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Robin Wagner: A Career Designed to Impress

Ellis Nassour • January 2020Master Artist • January 5, 2020

Robin Wagner, a spry 86 and celebrating more than a half century as a scenic designer, speaks in revered tones of working in theater. “One of the great things about being in this business, and especially being a scenic designer, is that sense of feeling reborn with every show. Each has new characters, new stories, new environments—and, most of all, new opportunities to help bring a piece of theater to life. It’s so true. And then there are the people you collaborate with who become not only friends but part of your family, part of your legacy.”

Without a doubt, it’s fair to say Wagner is one of contemporary American theater’s most successful and respected scenic designers. He has over 55 solo Broadway credits (since 1966’s short-lived The Condemned of Altona), 17 Off-Broadway shows (1960-2015), shows on the West End, in regional theaters, operas all over the globe, rock concerts (including a tour with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones) and ballet, which he loved doing but says he was never good at. [You might doubt that because Jerome Robbins always highly praised their collaborations.] “I enjoyed the freedom I was given designing ballet and opera,” states Wagner, “but its theater that had the magic, especially musical comedy. It’s what I liked most; what I related to.”

Design Innovation

Wagner was one of the go-to designers in the ’70s and ’80s. He was an innovator. His sets, often minimal, were technologically exciting, visually stimulating, and kinetic. With his roster of shows you might think he frantically designed show after show. “I didn’t. I think too long; take too long,” he says. “I’d oversee everything from the building at the shops, what type of paint and materials to use, the load-in, and what goes where in the flies. I never wanted to do more than two or three shows a season because you give up your life, even after opening night.”

He talks of his work process as a well-oiled machine. “I start with the book. If it’s a musical, I hear the music. Then, I meet with the director and hear their visual connection. I read the play or book umpteen times until I know every line. I read it through with directors. It develops from there.”

Wagner found it more gratifying to work with models than to sketch. “I’d start with a simple quarter-inch scale model, like a toy theater, with cardboard cut into props which I could move about freely. Sometimes, I throw them out and start over. As ideas evolve—and I have a better idea of what the show is—I keep making models until I have one I like, then I go to half-inch scale. It can take six months. That’s when the models come to life. Then you see them onstage, and you walk around in them. That’s magic time.”

After a show opens, with all his energy spent, he states, “You feel like you’ve been in a cave. It was great, exciting, but you need to get away, unwind. I couldn’t wait!” Wagner passed up jobs in order to extend travel. “The only continent I haven’t set foot on is Antarctica. Each country, each culture invigorated me—expanded my outlook.” After his second marriage and the birth of his three children, “I was adamant about keeping summers free because that was my only time with them.”

A Rewarding Profession

Wagner, a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame and nominated for 10 Tony Awards—with wins for On the Twentieth Century (1978), City of Angels (1990), and The Producers (2001), is beloved by all who’ve worked with him. He’s tall (6-foot 1-inch) and lanky, warm, and friendly, and possesses a wry sense of humor. His memory is startling. He’s able to recall in minute detail any show he designed, what materials and shops he used.

He also has a sentimental streak. When discussing Michael Bennett, with whom he collaborated on five shows, he choked up recalling the joy and excitement he brought to projects. “Michael was one of the most gracious human beings. Above all else, he was loyal and generous. He helped so many people get started and was always there when needed. When A Chorus Line became a smash, he shared it with everyone. It was the same with all his shows.” 

Wagner lives in the center of Greenwich Village, but still keeps office hours several times a week at his studio at 890 Broadway, the building Bennett bought at the height of his success for rehearsal studios. It’s crammed with design awards from around the world and countless drawers of designs, sketches, blueprints, and a wall of 50 framed window cards of shows he designed. That’s only a fraction of his archive, most of which is stored in Connecticut. He is generous with his time, and always eager to meet with young designers. 

Drawing a Career Path

Always the dapper dresser, you might mistake him for anyone but a theater designer. Maybe that’s because growing up in San Francisco, he never had any interest in theater. He’s the son of a Danish-born marine engineer and a New Zealand–born classical pianist who gave up music when she moved to the States to raise her children. Wagner says. “I was a dreamer and encouraged to draw. We moved about quite a bit because of dad’s work. Drawing became my refuge.” 

When he saw theater as a child, “what grabbed me were the magical moments, but I never had dreams of becoming a scenic designer.” Instead, he attended art school, and that’s how he “accidentally stumbled into theater.” 

“It was 1955. I was 20. I had no formal training. I loved going to theater and wanted to figure a way to be around it. I got a job running a light board at San Francisco’s Theatre Arts Colony. Then, I worked with the Actors’ Workshop on a production of Waiting for Godot. We gave one performance at San Quentin, which received a lot of press, and were invited to Expo ’58, the Brussels World’s Fair, representing American regional theater. On the way back, we stopped in New York. And you can’t come to New York and not want to stay.”

