Behind the Curtain
David Rockwell, noted architect and scenic designer for Broadway’s latest musical, Catch Me if You Can (it opened just yesterday); takes a pause in his busy schedule to discuss his first theater memories, New York City places of inspiration and how he would take over our own Fifth Avenue Windows.
1. While you have an impressive architectural & design repertoire, you seem to regularly return to Broadway set design. What was your first theater memory? Does that moment influence how you work with set design today?
My first trip to New York City was when I was 11 years old. The two highlights of the trip were lunch at Schrafft’s and seeing “Fiddler on the Roof.” In retrospect, going to Schrafft’s may seem ordinary, but as a kid, cutting the crust off of the French toast elevated dining to something entirely different. “Fiddler” was the first Broadway show that I ever saw, and I became hooked on musicals. Both experiences made me aware of how public spaces can engage people and create a sense of community. When I design a building or a set for a Broadway show, I try to tell a story through the design that connects the guest emotionally. I think it’s one of the things that theater does more than any other art form.
2. From an architectural perspective, what city or country inspires you most? And…what building in New York do you return to most for inspiration?
When I was a child, my family moved from New Jersey to Guadalajara, Mexico. Moving to Guadalajara was the single biggest transition in my life that impacted my work. It was a transition from a world of beautiful, idyllic private homes and very private gardens to an explosive world of incredible spectacles and public rituals. Living in Mexico was unbelievable: a marketplace, a bull ring and a museum all abutting and overlapping in the main town square. I really started to feel the excitement and potential of life in public spaces.
I also get a lot of inspiration from New York City. For example, Union Square is one of the city’s most vital areas, with its mix of high- and low-end restaurants, the Greenmarket, park, boutique stores, and offices. The park itself is one of my favorite public spaces in New York – there’s something about the sidewalk spectacles, the intimacy, and the history. It attracts an amazing cross-section of the city, all ages and walks of life. It’s great for people watching.
Radio City Music Hall is one of my favorite interiors in New York. It just exudes glamour, theatricality, and eccentricity – and walking up those stairs is always such an otherworldly experience!
3. You’ve designed for restaurants, hotels, theater and even a film set for puppets… we can’t even imagine the intricacies, challenges and hilarities that you’ve faced. Are there any calamities or wild moments that you can share with us?
In 2009, we designed our first-ever sets for the Oscars. The event is all about sparkle, so we felt that the stage needed some extraordinary piece of jewelry. In order to bring this to life, we created a new proscenium curtain comprised of 92,000 custom Swarovski crystals. Over a period of about a month, 19 workers stitched the crystals into strands, the strands were then carefully pinned by hand to a steel and cable frame over the Kodak Theatre. This painstaking and Herculean effort produced a gleaming, 60-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide 6,000-pound curtain. The curtain was dazzling, but it wasn’t enough. That’s why I designed a pair of crystal legs.
Two days before the broadcast, the entire company gathered for a run-through. Things were progressing smoothly when a group of barefoot dancers took the stage for a “Slumdog Millionaire” number, and a Bollywood drop was lowered to the stage. As it descended, it latched onto one of the giant crystal legs, pulling it from its mooring. The leg crashed diagonally and thousands of crystals fell to the stage. Everyone in the theater froze. Looking around, I caught the eye of terrified performers, whose expression said one thing, “I’m not getting back on that stage.” Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, over the PA system I heard, “would Mr. Rockwell please come to the stage?”
4. David Hoey sees our windows as a projection of the fantasy that’s within our store. With set design (like Catch Me if You Can), how do you communicate that fantasy on stage?
With theater, you’re stepping from another world into a space with a different set of rules, opportunities and experiences. Theater is about the ephemeral, but these temporary events have the potential of forging powerful and everlasting memories. These short-lived events demand more attention as the experience can be more intense than an experience with something permanent.
“Catch Me If You Can” doesn’t unfold as a conventional linear narrative but is told from the lead character’s (Frank Abagnale, Jr.) uniquely fraudulent and creative point of view. Our design concept takes its cues from the realm of airline travel and television, so we created a set that are transient, transformable and ambiguous (it can be either black or white) – perfect for a lead character who can fit in anywhere, but never quite belongs anywhere. Color and lighting provides the energy and specificity to the scene. The set is reminiscent of a large seamless white, paper backdrop, like an Irving Penn photograph or the clean white background that was the hallmark of all the golden era of TV spectaculars. The 1960s is referenced, but not in a retro-specific manner, but with a modern, fresh and playful edge.
5. And finally: if you had carte blanche with our Fifth Avenue Windows, what would you do with them? Sketch it if you can!
If I truly had carte blanche, I think it would be great to remove the glass from the Fifth Avenue windows, and convert the windows into a series of “urban living rooms.” We would add some amazing sofas and chairs and invite passerby to climb in. Fifth Avenue is one of the greatest streets in the world for people-watching and this would create a thrilling “see and be seen” experience.
For more from David Rockwell,