'Grand Illusion' Exhibit Lifts Curtain On The Secrets Of Setting The Stage An exhibit at the Library of Congress is devoted to the art of theatrical design. Drawings, sketches, watercolors, posters and scale models reveal how magic and spectacle are achieved before our eyes.
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'Grand Illusion' Exhibit Lifts Curtain On The Secrets Of Setting The Stage

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'Grand Illusion' Exhibit Lifts Curtain On The Secrets Of Setting The Stage

'Grand Illusion' Exhibit Lifts Curtain On The Secrets Of Setting The Stage

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On this program, NPR's Susan Stamberg often pulls back the curtain on movie magic. This morning, she explores the magic of the stage. It's the focus of an exhibition at the Library of Congress called Grand Illusion: The Art of Theatrical Design, with sketches, posters and scale models from a century of theater. Susan takes us backstage.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Can you imagine choosing 43 objects from more than 20 million holdings in the music division of the Library of Congress? Even a musical theater lover would need a nap after maybe 10 minutes. But intrepid curators found behind-the-scenes stuff that parses theatrical illusions through original documents like Oliver Smith's 1956 set designs for "My Fair Lady."

WALTER ZVONCHENKO: It was the most expensive production in musical theater to its time.

STAMBERG: Library music specialist Walter Zvonchenko.

ZVONCHENKO: The price for it was $485,000.

STAMBERG: Oliver Smith's ink and watercolor sketches evoke London's Covent Gardens. Composer Frederick Loewe evokes jubilation in the melody he carefully penciled on a piece of sheet music.

DANIEL BOOMHOWER: It's ready for the copyists who would prepare the orchestrations.

STAMBERG: The library's Daniel Boomhower.

BOOMHOWER: You could sit down at the piano and play and sing from this.

STAMBERG: Well, not until you have the lyrics. Alan Jay Lerner's words express Eliza Doolittle's joy after a night on the town.

Bed, bed - you couldn't go to bed with all these exclamation marks.

A piece of paper, penciled jottings - the creators at work on what becomes one of the great Broadway musicals.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MY FAIR LADY")

AUDREY HEPBURN: (Singing as Eliza Doolittle) I could have danced all night. I could have danced all night and still have begged for more.

STAMBERG: The earliest object in this Library of Congress show is a 1668 stage set engraving for the opera "Il Pomo D'oro." Walter Zvonchenko says the production in Vienna was spectacular.

ZVONCHENKO: There was a huge proscenium arch. And this thing would extend, like, almost 100 feet back. There were huge pulleys and chains which could support in the air as many as 200 or 300 people.

STAMBERG: Flying gods and goddesses, dragons - sometimes they bumped into one another in midair.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SHOW GIRL" SCORE)

STAMBERG: George Gershwin's melody for a never-heard-of-it song for the never-heard-of-it 1929 musical "Show Girl" is a handwritten full orchestral score. Gershwin had needed Ferde Grofe to orchestrate "Rhapsody In Blue." Five years later, he'd learned to do it himself.

ZVONCHENKO: Gershwin was measuring himself against great composers. And great composers, in his mind, orchestrated their music.

STAMBERG: "Show Girl" ended with a ballet set to Gershwin's "American In Paris." That tune had a future.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

STAMBERG: Many of the objects in Grand Illusion: The Art of Theatrical Design were created during the depression. Walter Zvonchenko says musicals served a social purpose then.

ZVONCHENKO: They were a relief. They were a release from the pain and the rigors that came with the Great Depression. You needed a Fred Astaire and a Ginger Rogers to go dancing across the stage to try to tell people, hey, there's still some joy. There's still some life.

STAMBERG: The evidence can be seen at the Library of Congress until the end of July. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

INSKEEP: You can see some at npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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