What is Jessica Chastain thinking about as she twirls on stage? Plus: Ben Platt's silence, the "Fat Ham" ghost, the "Shucked" corn dance, and all that "Sweeney" gore.
Sasha Arutyunova for the New York TimesCredit...
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Theater is a form of magic at its best - it enchants us, transforms us and often leaves us asking, "How do they do that?"
There's much to admire on Broadway, where the craft is polished and the spectacle heightened. This spring, now that all the 2022-23 plays and musicals have opened, we made itAgainsome of them askedTony nominated showsto allow us to look behind the metaphorical curtain and discover how they invented and brought to life some of the sensational stage art that caught our attention this season.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
A lap around the stage before the show
The show starts before it starts. Twenty minutes before each performance of "A Doll's House," as ticket holders take their seats at the Hudson Theater, a curtain rises to reveal the star of the play.Jessica Chastainslumped in an Ercol stackable ash chair, he turned slowly around the bare stage.
The wordless pre-show — a major Hollywood star spinning silently — came about on a whim. The leader of the revival,Jamie LloydHe had long thought he wanted to restrict Chastain's movement in some way, as a visual metaphor for the way her character Nora Helmer feels trapped as a wife and wife.
An early reading in Chastain's apartment laid the groundwork for the idea: she read from her chair, prompting a transfixed Lloyd to suggest performing the play this way. To his surprise, she agreed and then trumped him with a serious joke: maybe she could already sit in the chair, as if Nora had already been there when the audience arrived.
"I wanted it to feel like I had been sitting there for years," she said, "and I didn't fully realize the possibilities."
And why is she spinning? Lloyd said the concept was central to the show's design. "It's a very political play - that's why it's being held on - but it's also very psychological and it's about someone getting out of hand," he said. "There's something confusing about the experience she's having."
The pre-show sit-and-spin, conceived as a metaphor, also paid off tangible results: it thwarted the applause at the entrance and made the fans evade their Instagram feeling (photography is allowed until the start of the show).
"Everyone has their moment where they look at Jessica Chastain and take pictures, and then that moment fades so he sees Nora by the end of the pre-show," Chastain said. "I want them to let go of the celebrity baggage they carry around."
Granted, there's some unease, and it's not just because Chastain finds the chair uncomfortable.
"I feel like I can't hide — people can film and photograph and see every part of me," she said, "and I feel like an object they're studying."
Now she is studying them again.
"As soon as it starts, I start making eye contact with people, really connecting with them and actually messaging them," she said.
Every now and then she sees someone she knows or someone who tries to get her attention. She tries very hard not to respond, at least not visibly. "I don't wave, I don't change my position and I don't smile," she said. "I don't do things separately from Nora, but I connect with them."
"I fill up with the energy I receive and by the end of the preshow I'm completely open," she added. “I feel so open to the space. I feel so open to the emotions that come up. And I think that's because we're all on this psychological journey together."
The barber and the bloodshed
“I killed a lot of people on Broadway,” Jeremy Chernick said, before clarifying, “Pretend murder.”
Chernick is the special effects designer for "Sweeney Toddin which the vengeful barber, played by Josh Groban, kills a mob whose bodies are then baked into pies by his doting landlady (Annaleigh Ashford).
The grisly murders (most of the show's nine deaths are from throat slitting) present a series of logistical challenges for any team directing this classic show, set to the songs of Stephen Sondheim. This is how the creative team of this production reacted.
The chair:Sweeney kills his customers in a barber's chair, then dumps their bodies into a gutter that leads to the pastry chef's oven. The set designer of the new production, Mimi Lien, said safety is her top priority, as in some previous productions of the classic musical, actors were injured when they were thrown from their seats.
Lien designed a cast iron Victorian chair upholstered in oxblood red artificial leather. Many of their aesthetic decisions were based on functional considerations: the fabric had to be smooth and smooth so that the bodies could slide easily, and both the fabric and armrests of the chair had to be simple (no quilting or textured leather, for example). ) to prevent the costume from snagging or pooling blood.
