Stage Noir? You Got It! : Robin Wagner (he did the sets for ‘Hair,’ ‘A Chorus Line’ and ‘Dreamgirls’) is the man who’s given the look of then-L.A. to ‘City of Angels.’ If the solarium is familiar, you must have seen ‘The Big Sleep’

Share via

There was a time when designer Robin Wagner’s sets for “Hair,” “The Great White Hope” and “Promises, Promises” were all on Broadway stages at the same time. He framed “A Chorus Line” in black velour and mirrors, plopped Mick Jagger in the center of a chromium lotus for the Stones’ 1975 Tour of the Americas and supervised the re-creation of 20 years of Broadway sets for “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.”

So what’s he done for us lately?

Try Larry Gelbart’s “City of Angels,” a musical comedy thriller about private eyes, moviemaking and Hollywood romance. The show has 46 scene changes--one every three or four minutes--and director Michael Blakemore wanted the sets to zip by with the same grace as Gelbart’s book, Cy Coleman’s music and David Zippel’s lyrics.

Winner of six Tonys on Broadway--including one for Wagner’s film noir-inspired set--”City of Angels” arrives at the Shubert Theatre on Wednesday. There, with acknowledged debts to “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Maltese Falcon” and other classics, the 57-year-old designer has assembled a stage full of imagined mansions, sound stages and solariums from Los Angeles in the ‘40s.


“The script just said, ‘Scene 1, City Morgue; Scene 2, Stone’s Outer Office,’ ” says Gelbart, who developed TV’s “MASH” and co-wrote the movie “Tootsie.” “We envisioned the book and the score, and we said, ‘You envision the rest.’ ”

They didn’t make it easy. “City of Angels” weaves the double-layered tale of a novelist named Stine and his protagonist, a private eye named Stone. Stine arrives in Hollywood to turn his detective novel, “City of Angels,” into a movie, and Stine’s travails in Hollywood share the stage with Stone’s screenplay adventures.

To help the audience keep everything straight, the real life of novelist-cum-screenwriter Stine is bathed in living color, while the reel life of detective Stone is played out in black-and-white costumes and sets. Stone’s Beverly Cresta Court bungalow, for instance, is awash in black, white and gray walls, towels and paintings; the only color comes from blood left on his face after two bad guys test their “recipe for face pudding” on him.

The show’s 27 actors alternate roles in both worlds, and everything happens at movie-style pacing. Rapidly changing scenes mimic cinematic long shots and close-ups, and there’s a stage cue every eight seconds.

“Each little scene is written about the length of a movie scene from that period,” says Blakemore, who earlier directed Michael Frayn’s energetic farce, “Noises Off.” “We tried to put onstage a movie of the ‘40s.”

Few art forms are so collaborative as theater, and Wagner, says composer Coleman, is “a great collaborator; he starts thinking and creating and visualizing what you want to do. He’ll get with the director and combine ideas, (but) he’ll come in with something.”


The designer’s biggest problem, says Wagner, is in fact “how to get into the director’s head and create the ship he has to steer. You’re just the engineer throwing coal into the engine. The director is the captain . . . and the captain is always right. If you can’t make his vision come to life, the show won’t work.”

The common vision in this case was the Hollywood movies that Blakemore, Gelbart and Wagner all grew up watching in the ‘40s. While Gelbart’s frustrations as a screenwriter fuel such creations as “City of Angels’ ” Buddy Fidler, an egomaniacal moviemaker who boasts he could cut 10 seconds from the “Minute” Waltz and nobody would notice, Gelbart’s childhood memories of Saturday-afternoon movies are affectionate ones. Australian Blakemore can still recall seeing “The Maltese Falcon” in Sydney as a teen-ager, while San Francisco-born Wagner says he didn’t even see a play until he’d finished high school.

Their shared memory starts offstage, in fact, where Wagner designed massive wall panels to emulate the highly stylized film theaters of the period, which, he says, “always conjured up exotic places for the audience.” Cutouts of City Hall and Union Station are on either side of the Shubert stage--to help make the huge theater seem more like Broadway’s smaller Virginia Theatre where the show originated. And cityscapes on both walls feature such local landmarks as Paramount’s gates, the Griffith Park Observatory and the Hollywood sign.

While he usually does research through books or travel, most of Wagner’s background material this time around came on celluloid. He read books about Raymond Chandler’s Hollywood, he says, but mostly he sat in front of the TV set in his Greenwich Village apartment, watching video after video of old film noir movies. He took endless notes, he recalls, “especially on film cliches, so they’d seem familiar to the audience.”

He estimates he sat through 100 movies--some of them six or seven times apiece--soaking up atmosphere. The Kingsley mansion smacks of the mansion in “Sunset Boulevard” and the solarium inside that mansion is “loosely based” on the stifling orchid house in “The Big Sleep.” And “if you see a strong resemblance to the opening scenes of ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ ” hints Wagner, “it wouldn’t be a mistake.”

