Robin Wagner dies; visionary set designer dressed up Broadway


Robin Wagner, the legendary Broadway set designer who created the stage worlds of “The Producers,” “Angels in America,” “Loopy for You,” “Hair,” “Dreamgirls” and dozens extra, framed “ A Refrain Line” in black velour and mirrors, and as soon as plopped Mick Jagger within the heart of a chromium lotus for the Stones’ 1975 Tour of the Americas, has died at his Manhattan residence.

Wagner, who died in his sleep Might 29, was 89.

His theatrical output was staggering. Between 1961 and 2012, he designed 63 Broadway performs and musicals, in line with his daughter Christie Wagner Lee, garnering Tony Awards for the unique Broadway productions of “The Producers,” “On the Twentieth Century” and “Metropolis of Angels.” One other seven of his exhibits introduced him Tony nominations.

The flexibility of his work was equally spectacular. For Larry Gelbart’s “Metropolis of Angels,” a musical comedy thriller about non-public eyes, moviemaking and Hollywood romance, he got here up with 46 scene adjustments — one each three or 4 minutes. “A Refrain Line’s” set was so minimal, he favored to say, that when you added the white line on the ground, “That’s all you wanted to do the present. You may do it in a car parking zone.”

“Return to Shakespeare,” Wagner would usually say. “Within the first seven traces of ‘Hamlet,’ you be taught every thing it’s essential know — the place, time, climate, scenario and all of the characters’ names. I begin with the precept that every thing has to earn its place on the stage. If it doesn’t must be there, you eliminate it.”

“Robin Wagner was a real artist and an artist who discovered himself in essentially the most collaborative of artwork kinds — musical theater,” mentioned Tony-winning director and choreographer Susan Stroman, a frequent collaborator. “I used to be fortunate to have labored with Robin many occasions as each a director and choreographer on exhibits together with ‘Loopy for You’ and ‘The Producers.’ He was a grasp at designing units that moved and always pushed the plot ahead. He had the soul of a dancer, becoming for the person who designed ‘A Refrain Line.’”

Wagner additionally designed ballet units, together with one for Stroman’s ballet “Double Characteristic” on the New York Metropolis Ballet. His opera units graced phases on the Metropolitan Opera, Swedish Royal Opera, Hamburg State Opera, Vienna State Opera and the Royal Opera at Covent Backyard.

Tall and dapper, Wagner often dressed as if he have been going to work in an workplace, not the theater. His properly polished sneakers crunched wooden shavings the place units have been being assembled, and his sports activities jacket and tie have been in sharp distinction to the denims most of his colleagues have been sporting.

However Wagner thought like an artist. “Once I’m studying the script, I can see the way it all suits collectively and the way you get from one scene to a different,” he mentioned at one level. “I suppose that’s what makes designers designers — they visualize issues a sure approach. Writers see phrases and paragraphs — we see little photos.”

Robin Wagner was born Aug. 31, 1933, in San Francisco. His father was a lighthouse keeper, his mom a live performance pianist from New Zealand, and he recalled attending 25 faculties in each the US and New Zealand throughout his youth. He went to motion pictures as a baby, he mentioned, however not performs. As an adolescent attempting to impress his ballerina girlfriend, he as soon as volunteered to color toe sneakers on the window of her trainer’s studio, discovered he may really draw, and went off to artwork faculty.

He by no means formally studied theater design. “I went to artwork faculty and studied sketching, began shopping for books about theater and sneaking backstage,” mentioned Wagner. “However I by no means acquired formal design coaching. I used to be taught by administrators.”

He left San Francisco for New York with a buddy in 1957. “We arrived on the previous thirty fourth Avenue Terminal round 5 a.m.,” he as soon as informed a theater viewers, “and the one place we wished to go was to Broadway. So we ran to Occasions Sq. and grabbed some espresso so we may watch the solar rise in Shubert Alley. I had no concept if I’d ever work within the theater in New York, however that was my road of desires. And I nonetheless get excited once I stroll throughout that alley.”

He quickly began doing work off-Broadway. He labored on 27 off-Broadway exhibits, and mentioned that when the regional theater motion started, it proved an important coaching floor. He managed to work for Oliver Smith, who had designed “Brigadoon” and the unique “My Honest Woman,” the primary Broadway present Wagner ever noticed. He spent 5 years with Smith and mentioned he discovered every thing about musicals from him.