The chair is fitted with hinges and levers that allow it to be flattened like a stretcher. Every time a client is killed, Groban flattens the chair, swivels it into place (the creative team felt that body dumping looks best in profile), and raises it at a 45-degree angle to put the actor through an open hatch to free. (They go feet first; Lien thought an upside-down maneuver would look more dramatic, but rejected the idea for safety reasons.)
The actors fall about three feet to five feet into a padded area not visible to the audience, where crew members wait to help them offstage and out of their costumes if necessary.
The blood:Chernick chose Nick Dudman's "Pigs Might Fly", a sugar-based washable stage blood. Chernick said he liked that the gore was sticky instead of slippery to lessen the dangers on stage. "A big part of my job is figuring out how the show continues after there's blood everywhere," he said.
In many productions of "Sweeney Todd," the title character was equipped with a razor blade that spatters blood, but Chernick said, "The modern audience wants more blood than a razor blade can hold," so he chose to build a blood vessel instead. in it instead, the barber capes worn by customers and the actors cause a rush of blood when their characters are killed off. About the amount of blood in a tennis ball is needed for every death, Chernick said. The customer's capes are sprayed with water to better absorb blood.
"We've been working on quantity through previews," Chernick said, "to draw the line between what elicits an audience response and what's distracting and rude."
The Clearance:As soon as the actors leave the stage, their bloody clothes are removed and taken to a laundry room in the theater's basement. There are three washing machines, three dryers, a sink and baths for soaking cotton clothes (polyester items bleed more easily). Some garments are hosed down as soon as they come off an artist's body. There are reserves for two trading days.
"I've done tons of Broadway shows, but this is my first show involving gore on this scale," says Jesse Galvan, the wardrobe manager. "It comes with some challenges — blood spatter, so we're always looking for blood on costumes in random places."
Groban, the show's star, said the effects were key to the show's success.
"It's an incredible reaction when people see the bowel movement happen for the first time or the blood come out for the first time," he said. "And I really enjoy it. My hands are doing these dark, twisted things while the vocals are pretty romantic, and I think that was the trick Sondheim had in mind.
Trapped in the break
"Guilty. Guilty. Guilty."
At the end of the first act of Parade, the main character, a Jewish businessman named Leo Frank, is convicted of the murder of a young girl. It's 1913 in Georgia; The case is twisted by anti-Semitism and Frank is sentenced to death by hanging.
Then there is a break.
Ben Platt, who plays Frank, remains on stage. Here he takes off his clothes and puts on a prison uniform. And for about 15 minutes he sits still, as if in a cell, on a 15 by 15 foot platform in the center of the stage.
"There's so much to talk about on the show that we don't have time to face the literal truth that this man spent the end of his life in isolation," Platt said. "And to me, this is always a time on the show where it's just about thinking, regardless of what's going on emotionally."
Platt's wordless presence during hiatus—a two-year stint—has become one of the show's most talked-about elements, partly because it feels like a feat of concentration and partly because it can be photographed. This is how it ends up on TikTok and other social media.
"Parade" is based on the story, and this staging was the idea of the director of the revival, Michael Arden.
"It was just a weird, feverish premonition I had: this image of Ben sitting on stage, imprisoned on his gallows," Arden said. “I wanted to challenge the audience to look back and see Ben on stage drinking his cocktail, texting his friends or talking about his dinner, and get the feeling that while the world was spinning, this guy was in a prison cell fed up."
Some of the guests sit quietly in their seats, as if keeping watch with the figure; Many stand up to take pictures and some have tried to get Platt's attention.
"There are times when someone will say, 'Ben, I'll give you $100 if you turn your back,' or 'Ben, I love you,' but that's rare and people generally understand the cue," Platt said. "I'm trying to dissociate, so I'm not sure what they're doing."
Platt said he had a lot of questions when the idea was first presented to him. Would someone bring him water? (Yes.) Should he shut up? (No - sometimes he's on a couch.) The rest was up to him.