Blakemore, too, was watching old movies, but the trick was turning all that research into stage magic. One device was to pay close attention to the very films that spawned the show, and Blakemore guesses he and Wagner went through the script at least a dozen times trying to find stage equivalents to assorted cinematic techniques.


Consider “The Search,” a sequence where private eye Stone sets out to find lost heiress Mallory Kingsley. It was originally conceived as a big production number, Blakemore says, “but the idea of theatrical lowlife--tarts under lampposts and fellows in pin-stripe suits and snap-brimmed fedoras--has been brilliantly done. We had to find another way, and I asked myself what they would have done in Hollywood.”

His answer was a short film sequence where detective Stone does exaggerated walking in place onstage--not unlike Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk”--while rear projection reveals the seedy neighborhood he’s walking through. Wagner’s office came up with four blocks of miniaturized Los Angeles that was then filmed to look like a life-size city; an equally miniaturized camera picks up such details as tiny sandwich boards advertising pie and coffee for 15 cents.

Blakemore similarly wanted “tracking shots” going from Stone’s outer office to his inner one, and says Wagner designed huge moving sliders to create an effect “exactly like a movie shot.” Blakemore calls the designer “endlessly resourceful about what machinery can do onstage,” and in few places is this more apparent than in those opening scenes of Stone’s office. Sets glide across the stage like film frames, rather than moving backwards, forward, up or down as in other plays and musicals.

Then, later in the show, Blakemore wanted cinematic devices to get detective Stone into and through the Kingsley mansion. So, first comes an “establishing shot” of the mansion’s facade. Then, as Stone steps inside that front door, so does the audience.

“When you move through a house in the movies, you go through a series of doors and finally you arrive at your destination,” Wagner says. “The problem was how to create that on the stage, and the solution was pretty straightforward--you do it the same way you do it in the movies.”

Wagner is backstage at the Shubert Theatre, checking out sets a week before previews start. It’s a place he knows well, in fact--he created the set for one of the Shubert’s early productions, Dory Previn’s musical, “Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign,” and he was just here with “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.”


Wagner stops first at detective Stone’s bungalow where there’s real coffee in the bag marked Jewel City Blend but still no knobs on the stove and no numbers painted on the radio. Nearby, a screw is visible on a radio station wall that will face the audience, and over at the Kingsley mansion bedroom, the bedspread flounce is four inches too short and doesn’t reach the floor.

Things like that must be fixed, Wagner explains, because if illusion is destroyed, the audience will be distracted. “The most important thing that you have to accomplish (as) the designer is to keep the background back--to keep people in the audience looking where you want them to look.

“Every time you change the scenery, it’s a major psychological adjustment for the audience,” he says. “It’s like the introduction of a new character--you have to think about ‘What’s that?’ or ‘Where’s that table?’ Your mind is working three times as hard, and it doesn’t hear while it’s working.”

Michael Bennett, whom he worked with as far back as Neil Simon’s “Promises, Promises” in 1968, used to always talk about “the costume moment,” says Wagner. In “Dreamgirls,” for instance, “everything would be calculated towards the moment when these three girls would come downstage in their white sequined outfits. Because it would take the audience at least 20 seconds to absorb those costumes, they wouldn’t move. They just stood there, absolutely still. Then, when they broke into movement, it was exciting--it was three Oscars coming at you.”

What “Dreamgirls” also demonstrated, Wagner says, was that you could create a Miami nightclub or a recording studio with almost no scenery at all. “All you had to do for the audience was to indicate change of place. You didn’t have to do the locations. By having the tower of lights and rearranging them each time, you (created) a sense of having moved to another venue.”

Go back to Shakespeare, Wagner suggests. “In the first seven lines of ‘Hamlet’ you learn everything you need to know--the place, time, weather, situation, and all the characters’ names. I start with the principle that everything has to earn its place on the stage. If it doesn’t have to be there, you get rid of it.”


That’s what he and Bennett did in “A Chorus Line,” which Wagner says took two years to distill to the eventual black velour drapes and mirrored walls--what he calls “the elements that the dancer lives with.” But what came first and last was the white line on the floor, and, he says, “that’s all you needed to do the show. You could do it in a parking lot.”

It’s a far cry to “City of Angels” with its dozens of sets, and Wagner admits the logistics were daunting. “How do you make the set smooth and natural enough so that it doesn’t jolt the audience every time it changes and still help tell the story?” he asks. “And how do you do it in such a manner that the play is still the thing? That was the major challenge”

But as New York Times drama critic Frank Rich wrote soon after “City of Angels” opened on Broadway, Wagner’s achievements on this show should come as no surprise. “No Broadway musical set of the 1980’s was as inspired” as the one Wagner designed with Bennett for “Dreamgirls,” Rich wrote, and what the two shows have in common is the designer’s logistical proficiency.

