What’s on Jessica Chastain’s mind as she spins onstage? Plus: Ben Platt’s silence, the “Fat Ham” ghost, the “Shucked” corn dance and all that “Sweeney” blood.
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By Michael Paulson
Theater, at its best, is a form of magic — it enchants us, transforms us and often makes us wonder, “How do they do that?”
On Broadway, where craft is polished and spectacle is heightened, there is much at which to marvel. So this spring, now that all the 2022-23 plays and musicals have opened, we have once again asked a few of the Tony-nominated shows to let us peek behind the metaphorical curtain, exploring how they came up with, and pulled off, some of the sensational stagecraft that caught our attention this season.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
A Doll’s House
Before Showtime, a Spin Around the Stage
The show begins before it begins. Twenty minutes ahead of each performance of “A Doll’s House,” as ticket holders are taking their seats at the Hudson Theater, a curtain rises to reveal the play’s star, Jessica Chastain, slumped in an ash Ercol stacking chair, slowly revolving around the bare stage.
The wordless preshow — a big Hollywood star silently spinning — was born of an impulse. The revival’s director, Jamie Lloyd, had long thought he wanted to restrict Chastain’s movement in some way, as a visual metaphor for the way her character, Nora Helmer, feels stuck as a woman and a wife.
An early readthrough in Chastain’s apartment planted the seed of the idea: She did the reading from her armchair, prompting a transfixed Lloyd to suggest she consider performing the play that way. To his surprise, she agreed, and then one-upped him with a joke that turned serious: Perhaps she could already be in the chair, as if Nora had long been there, when the audience arrived.
“I wanted it to feel like I’ve been sitting there for years,” she said, “and haven’t fully woken up to the possibilities.”
And why does she rotate? Lloyd said that concept was central to the show’s design. “It’s a very political play — that’s why it’s endured — but it’s also very psychological, about someone spiraling out of control,” he said. “There is something disorienting about the experience she goes on.”
The preshow sit-and-spin, conceived as a metaphor, has also paid tangible dividends: It has forestalled entrance applause, and it has allowed fans to get their Instagramming out of the way (photography is permitted until the show begins).
“Everyone has their moment of looking at Jessica Chastain and taking pictures, and then that dissipates, so by the end of the preshow they see Nora,” Chastain said. “I want them to let go of the celebrity baggage they are carrying.”
There is, admittedly, some discomfort, and not just because Chastain finds the chair uncomfortable.
“I feel like I can’t hide — people can film and take pictures and see every part of me,” she said, “and it makes me feel like an object they are studying.”
Meanwhile, she is studying them back.
“The second it starts, I start making eye contact with people, and I really connect to them, and I actually send them messages,” she said.
On occasion, she’ll see someone she recognizes, or someone who tries to get her attention. She tries hard not to react, at least not visibly. “I don’t wave, I don’t change my body position, and I don’t smile,” she said. “I don’t do things separate from Nora, but I connect to them.”
“I fill myself up with the energy that I’m receiving, and by the end of the preshow, I am completely open,” she added. “I feel so open to the room. I feel so open to the emotions that show up. And I feel that’s because we are all on this psychological journey together.”
The Barber and the Bloodshed
“I’ve murdered many, many people on Broadway,” Jeremy Chernick said, before clarifying: “Fake-murdered.”
Chernick is the special-effects designer for “Sweeney Todd,” in which the vengeful barber played by Josh Groban kills a bunch of people whose bodies are then baked into pies by his loving landlady (Annaleigh Ashford).
The gruesome homicides (most of the show’s nine deaths are by throat-slitting) provide a series of logistical challenges for any team that stages this classic show, which features songs by Stephen Sondheim. Here’s how this production’s creative team addressed them.
The Chair: Sweeney kills his customers in a barber chair, then dumps their bodies into a chute that leads to the pie shop oven. The revival’s set designer, Mimi Lien, said her top priority was safety, because in some earlier productions of the classic musical, actors have been injured while being ejected from the chair.
Lien designed a Victorian cast-iron chair, upholstered in oxblood-red synthetic leather. Many of her aesthetic choices were driven by functional concerns: the fabric needed to be smooth and slippery, so the bodies would slide easily, and both the fabric and arms of the chair needed to be simple (no tufting, for example, or textured leathers) to avoid creating opportunities for costumes to snag or blood to pool.
