The Library of Congress is widely acknowledged to be the single greatest repository for documentation on the American musical stage. It houses the archives of the vast majority of American composers and librettists, as well as many directors and stage personalities who are central to the history of American musical theater. Recently, these holdings have come to include the work of many leading set and costume designers, whose art provides a framework within which to explore the relation between the visual elements and the production as a whole.
The best of theatrical design takes audiences out of their time and place and magically sets them in an entirely different world. The variety of designs on display attests to the ability of stagecraft to capture our attention and then bring us along on a journey—whether to Edwardian London or pre-World War II Berlin or mid-nineteenth-century Japan or dazzling twentieth-century Broadway.
My Fair Lady
Many consider the mid-twentieth century to be the golden age of American musical theater, during which time many large-scale shows were produced. One of the most well-known of these big productions is My Fair Lady (1956), with score by Frederick Loewe and book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. The production opened at New York’s Mark Hellinger Theatre, equipped with one of the largest stages for musical theater in the city. Stage designer Oliver Smith recreated London in 1912 by using two massive revolving stages that allowed for rapid changes of scenery. Smith designed virtually all of the Lerner and Loewe musicals, including Paint Your Wagon (1951), Brigadoon (1947), Camelot (1960), and Gigi (1973).
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Frederick Loewe (1901–1988) and Alan Jay Lerner (1918–1986). “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, 1956. Manuscript piano score. Frederick Lowe Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (039.00.00)
Oliver Smith (1918–1994). Set design of Covent Garden for My Fair Lady. This version of the set was seen only at the world premiere, Shubert Theatre, New Haven, Connecticut, February 1956. Watercolor and pen and ink drawing. Oliver Smith Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (041.00.00) Works of Oliver Smith © Rosaria Sinisi
Oliver Smith (1918–1994). Set design, Henry Higgins’ study for My Fair Lady. Revival. This version of the set was seen only at the world premiere, Shubert Theatre, New Haven, Connecticut, February 1956. Watercolor and pen and ink drawing. Oliver Smith Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (040.00.00) Works of Oliver Smith © Rosaria Sinisi
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Model for the Set of Grand Hotel
One of the most spectacular designs devised for the later twentieth-century American stage was Tony Walton’s two-tier set for the musical Grand Hotel, directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune (b. 1939). The story takes place in the entrance and lobby of an elegant but aging hotel in 1928 Berlin, with the scenic design evoking a strong sense of history and nostalgia and underscoring the theme that—good, bad, or indifferent—life goes on. The stage was in constant motion—the chandeliers rose and fell, the lobby transformed into an assortment of different rooms, and the furniture, including the lobby’s revolving door, became characters in their own right. By placing the orchestra on the second tier of the set, Walton enabled the action to extend beyond the proscenium and into the theater. The careful synchrony of the action, the scenery, and its many elements were choreographed to render the set and the narrative wholly interdependent. This three-dimensional model demonstrates the complexity and finish of Walton’s design.
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Grand Hotel Curtain Design
The edifice on the curtain, which descended in front of the set and served as a primary motif for the musical Grand Hotel, was based on the façade of Harrods, an upscale London department store. By using simple pinpricks to allow backlighting to shine through and form the design, Tony Walton crystallized the overriding concept for the production: the central “character” is the life of the hotel itself. The musical’s story does not focus on a single character but, rather, the flow of activity in the hotel.
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