Wagner listened to his administrators. The largest downside for a set designer, he informed The Occasions, was “the way you get into the director’s head and create the ship he has to steer. He’s the captain. You’re simply the engineer throwing coal into the engine.”

Wagner usually used a ship metaphor. He noticed exhibits as ships, with administrators as captains, and “the captain is at all times proper. There must be a single imaginative and prescient, If you happen to can’t make his imaginative and prescient come to life, the present received’t work. It’s like a heartbeat.

“There are 1,000 transferring components. And simply while you assume you’re on high of it, some half blows out and it’s a must to rebuild it. It’s like a effervescent soup and also you attempt to dance on it. However you by no means know when it’s going to boil over. And all people’s hungry.”

His three kids have all labored within the arts. His daughter Christie, named after the central character in “The Playboy of the Western World,” the play he was engaged on when she was born, has been a director and producer and sometimes labored with him. His son, Kurt, is an architectural lighting designer and his older daughter, Leslie, named after Leslie Howard, is a painter.

Requested why all of them wound up within the arts sooner or later, Christie replied, “It was one thing he would get enthusiastic about, and backstage was a snug place to be. He took us to load-ins on the theaters, and we watched rehearsals. My first present was ‘Hair’ once I was 5. He took us to the store to have a look at surroundings and to portray studios. He didn’t have a studio but after we have been younger, so we have been at all times round.”

Within the early to mid-Nineteen Seventies, Wagner’s design studio was in the course of the household’s condominium, recalled his second spouse, movie and theater producer Paula Wagner. “On reflection, it was nice that I acquired to see the evolution of his course of. Good is a phrase we use too liberally, however it utilized to Robin in each approach. He was equally adept with spectacle and ease, and he may have each extremes in a single present. He just about redefined what set design was.”

Later, Wagner labored in a sunny nook studio at 890 Broadway, a spot the place Broadway musicals have rehearsed for years. Previous drawings have been in drawers, blueprints have been tacked up on the partitions and fashions neatly assembled both on high of tables or on cabinets under.

David Peterson, now resident scenic designer on the Metropolitan Opera, was Wagner’s studio assistant for 27 years, leaving in 2017 when Wagner closed the workplace. “Robin labored with the perfect within the enterprise,” mentioned Peterson. “Not simply administrators however choreographers, different designers, the retailers. As an issue solver, he was unparalleled. He was so good. He did the work, and like different high professionals, he made it look simple.”

Simple it wasn’t, mentioned Neil Mazzella, CEO of Hudson Scenic Studio in Yonkers, which did 22 Broadway exhibits with Wagner. “Each time he did a present, he challenged himself and everybody else who was a part of it. Not each problem he gave us labored — the excessive gloss on ‘Saturday Night time Fever’s’ dance flooring and ceiling was a nightmare, as an illustration — however we did it anyway.”

Wagner was a fanatical researcher and reader. His bookshelves have been stuffed with books on all kinds of topics. And for a movie-oriented present like “Metropolis of Angels” he estimated he sat by means of 100 motion pictures — a few of them six or seven occasions — to take in environment.

Motion pictures and books have been just the start. Daughter Leslie mentioned there have been rocks all around the home that he collected on his analysis travels, usually to unique locales. Every was labeled the place it was from, such because the rock he introduced again from a analysis journey to Israel for “Jesus Christ Celebrity.” He would usually share his analysis slides, rocks and tales together with his household.

For a few years, Wagner additionally hosted a get-together he referred to as the Bartender Bash, the place he would invite individuals from eating places and bars he frequented to his condominium and he and his son, Kurt, would wait on them. “It was an important evening,” recalled his longtime companion, Susan Kowal. “He was an important storyteller. The individuals who labored with him have been usually in awe of him, however all of them beloved working with him.”

Wagner is survived by his companion, Susan Kowal; his kids, Kurt Wagner, Leslie Wagner and Christie Wagner Lee; and a granddaughter, Clementine Lee.

Barbara Isenberg is the creator of “Making It Huge: The Diary of a Broadway Musical,” and a former Occasions employees author.


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