RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Tonight, Broadway celebrates the 66th annual Tony Awards, and while the focus will mostly be on the nominated shows and actors, reporter Jeff Lunden thinks some attention must be paid to the set designers. These are the people who help create the environments that let those shows and actors shine.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: When set designer Daniel Ostling he read Bruce Norris' script for "Clybourne Park," a play which takes place in a very realistic Chicago bungalow, he realized...
DANIEL OSTLING: The house is actually a character.
LUNDEN: A very important character. "Clybourne Park" is Norris' biting, funny riff on Lorraine Hansberry's classic play "A Raisin in the Sun." It takes place in the house that Hansberry's African-American characters purchase in an all-white neighborhood, which is talked about, but never seen in her play. But in Norris' play...
OSTLING: The first act is in 1959, in sort of an Eisenhower-era middle-class/working-class household. The people are packing up to move. And in the second act, it is 2009. The neighborhood sort of went down, the house is trashed, and they're preparing to raze it and build a McMansion. So it's really two completely different sets.
LUNDEN: In the first act, the set has a cozy, lived-in feel, from the flowery 1950s wallpaper to period doorknobs. When the curtain rises for Act 2, most of the details have changed significantly, says Ostling.
OSTLING: All the woodwork is painted over. The front door has been replaced because we were thinking, you know, they probably wanted more security, so that nice wood-and-glass front door is replaced with a security door that has, you know, some serious bolts in it.
(SOUNDBITE FROM "CLYBOURNE PARK")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There was a great article two weeks ago. I don't know if you saw this about the history of the changing ethnic...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Mr. (unintelligible), I should breathe...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...of the neighborhood. (unintelligible). Now that was followed by a period of rapid...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Decline.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No, no, no.
LUNDEN: The set has to be changed very, very quickly. A crew of five swing walls in a highly coordinated intermission ballet. Ostling says when they first rehearsed the changeover, it took 30 or 40 minutes.
OSTLING: Now, we're not waiting for the crew at all. We're waiting for people to go to the bathroom.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LUNDEN: Set designer Donyale Werle had an almost completely different assignment with "Peter and the Starcatcher," Rick Elice's play that imagines the origin of the Peter Pan story. It uses simple theatrical magic.
DONYALE WERLE: This is a show that's 100 percent about your imagination and so how do you design a show that needs nothing? So my biggest challenge was to actually not design the show, was to design it almost backwards. Like, how do I not show what we want to see?
LUNDEN: So the set is made entirely out of found objects; recycled plastics, scraps of fabric, a long rope. Werle wanted the set to reflect the way children use their imaginations.
WERLE: You give a child a present at Christmas and they spend 10 minutes playing with the toy and then two hours or two days playing with the box. So, like, capturing that element of the box...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LUNDEN: Bob Crowley's set for the musical "Once" engages the audience's imagination as well. Like the film it's based on, the show takes place all over Dublin, but it's told inside a realistic-looking Irish pub so realistic the audience can walk onstage before the show and buy a pint. So why a bar?
BOB CROWLEY: We did the original show in a very relaxed kind of space in Harvard. It looked a bit like a club, and there was a bar at the back. It seemed like a logical step to take it from there into an Irish pub.
LUNDEN: Crowley says the audience has no problem following the story, even if it's told with just a few tables, chairs and a Hoover vacuum cleaner, quite a change for a designer who has created a lot of sets for Broadway musicals like "Mary Poppins."
CROWLEY: I do lots of big, extremely expensive, complicated shows, particularly musicals, where there's lots of money invested and a huge expectation, especially on Broadway, where, you know, ticket prices are so enormous. But once you take the decision not to go that way, it's just such a relief, to be honest with you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LUNDEN: Set designer Tobin Ost took a different tack for his work on "Newsies," the big Disney dance show, about a strike of New York City newsboys in 1899 is set all over Manhattan; in tenements, offices, alleys, on rooftops.
TOBIN OST: So how do you get from Point A to Point B quickly and somewhat effortlessly? And, also, how do you respect the dancing?
LUNDEN: So Ost created a set that kind of dances itself. Three 24-foot-high towers, with stairways and three levels for the actors, move around the stage in different combinations to create a multiplicity of locations. Ost calls these towers the jungle gym.
OST: They're a love child of metal structures from this period, whether it be elevated train tracks, fire escapes, kind of giving an impression of the period, but without really hitting it nail on the head.
LUNDEN: The towers also hold screens for projections by Sven Ortel. His work sometimes shows what a character is writing or drawing, or headlines from the newspaper. Ortel says the most important thing is that his design serves the story.
SVEN ORTEL: It has to be effortless to not get into the way of the storytelling. If you notice it doing something funky or even if you think it looks cool, that's probably not what we want to say that particular moment. That is not to say it's not supposed to take your breath away at times, but that only happens because of a combination of all the elements and it's still propelling the story onwards.
LUNDEN: All five of these talented designers are up for Tony Awards. CBS will broadcast the program at 8:00 P.M. tonight. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
MARTIN: And to see pictures of the nominated set designs and to read Jeff Lunden's Tony Award predictions, make your way over to npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.