"There are days when I can totally immerse myself in the story and be like a lion and feel like I'm stuck, and there are days when I'm tired and have to concentrate to get through that time," he said. "But the physical manifestation is always at the same time: I sit there with myself."
Corn on the cob choreography
Sarah O'Gleby, sleepy from raising a toddler, awoke with one of those sparks that could be angry or inspired: She remembered the scene from Charlie Chaplin's 1925 film The Gold Rush where the comedian had two sandwiches with sticks out forks and carries them out with themone table routine.
O'Gleby, the choreographer for "Peeled offwas unhappy with the opening number of her musical, which didn't quite have the wacky vibe of the subsequent wacky country-music-plus-gag production. Chaplin's escapades got her thinking.
"It just came to mind: I wonder if we can do something with corn on the cob," she said. "So I brought some dancers into a room to play, and when I saw a wall of actors perform a Rockette kickline with corn on the cob, I giggled — it just felt silly and ridiculous and made me laugh."
This is how the show's corn kickline was born. And yes, it's a corn kickline - 14 actors held 28 corn cobs to the edge of the stage and made those corn cobs dance on planks of kiln-dried ashes.
The performers, most of whom are not dancers, took their time to train - the routine combines elements of vaudeville, tap dancing and percussion. "That was the first thing we taught the cast when we started rehearsing for Broadway, and a lot of them were like, 'What's this?'" she said. "I said, 'Come on, open hearts and open minds!' We had to build up very slowly to get them to the pace they are at now."
The design of the pistons - unfortunately they are made of plastic - also proved to be a challenge. The plastic vials the show first tried broke after a few uses, so the props team made 9-inch, yellow, hullless vials of an impact-resistant resin that could last for eight shows a week. The stocks are heavy to ensure a percussive sound, and the show's designers built large pockets into the costumes to store them.
The 20-second kickline has become a hallmark of the show, helping to convey its playful, pun-infused andMore themeTon.
"We're trying to tell the audience, 'This is the kind of night you're going to have,'" said O'Gleby. "It will be bright and cheerful and we will have a good time together and we hope you have a good time with us."
Is this ghost invited to the barbecue?
Hamlet is full of famous characters. One of them is dead.
The ghost of the title character's father plays a key role in the plot of Shakespeare's play, and the same is true in "Fuck him„James IjamesPulitzer-winningRiff on the classic, now moved to the backyard of a North Carolina family who runs a grill shop.
The director of the new play, Saheem Ali, said that as soon as he read the script, he knew he wanted to find a way to nod to Shakespeare while acknowledging Fat Ham's irreverent tone.
"In 'Hamlet' the ghost is usually very scary - you have to feel the effects of the supernatural - but we're in a comedy, so there has to be a lightness to it as well," he said. "It's a ghost with a wink."
And how do you find someone who can help invoke the supernatural? Unsurprisingly, Ali contacted the team behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - a play steeped in stage magic - and found Skylar Fox, who is responsible for the magic on the American productions of Cursed Child and is now also responsible for the illusion design for "Thick Ham".
"Ghosts are a common feature of theatrical magic, and I've done it a few times," Fox said. "The more the public knows how the world works, the more difficult it becomes to surprise them, but that makes trying exciting."
The 'Fat Ham' ghost - his name is Pap - appears three times and emits a vapor that gives him a kind of ghostly otherworldliness, but also links him to the meat smoking he lived on.
The Ijames script states that when the ghost first appears, he wears a classic ghost costume: "a sheet with eye holes cut out." But Ali and Fox made a slight change: when the ghost first appears, it doesn't come with a sheet, but covered with a red checkered tablecloth like you'd find at a barbeque.
The second time, the ghost emerges from a box of party favors, and the third time, it pops out of the grill.
"There's been a lot of thought about why for such silly moments," Fox said. "This is a house that's both familiar and strange, and there's a residual trauma to everything, but we approached it with our heads down and a light touch."
Jessica Chastain's videos above were shot at a lower frame rate.
Michael Paulson is the theater reporter. He previously covered religion and was part of the Boston Globe team whose coverage of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. @Michael Paulson
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