For set designer Beowulf Boritt, design has nearly no limits. “I’m not afraid to be quite bold” says Boritt. “I often have intense color in my design.”
Boritt, whose work includes The Scottsboro Boys and POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive, came to the profession through a literature degree, but he possessed a designer’s instinct from birth. His grandmother, Anita Marie Wilson Norseen Hooker, had attempted to pursue a career in design while attending Wellesley College. She won first place in a national design competition for Marshall Fields, before being told by her father that it was inappropriate for a woman to pursue such a career in the 1930s.
“She channeled her artistry into gardens,” says Boritt, “She lived on a 40-acre farm outside of Boston, with the most exquisite garden you have ever seen. It is in the Smithsonian registry of American Gardens; it won prizes. As a kid, I spent summers there, and it instilled in me this sense of design as a way of life.”
After obtaining his B.A. in Literature from Vassar College, Boritt made his way to NYU Tisch, where he encountered famed producer-director Harold Prince at a clambake. Prince was quickly impressed with Boritt's set models.
“There was Hal Prince, pushing a little button on one of my models that made a turntable spin. He had this childlike delight about it," recalls Boritt. Prince eventually hired Boritt on his Broadway musical LoveMusik: “As a young designer, designing for Hal for the first time was so terrifying that I was in a constant state of terror throughout the entire thing.”
LoveMusik, based on the lives and love of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, was Prince’s final original Broadway musical. Starring Tony winners Donna Murphy and Michael Cerveris, it spanned a period of 25 years, and an immense amount of pressure was put on the then-37-year-old Boritt to marry the historical setting to a fantastical world. He decided to go bold.
“There was a day when I went home, and I just painted the whole set red; bright red. And then I painted all of the things that would go into it black. I thought he was either going to fire me, or he was going to love it," recalls Boritt. "Thankfully, he completely fell in love with it.”
One particular moment in LoveMusik, which arrives at the end of the song, "It Never Was You," stands out to Boritt still (even 27 Broadway shows later). Weill, suspended in a moment of indecision, is trapped by an ever-tightening spotlight as the surrounding set seems to close in on him. As the final note, wrung from an empty well of longing, rang throughout the theatre, a sudden shockwave was sent as the suitcase in his hand fell open, sending its contents flying out onto the stage deck. According to Boritt, those five seconds were one of Prince's favorite sequences, and the designer had to help construct a suitcase that would burst open on cue.
“Honestly, sitting in his office, I thought that just sounded weird, but I wasn’t going to fight with him about it," admits Boritt. "I made sure we had a suitcase that could pop open easily; Michael Cerveris just had to hit a little button, and it would fall open. But as soon as I saw it, I got it. It was my favorite moment in the show."
What Boritt learned was the importance of trusting your instincts, even when others may not understand your vision. "To be brave enough to put things on stage that don’t quite make sense, but which makes emotional sense. You have to have the courage to follow that instinct that says this feels right," he says.
From that seminal mentorship by Prince, Boritt became one of the most in demand designers in the industry; besides 27 Broadway shows, he's designed hundreds of regional productions.
Now Boritt is back on Broadway with The Piano Lesson, where he designed a two-story house that is ripped apart into three pieces and an intricate piano filled with carvings of the characters' ancestors.
Boritt recently released his first book, Transforming Space Over Time. In it, he explores the expectation that historically based sets have to be historically accurate (“I’m an artist, not an anthropologist.”), his relationship with the many directors he has worked with (“[Susan] Stroman ratchets up the stakes and the delightfulness until you can’t really believe the brilliance you’re watching.”), and his advice for young designers seeking to remake the mold.
Oh, and as for his grandmother, whose design dreams had been stymied? “She died in 2014, at 100," says Boritt. "One of the last pictures I have with her was from when I was showing her the set model for Act One, after I won the Tony Award. She was so proud that I had really done it.”