The chair has hinges and levers that allow it to flatten, like a gurney. Each time a customer is killed, Groban flattens the chair, swivels it into place (the creative team thought body-dumping would look best in profile) and raises it to a 45-degree angle, releasing the actor through an open trap door. (They go feetfirst; Lien thought a headfirst maneuver would look more dramatic but abandoned the idea over safety concerns.)
The actors fall about four or five feet into a padded area, not visible to the audience, where there are crew members waiting to help them offstage and, if necessary, out of their costumes.
The Blood: Chernick chose Nick Dudman’s “Pigs Might Fly,” a sugar-based, washable stage blood. Chernick said he liked that the blood is sticky, rather than slippery, to reduce stage hazards. “A huge part of my job is figuring out how the show goes on after blood is everywhere,” he said.
Many productions of “Sweeney Todd” have furnished the title character with a razor blade that squirts blood, but, Chernick said, “the modern audience wants more blood than can fit in a razor blade,” so he chose instead to build a blood vessel into the barber capes worn by customers, and the actors trigger the spurt of blood as their characters are killed. Each death requires about a tennis ball’s volume of blood, Chernick said; the customer capes are sprayed with water to make the blood soak in more effectively.
“We worked on quantity through previews,” Chernick said, “to thread the needle between what gets a reaction from the audience and what is distracting and gross.”
The Cleanup: Once the actors are offstage, their bloody clothing is removed and brought to a laundry room in the theater basement. There are three washing machines, three dryers, a slop sink and tubs where cotton garments are soaked (the blood comes out of polyester items more easily). Some of the clothing is hosed down as soon as it comes off a performer’s body. There are spares for two-show days.
“I’ve done many, many Broadway shows, but this is my first show dealing with blood on this scale,” said Jesse Galvan, the wardrobe supervisor. “It does create some challenges — blood splatters, so we’re always on the lookout for blood on costumes in random places.”
Groban, the show’s star, said the effects are key to making the show work.
“It’s such an amazing reaction when people see the chair happening for the first time, or the blood coming out for the first time,” he said. “And it’s a lot of fun for me. My hands are doing these dark, twisted things while the singing is pretty romantic, and I think that’s the rub that Sondheim had in mind.”
Imprisoned at Intermission
“Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.”
As Act One of “Parade” ends, the main character, a Jewish businessman named Leo Frank, is convicted of killing a young girl. It is 1913 in Georgia; the case has been skewed by antisemitism, and Frank is sentenced to death by hanging.
Then it’s intermission.
Ben Platt, who plays Frank, remains onstage. Heremoves his clothes and dons a prison uniform. And for about 15 minutes, he sitsas if in acell, atop a 13-by-13-foot platform at center stage, silent.
“There’s so much ground to cover in the show, there’s no time to dwell on the literal truth that this man had to spend the end of his life in isolation,” Platt said. “And for me, no matter what is happening emotionally, this is always a time within the show that’s only devoted to thinking about that.”
Platt’s wordless presence throughout the intermission — a period of time when two years elapse — has become one of the most talked-about elements of the show, in part because it feels like a feat of concentration, and in part because it can be photographed, so it winds up on TikTok and other social media.
“Parade” is based on history, and this staging was the idea of the revival’s director, Michael Arden.
“It was just this strange fever-dream hunch that I had: this image of Ben sitting onstage, being trapped on what would be his gallows,” Arden said. “I wanted to challenge the audience, when they’re getting their cocktail or texting their friends or talking about what they’re having for dinner, to look back and see Ben onstage, and to get a sense that while the world was turning, this man was sitting in a prison cell.”
Some patrons sit quietly in their seats, as if keeping vigil with the character; many get up to take pictures, and some have tried to get Platt’s attention.
“There are times when someone says ‘Ben, I’ll give you $100 if you turn around,’ or ‘Ben, I love you,’ but it’s a rare occurrence, and people generally get the hint,” Platt said. “I try to dissociate, so that I’m not sure what they’re doing.”
Platt said that, when the idea was first floated to him, he had lots of questions. Would someone bring him water? (Yes.) Would he have to remain still? (No — sometimes he lies on a bench.) The rest was up to him.
“There are days when I can stay entirely immersed in the story, and am very much being Leo, and feeling stuck, and there are days when I’m fatigued, and I have to concentrate on making it through the period,” he said. “But the physical manifestation is always the same time: I sit there with myself.”