He stayed. Doors opened off Broadway, where he brought fresh ideas. It wasn’t long before he was noticed and brought aboard to assist 24-time Tony nominee (nine wins) Oliver Smith on such shows as My Fair Lady and Hello, Dolly; and 14-time Tony nominee Ben Edwards [10 nominations for scenic design]. “That was my education, my training!

Author and theater professor Arnold Aronson wrote, “Wagner never formulated an approach or sense of the right way to design. He took risks and tried almost anything. He approached his work asking, ‘How do I do something that makes the hair rise on the back of audiences’ necks?’ He constantly challenged his imagination.”

As times changed, Wagner moved away from flats and drops to large-scale, fast-moving, automated scenery. His design for Burt Bacharach, Hal David, and Neil Simon’s 1968 Promises, Promises (based on the film, The Apartment) was the first totally automated show on Broadway.

Altering the Look of Theater

His breakout came working Off, Off-Broadway with his friend and neighbor at the Chelsea Hotel, avant-garde master and enfant terriblé Tom O’Horgan. In 1968, when Joe Papp decided to move Hair from the Public Theater to Broadway with producer Michael Butler, they opted for a totally new production. “They brought in Tom to rethink it,” points out Wagner. “And did he! Did we! It was a massive overhaul and was a fun collaboration.” Wagner is not shy about admitting that most of his set design was anything he and the hippies in the cast could find on the street. The design altered the look of American theater forever.

A Chorus Line was his favorite set, “because it was simple. The type of simple that took two years’ work, and Michael and I constantly distilling the elements. Finally, we realized we could do the whole show with nothing but a line on the floor. That was the real beginning. We knew we just needed a black box to represent the theater, and mirrors to represent the dance studio.”

His most talked about, perhaps, most puzzling set was for Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. “I could write a book about that one.” It was his third time working with O’Horgan on Broadway. “We were at the point where we could finish each other’s sentences, thoughts, but Superstar became the exception—at first.”

Finding the Essence of the Design

Frank Corsaro was set to direct, but early in development, he was sidelined following an auto accident. Recalls Wagner: “When it appeared that he wouldn’t be able to return soon, producer and music mogul Robert Stigwood, decided not to delay production. Wagner was already signed on and collaborated with Corsaro on a design. Randy Barcelo had designed costumes. O’Horgan had a smash with Hair on the West End, which Stigwood produced (assisted by none other than Harvey Milk); and he had a hit running on Broadway with Julian Barry’s controversial Lenny, the life of provocateur comedian Lenny Bruce, starring the brilliant Cliff Gorman and giant puppets by Jane Stein.

“Stigy brought Tom in,” he says. Everything was to be scrapped. O’Horgan would start from scratch. “However, Superstar wasn’t Hair. There were hippies galore in both shows, but Hair was as freewheeling as could be. Superstar, sung through and based on a record, was heavily structured.” When Stigwood asked O’Horgan to discuss his concept, the director quipped, “It’s all in my head.” When asked to see storyboards, the director again quipped, “It’s all in my head.” In fact, it wasn’t. He was stumped.

Looking for inspiration, O’Horgan listened to the rock opera over and over, read and reread the lyrics. Nothing came. He and Wagner went to see a French sci-fi documentary that was drawing crowds. “It was as scary as the scariest horror movie,” laughs Wagner, “but it was visually stunning. The premise was that the savagery and efficiency of insects could lead them to take over the world. We were blown away. Tom asked, ‘What about this as our concept, insects as a super race who take over the world and put on the passion play?’” 

Wagner replied, “I’ll see what I can come up with.” He thought the next day would bring another idea. It brought a visit to the Museum of Natural History to catch an exhibit on giant protozoa. O’Horgan, all excited, blurted, “Robin, how’s this? Reflect nature in the sets. For “Hosanna”, I want the company carrying poles with all manner of protozoa as they dance waving palms into Jerusalem.” And that was the inspiration for the design that won Wagner his first Tony nomination. 

No one who saw Jesus Christ Superstar has forgotten the proscenium-wide wall with scantily-clad bodies in nets that lowered as if hinged to the footlights to become the stage; or Twentieth Century’s 6,000-pound logo “curtain” of Formica-covered plywood and its Art Deco train hurtling across the night sky and down the track toward the audience; or the mylar mirrors of A Chorus Line that descended from the flies to put the audience into the show; or Dreamgirls’ seven constantly moving, pivoting steel towers filled with lights and designed so the actors could climb up and fly out; or…

“Theater,” states Wagner,” has been my passion. I could never get away from it. I wouldn’t know what else to do, short of opening a taco stand in Baja (California). It’s always been exciting. I still get chills when I see something great. I don’t know any other place where that can happen.”

Robin Wagner immensely achieved his goal of making the hair rise on the back of audiences’ necks. 

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