It was, in fact, the “Dreamgirls” set that encouraged Blakemore to hire Wagner for “City of Angels.” Says Blakemore: “I thought (Wagner’s design for) ‘Dreamgirls’ was blazingly gifted and effective. It also showed an extraordinary engineering intelligence, and what we needed was an absolutely fluid machine in which our show could take place. I had ideas about it, but didn’t know how quite to achieve it. In all that technical purgatory, Robin is absolutely heroic.”

When he’s at home in New York, Wagner works in a sunny corner studio at 890 Broadway, a building in the Flatiron district, a place where Broadway musicals have rehearsed for years. Old drawings are in drawers, blueprints are tacked up on the walls, and models are neatly assembled either on top of tables or on shelves below.

“Scenic design is problem solving,” he says, as he recreates his initial drawing for the first few scenes of “City of Angels.” “You feed in all the givens so you know what your options are.”


With his Pilot rolling ball pen, Wagner meticulously makes a floor plan of the theater he’s working with. Thick black lines block out the parameters of the stage as he figures out how much room is needed to move or store sets, keeping in mind where they are when they’re offstage as well as onstage.

Wagner even looks more like an engineer than an artist. He dresses as if he were going to work in an office building, not the theater. His nicely polished shoes crunch wood shavings where sets are being assembled, and his sports coat and tie are in sharp contrast to the jeans most of his colleagues are wearing. But Wagner thinks like an artist. “When I’m reading the script, I can see it, how it fits together and how you get from one scene to another,” he says at one point. “I guess that’s what makes designers designers--they visualize things a certain way. Writers see words and paragraphs--we see little pictures.”

Whether in his studio, backstage somewhere, or in restaurants, Wagner’s ‘little pictures’ generally emerge first on either 3-by-5-inch index cards or graph paper. In the margins, he jots down ideas about how things should look or work or even get on and off the stage. He doesn’t make sketches, he says, but instead works with the director in creating three-dimensional models of his sets.

The models get bigger and bigger, moving from black-and-white to color, then are presented to the producers. And when everybody likes the models, he puts them into scale drawings that are sent out to maybe half a dozen shops for bids. “When the lowest bid comes in,” he quips, “the producer tells the designer to cut it in half and we go back to square one.”

Meanwhile, he’s considering both materials and labor. At this point in his career, he’s well aware, he explains, that aluminum is more lightweight and easier to handle than steel, but it costs twice as much. And because assorted painting techniques are familiar to him now, he also knows how to simplify them to cut costs if necessary.

Everyone involved with “City of Angels,” from lighting designer Paul Gallo to Gene O’Donovan, whose Hudson Scenic Studio built the sets, talks about underestimating the complexities of this show. “This is the most deceptive set we ever worked on,” O’Donovan says. “As you look at each drawing, you say, ‘That isn’t difficult; there isn’t anything here we haven’t built before.’ But there’s so much of it, and how it works once it gets into the theater is so intricate; there’s so much going on backstage it would be worth the price of a ticket to show the audience what’s going on back there.”


Even Wagner admits there are more things to think about in this show than in any other he ever worked on. There are only a few props in each scene, for instance, but there are so many scenes that the prop sheet is 20 pages long, instead of the usual five or six pages. “This show could only have been written by a filmmaker,” Wagner says. “There are so many moving parts, it’s like the insides of a watch.”

What’s next? While Wagner created the sets for Kevin Kline’s production of “Hamlet” at the New York Shakespeare Festival last fall, the designer says he is rarely offered plays anymore. He has also designed sets for the New York City Ballet, Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera and recently joined a design firm that will develop large commercial exhibitions.

Nothing is signed yet, he says, but he is “hoping for the opportunity” to work on George C. Wolfe’s “Jelly’s Last Jam” as that musical wends it way from the Mark Taper Forum to Broadway. According to Taper managing director Stephen J. Albert, a workshop production of the show is expected in New York this fall with plans for a Broadway opening in the spring.

Wagner and composer Coleman have also long been trying to develop as well as produce a musical comedy called “Thirteen Days to Broadway,” with a book by columnist Russell Baker. And the designer hopes to one day produce Tom Eyen and Alan Menken’s “Kicks,” a musical set in the ‘40s about the women in the “kick line” at a theater similar to New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

Meanwhile, the designer is already turning out 3-by-5 inch cards for a Broadway production next spring of Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy.” That show, which “Me and My Girl” director Mike Ockrent is now casting, is set in the early ‘30s, and Wagner has begun leafing through pictures of abandoned Arizona mining towns from the period.

But first come the setting up, putting together and opening of “City of Angels” here and elsewhere on the road. And that is no small task, jokes Gelbart, whose newest play, “Power Failure” opened May 29 at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. “Given the scale of this show, with its sets and machinery, it’s a wonder it can all be in the right place at the right time and not kill an actor or two--or a punch line or two, which may be more important than killing an actor or two.”