Sarah O’Gleby, sleep-addled because she’s raising a toddler, awoke with one of those sparks that might be insane or might be inspired: She remembered that scene from Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 movie, “The Gold Rush,” in which the comedian stabs two bread rolls with forks and uses them to perform a tabletop routine.
O’Gleby, the choreographer for “Shucked,” had been feeling dissatisfied with her musical’s opening number, which didn’t quite have the go-for-broke vibe of the zany country-music-plus-corn-jokes production to follow. Chaplin’s antics got her thinking.
“It just popped into my head: I wonder if there’s anything we could do with corncobs,” she said. “So I brought a bunch of dancers into a room to play, and when I saw a wall of actors doing a Rockette kickline with corncobs, it made me giggle — it just seemed silly and ludicrous and it made me smile.”
That’s how the show’s corn kickline was born. And yes, it’s a corn kickline — 14 actors, holding 28 corncobs, lined up at the lip of the stage, making those cobs dance atop planks of kiln-dried ash.
Training the performers, most of whom are not dancers, took time — the routine combines elements of vaudeville, tap and percussion. “It was the first thing we taught the cast when we started rehearsing for Broadway, and many of them were like, ‘What is this?’” she said. “I said, ‘Come on: Open hearts and open minds!’ We had to build up very slowly for them to be at the speed they’re at now.”
Designing the cobs — sorry, they’re synthetic — also proved challenging. The plastic ones the show first tried smashed after a few uses, so the prop team fabricated 9-inch, yellow, huskless cobs from an impact-resistant resin that could survive eight shows a week. The cobs are heavy, to ensure a percussive sound, and the show’s designers incorporated large pockets into the costumes to hold them.
The 20-second kickline has become a signature of the show, helping to establish its playful, pun-drenched and corn-themed tone.
“We’re trying to say to the audience, ‘This is the type of night you’re in for’,” O’Gleby said. “It’s going to be light and buoyant, and we’re going to have a lovely time with each other, and we hope you have a lovely time with us.”
Is This Ghost Invited to the Barbecue?
“Hamlet” is filled with famous characters. One of them is dead.
The ghost of the title character’s father plays a key role in spurring the action of the Shakespeare play, and the same is true in “Fat Ham,” James Ijames’s Pulitzer-winning riff on the classic, now relocated to the North Carolina backyard of a family that runs a barbecue joint.
The new play’s director, Saheem Ali, said he knew as soon as he read the script that he wanted to find a way to nod to Shakespeare, but also to acknowledge the irreverent tone of “Fat Ham.”
“In ‘Hamlet,’ the ghost is usually really scary — you have to feel the impact of the supernatural — but we’re in a comedy, so it also needs a lightness,” he said. “It’s a ghost with a wink.”
And how to find someone who could help with conjuring the supernatural? Ali turned, not surprisingly, to the team behind “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” — a play packed with stage magic — and found Skylar Fox, who oversees magic for the American productions of “Cursed Child,” and who now also handles illusions design for “Fat Ham.”
“Ghosts come up a lot in making magic for theater, and I’ve done it a few times,” Fox said. “As audiences get smarter and smarter about how the world works, it’s harder and harder to surprise them, but that’s what makes trying to do it exciting.”
The “Fat Ham” ghost — he’s called Pap — appears three times, emitting a vapor that gives him a kind of spectral otherworldliness, but also connects him to the smoking of meat that was his livelihood.
Ijames’s script says that the first time the ghost appears, he has a classic ghost costume: “a bed sheet with eye holes cut out.” But Ali and Fox made a slight adjustment: For that first appearance, the ghost is covered not with a bed sheet, but with a red gingham tablecloth, the sort that might be found at a barbecue.
The second time the ghost appears, he emerges from a box of party supplies, and the third time, he pops out of the grill itself.
“For such silly moments, there was a lot of thought put into the why,” Fox said. “This is a house that is both familiar and alienating, and there is this residual trauma sitting in everything, but we approached that with a bit of a cocked head and a light touch.”
The videos above of Jessica Chastain were captured at a slower frame rate.
Michael Paulson is the theater reporter. He previously covered religion, and was part of the Boston Globe team whose coverage of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. @MichaelPaulson
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