As the current Broadway season begins to crest in New York, a conversation has emerged in the media about the set design in this year’s new crop of shows, and in turn, the relationship of design to the price of tickets. There have been dire warnings of a dearth of lavish scenery, and productions that penny pinch on visuals while charging premium ticket prices. The argument at the core of this conversation is that only shows with sets of a maximalist style and scale are worth the price of admission.
As the set designer of two of this season’s offerings, Parade and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I find this discussion intriguing in its misconceptions. Though, of course, my work is inextricably tied to a production’s financial parameters, there’s more at stake in designing a play or musical than simply the question of how much it cost. It’s important to me that any conversation around the role and value of design in the Broadway space not miss the nuance of the artist’s perspective.
On the one hand, I agree that an audience member at a Broadway show is as deserving of excellent design as they are of excellent performances, writing, and music. But is design excellence only definable as masses of eye-popping décor? Good design is not quantitative. Its value cannot be defined purely by scale or obvious expense.
Each time set designers and directors embark on building a world, we determine what’s necessary based not just on a budget, or a predetermined amount of scenery appropriate for Broadway. We consider what best serves the project at hand. The physical world of A Christmas Carol, for example, is a phantasmagoria. Director Michael Arden and I sought to create a shape-shifting, unreliable landscape through which the great Jefferson Mays leads us, as he careens down a psychological wormhole from alienation to absolution. From the standpoint of scale, especially for a play rather than a musical, the design is large and complex. Expensive, certainly.
But does that make A Christmas Carol more Broadway-worthy than Parade?
Parade began as a concert presentation at New York City Center, playing a total of seven performances, with limited parameters for the physical production. It was not a foregone conclusion that the show would transfer to Broadway. And when that transfer came about, our design vocabulary was not dictated to us based on what had been at City Center. But we did feel that our first outing of the show was a successful experience that taught us what we were trying to make. We had created a physical space that allowed us to tell the story in a way that felt urgent and contemporary, and avoided the pitfalls of an overly literal approach.
Parade is challenging material—a theatricalization of an immensely troubling chapter in American history. The story of Leo Frank cannot be told without confronting the question of how to reenact violent anti-Semitism and systemic racism on stage. If kitchen sink naturalism were to be applied to Parade, where does that leave the creative team, the actors, or the audience in a piece where the protagonist meets his end by being lynched? If you have the naturalistically rendered tree, do you not need to hang Leo Frank from it? If we had created a realistic vocabulary for our production, we would have inevitably concluded with a blunt act of violence that the audience found shocking but knew to be false.
Our production is visceral because it is metaphorical; the violence is affecting because of what we don’t show.
In considering how best to manifest Parade onstage, Michael Arden, the other designers, and I took a distilled and historically detailed approach. We use real photographs, juxtaposing images of the actual people next to the characters depicting them. We did not feel the need for representational architecture. Instead, we built a vessel to hold a living, breathing landscape of people: our extraordinary company, who stand in for an entire society at its breaking point. Prioritizing simplicity allows us to move at the lighting speed of the story.
An entirely new set was constructed for the Broadway production, re-scaled and reshaped to sit organically in the Jacobs Theatre. There’s a far greater level of detail to its every aspect. But it continues to be the design we originally intended: simple. Wholly non-naturalistic. The space we deemed the best possible container for our telling of the story.
This is the art part of the conversation, but that leaves the other crucial piece: money. To talk about money in the American theatre is to talk about priorities: how to weigh multiple needs and multiple ideas, how to fold in economic realities.
In partnership with Michael Arden, I am a co-producer on Parade. This means that in addition to an artistic responsibility to the show, I also have a financial responsibility to our investors and, in turn, to the entire company. From the beginning, it mattered to us that we build Parade on a responsible financial foundation—one that offers stability to artists and investors alike. As with many shows on Broadway, our run is limited (until August 6), our financial landscape finite. Would more money for extravagant scenic design be worth, say, a smaller orchestra? A smaller cast? Fewer swings, who ensure we can perform nightly even in the face of a pandemic? Or should we demand to have it all, and risk the stability of the show? A stability that allows the artists involved in the production to feel assured they will be able to work the full number of weeks promised.
I feel strongly that those of us lucky enough to work on Broadway owe our audiences a thrilling evening in the theatre. And I believe that great set design is a crucial aspect of making memorable theatrical events. But design must evolve to meet the moment, and its evolution must not be limited by an outdated idea that excess equals worth.
Audiences can be thrilled in many ways, not least of which is by encountering resonant stories, crafted by artists who are able to identify and stay true to what each individual show requires. Whether we are creating complex moving pieces of architecture or the simplest of vessels, in every case, we are working to create theatrical events worthy of Broadway.
Dane Laffrey is a Tony-nominated scenic and costume designer based in New York. His Broadway credits include Fool For Love, Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, Once On This Island, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Parade.