Bright Lights, Big Hair
The Rockwell Group's inventive sets take top billing in the Broadway version of Hairspray
Debra Scott -- Interior Design, 9/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
The first inkling is the curtain, blue-and-red velour aswirl with seven miles of rubber tubing. By the time that curtain rises to reveal big-haired protagonist Tracy Turnblad tucked into a topsy-turvy, vertically mounted bed—sending the audience at Broadway's favorite musical into gales of laughter and applause—it's clear that Hairspray's tour-de-force set design plays as pivotal a role as the dancers in their beehive dos.
"Design in the theater is narrative," says architect David Rockwell, whose mother was in vaudeville and whose Rockwell Group is responsible for the zany sets. "The bird's-eye view of Tracy in bed lets you know immediately that this girl plays by her own rules." So does Rockwell. His theater-world upbringing provided him, he says, with a "magical alternative reality." And he maintains that fantasy perspective right through to the musical's finale, when Tracy's mother—Harvey Fierstein in drag—emerges from a gigantic aerosol hairspray can.
The creative process started with the script and the score. ("It's not unlike our recent work with Montefiore hospital in the Bronx, when we asked the doctors questions about their needs," says the architect.) What the play's book revealed to Rockwell was a sense of optimism. "It's about a sweet little fat girl who's convinced she's the most fabulous thing ever and manages to change the world," he says, referring to Tracy's eventual triumph integrating the Corny Collins Show, the local TV station's American Bandstand knockoff.
To coordinate with the music, a nonstop medley inspired by early pop, Rockwell's team created 18 separate sets that morph from one to the next at almost cinematic speed. A number that takes place in Tracy's bedroom—defined by an over-the-top vanity table surrounded by vintage hairdo posters—opens with just a handful of singers, but the show's composer and choreographer needed the chorus to join in at the crescendo, so Rockwell came up with a set-based solution. He hides chorus members in niches behind the hairdo posters, which swing aside pinwheel-fashion at the crucial moment. "Set design is amazingly collaborative," he says.
If so, a major collaborator is the city of Baltimore, where the action occurs. Baltimore native John Waters, writer-director of the original 1988 film Hairspray, personally took Rockwell on a tour to help him get the details right. "I was struck by how absolutely ordinary Baltimore is. It's so ordinary that it's almost baroque," says the architect. "John Waters celebrates the ordinary and eccentric and makes them magical." One of Rockwell's major discoveries on the trip was the city's penchant for the faux stone siding known as Formstone. In the show's prologue, Tracy struts her ample stuff amid a wacky streetscape of Formstone-clad row houses; in the school gym, the material is referenced abstractly, as sliding panels. "It had to look superrealistic so that it looked super-fake," says Barry Richards, Rockwell's point man on the project. Another Baltimore-vernacular touch is the row houses' hand-painted window screens, which Rockwell rendered in retro patterns based on Marimekko fabrics and Vera scarves.
"Early Sputnik, World's Fair modernism," says Richards, repeatedly finds its way into the sets. A palette of NECCO Wafer colors frequently recurs in the world of the white characters, and Rockwell cast the arched windows of Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal as features of the Baltimore Eventorium civic center where Tracy performs her prizewinning dance number. Images of television, the medium that dominated the age, predominate here, too. Layers of chiffon curtains hark back to Ed Sullivan– style variety shows; the entire action appears to be framed by a giant TV set embellished by a latticework of stylized microphones and booms. The shallowness of the stage also refers to the two-dimensionality of the small screen. "The flatness was subtle," explains Richards, "but interesting to us as designers."
The most important design element in the show was what the team calls the "Lite-Brite wall." Based on the 1967 toy, this panel comprises 610 low-resolution LED sources programmed to cycle through a variety of colors and animated patterns, from dots to hearts. "It's key to establishing the look and vibrancy of the show," says Richards, proudly identifying the grid as the largest use of LED so far in the theater.
For Rockwell, his work on Hairspray was much more than the "net sum of getting a complicated show to flow and setting a mood that doesn't get in the way of the audience falling in love with this little girl and her family." It was also a project that challenged his abilities. As he puts it, "Exploring creative turf where you don't know every answer off the top of your head is the most thrilling place to be."