Three-time Tony-winning scenic designer Robin Wagner passed away in his sleep May 29. He was 89.
Born in San Francisco August 31, 1933, Mr. Wagner rose from humble beginnings to become a purveyor of technological marvels, automating American theatrical set design and setting the standard for the latter half of the 20th century.
Rather than relying on the traditional "fourth wall" box sets utilized by earlier designers, Mr. Wagner favored movement, with many designs changing in full view of an audience rather than relying on a blackout to hide the set change. In order to achieve this effect, Mr. Wagner relied on now-standard automation rather than the manual moving of set pieces, and it is through Mr. Wagner's influence that many of those technological advancements have been incorporated into theatrical scenic design both on Broadway and abroad.
Making his Broadway debut in 1961 as an assistant to Life Achievement Tony honored designer Ben Edwards, Mr. Wagner leapt into the public consciousness in the late 1960s, when he designed the set for the landmark rock musical Hair. His design, which utilized structural scaffolding and significant amounts of negative space, was considered uniquely spare, removing the show from a strictly defined time and place.
While Mr. Wagner would use similarly spare designs in other productions throughout his career—notably the original production of A Chorus Line, one of his rare unit sets—he was equally capable of lush excess. His designs for On The Twentieth Century were divinely detailed, ranging from the gleaming 20th Century Limited train, to the art deco-inspired suites within. In the original production of Dreamgirls, he worked closely with lighting designer Tharon Musser and director-choreographer Michael Bennett to produce light towers that were ever in motion, shifting to delineate space in the darkness.
Mr. Wagner was nominated for 10 Tony awards, winning for On The Twentieth Century, City of Angels, and The Producers. His final Broadway design came in 2012, when he designed the short-lived musical Leap of Faith. In total, Mr. Wagner worked on 63 different Broadway productions, with his credits including the original Broadway productions of Promises, Promises; Crazy For You; Jesus Christ Superstar; 42nd Street; Angels in America; Victor/Victoria; The Boy From Oz; and Young Frankenstein.
Mr. Wagner is survived by his partner, Susan Kowal; his three children, Kurt, Leslie, and Christie; granddaughter, Clementine Lee; and his ex-wives Joyce Wagner and producer Paula Wagner.