Review: Broadway Set Designer Beowulf Boritt on the Magic of Transforming Space Over Time
One of my most vivid memories of the past theatrical season is seeing set designer Beowulf Boritt standing placidly in the back of the Shubert Theater during a Monday night performance. Improbably, he had designed a rotating assembly to POTUS, knowing that even a slight delay in platinum had the potential to sap the momentum of this door-slamming White House farce. And yet he betrayed no sense of dread, maintaining a straight face beneath his signature cluster of curls, the stage lights reflecting off his thick-rimmed glasses. As the play wound to its hilarious conclusion, its apparent confidence (and unconventional design) felt entirely earned. He took a risk and it paid off.
This line could very well sum up the 51-year-old designer’s remarkable career, during which he ran a tiny version of the Seine through Studio 54 and used real trees on the set of Come from afar. Boritt does not talk about these productions or POTUS in his new book, Transforming Space Over Time: Scenography Visual Storytelling with Legendary Broadway Directors. However, he gives readers an intimate insight into his process as he works with some of Broadway’s greatest directors: James Lapine, Harold Prince, Kenny Leon, Jerry Zaks and Susan Stroman, for whom Boritt designed several sets, including POTUS and The Scottsboro Boys (it’s the musical’s cut short Broadway trip getting its own chapter). The book is not just a record of some of Boritt’s most innovative work, but an invaluable guide to collaboration at the highest levels of industry.
Boritt gives detailed overviews of six productions (act one, The Scottsboro Boys, A lot of noise for nothing, Prince of Broadway, meteor showerand Sondheim on Sondheim), revealing the multi-year process of viewing a set, trying to figure out a way to build it within the allotted budget, and then presenting that set to actors and live audiences – often resulting in unforeseen complications and changes of last minute. The scenographer must be both an artist and an engineer, imagining strange worlds that pose practical problems, and then solving those problems. And even the ability to do that doesn’t necessarily mean the design will be good: “There’s a constant danger,” he warns, “when you work hard, you start to believe it’s good just because you’re happy to have taken up the challenge.” Brutal self-criticism becomes an essential tool of the trade.
The inclusion of early sketches and successive drafts (many of which are included in this delightfully visual book) shows just how intricately crafted a set is before it’s even built. Boritt’s tales of the perils of the creative process create a surprise page-turner as he battles cheap producers, juggles the demands of multiple projects, and is regularly saved from certain fate by his trusty associate Alexis. Distler, his Batman’s Robin. .
Boritt follows up each production chapter with a lengthy conversation with that show’s director. This allows them to discuss not only the creations of Boritt, but also those of the visionary scenographers who preceded him. Boritt’s admiration for Boris Aronson is particularly evident when he speaks with Harold Prince about his collaboration with the original designer of Cabaret, fiddler on the roofand Company.
The final two chapters are a conversation between Boritt and Stephen Sondheim (a nice reminder of how the late composer thought about design) and a brief tip for young designers. Boritt doesn’t believe there’s a formula for success in the theater: a healthy approach to rejection, an ability to stay up all night, a particularly memorable name — it all helps. And even after creating what you consider one of your best works, that doesn’t mean everyone will share your assessment: “It was all magic,” he says of the opening night of The Scottsboro Boys. “Then the New York Times the review is out.”
Unfailingly cordial in front of the press, Boritt the author reveals a new facet of himself. Whether it’s throwing a “calculated tantrum” during tech to meteor show (he feared a faulty set move wouldn’t be taken seriously) or yell at a disgruntled Harold Prince that the set for the Phantom section of Prince of Broadway Exactly in line with Prince-approved rendering, Boritt confesses to expressing genuine human emotions in work that often seems to come with two conflicting directives: pour your heart and soul into a design, then turn it to stone in execution. Prince, it should be noted, had his own vivid memory of Boritt during tech for Paradise found at the Menier chocolate factory: At a particularly difficult moment, the set designer came on stage and shouted, “Fuck this fucking theater asshole.”
It has become fashionable lately to question everything about the way theater was made in the last century – to tear down the statues of the thorny “great men” who made it and try to make stage a healthier workplace for the next generation. It’s an admirable goal, but I often wonder what will be lost if this reform goes too far. Can the theatrical creation process, which usually touches on disordered emotions and dangerous ideas, ever conform to the anti-conflict standards of a corporate HR department? I have serious doubts about the quality of work that can come from a theater run like an accounting firm.
Boritt offers some advice when it comes to getting a steady job in the theater: “Don’t be an asshole,” which seems like good advice in any field, especially one with 100 applicants for every position available. However, it is not necessary to become an automaton not to be an asshole. Transforming space over time is not just a memoir from one of theater’s most trusted designers, but an account of the act of emotional balancing he had to perform to get to that position.