations Brings A Regional

Design Into New York