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The Lyric Theatre is Reborn for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Michael Eddy • Theatre Buzz • April 23, 2018

For Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the Lyric Theatre, a historic Broadway house in NYC, received some much need renovations to the auditorium and lobby, and even a bit of magic hit its 43rd Street entrance marquee. Working with a range of consultants, engineers, architects, and theatrical shops, the beautiful interior designs and the fantastical marquee were created by scenic designer for the production, Christine Jones and her associate scenic designer/international scenic supervisor for the show, Brett J. Banakis. See the transformation in this video as the cast sees the space for the first time and then scroll down to read Banakis’ inside perspective on this extraordinary aspect of the project in his own words.

While the impetus of this refurbishment was the arrival of Harry Potter and his legion of fans, the team also were mindful to harken back to the historical elements of the 1903 original Lyric Theatre. They have merged the magical Potterverse while still evoking the finishes and flourishes of an elegant Broadway theater. Stage Directions had the pleasure of speaking with Banakis about the process, inspirations, challenges, and solutions of this undertaking. 

A Theater’s History & Potter Merge
New Interior of the Broadway's Lyric Theatre 
When Christine and I created the set design for the show in London a lot of the elements for the stage—and the transition from the theater to the stage—took visual cues off what we were working with at the Palace Theatre in London. A lot of that design ended up reflecting some of the architecture of the Palace auditorium in how it met the stage; some of the color palette; some of the feel. 

Here at the Lyric, we have this existing set design we are bringing in, and we start to feedback in the other direction, so that the auditorium is now responding to the set. It was the opposite approach; creating the environment for the show. We wanted to not feel like we were doing a theme park-approach, or make it feel like you were in a set design. We want it to feel like an auditorium; a theater; we want to honor the fact that this is a home for this show—and eventually for other shows—so, the goal was to create an environment that, at first glance, just feels like a beautiful theater. As you look closer into the details you start to see how they marry into the stage design, then it really does feel like a cohesive visual event. 

There are little Easter eggs—moments of discovery—as you look closer around the space. One of my favorite things—when we did the show in London—was that we developed a series of sconces for on the stage, there are three different dragon types. Souvenir Scenic in London did a brilliant job, sculpting those and making these amazing creature sconces. When we worked now on the Lyric Theatre, we used Souvenir again to create a new bespoke sconce for the Lyric; we took our cues off the mystical creature, the Phoenix. 

The idea of rebirthing the Lyric Theatre, we thought, was a great symbol. All along the dress circle, you see these Phoenix sconces that are tied-in visually, to the sconces that we designed onstage, but are unique to this theater. On their breastplates are two Ls, facing opposite directions, for the Lyric Theatre. That insignia, which we repeat in details throughout, is taken from the original 1903 façade of the building. There’s little touches like that, that’re trying to marry the idea of this rebirth of the Lyric Theatre, bring the history of the theater along with the aesthetic approach that we’ve taken to the stage design
.Interior detail of the Lyric Theatre Built to Last

The project was on such an accelerated time schedule—we broke ground last May after we did a little bit of historic preservation work. The show started loading-in, last October, November, which is such a fast time to renovate a permanent structure. We had a lot of the trades overlapping. To save time, many pieces are pre-fabricated off-site and then installed in the theater.

The arches and barrel vaults overhead, the balcony fronts, the circle fronts, and opera box fronts—all those surfaces became these modular pieces that we subcontracted through Hudson Scenic Studios. We work with them on a lot of projects, so we know them well. We were able to work with the architects to determine materials, which are not the same as what you can use in a temporary set piece. So we all had an education there. Having things go through the scenic shop meant a lot of the finishes could be prepped beforehand. Then they could be brought in as modular pieces and installed, needing only some minor touch-up work afterwards, rather than doing all this plaster work on site.

As I mentioned we had to think about materials and finishes that need to last for years to come. As a set designer, we’re so used to creating temporary structures, temporary surfaces, and temporary environments but when you move into the world of architecture, suddenly, the grade of materials just completely changes. You must think about it being there for 10, 20, 50 years. I have to say it was a whole learning curve for making an architectural structure. We could have never done this without the amazing work of Marvel Architects that helped us with that process. They and Charcoalblue—the theater consultant on the project—just guiding us through all the steps to making this happen. Because we could never have done this on our own, obviously. In the lobby we worked with the architectural firm H3 as well; as the lobby was a separate project.
Detail of finish material in the Lyric Theatre

Looking Up
One of the things that I’m proud of in terms of the theater design, is how much we were able to hide a lot of the theatrical equipment. Most Broadway theaters are these over 100-year-old buildings, that don’t have a lot of modern equipment, or ways of supporting modern theatrical lighting or sound equipment. You sit in any Broadway theater, look up, and there’s all this black gear, equipment, trusses; just all this visual crap in the room. Audiences sort of let it go now; it’s just part of the Broadway experience.

Part of what we were trying to do is make as much of that go away, as possible. Not even in a way that you would recognize, but just that, when you look up, and look around, that you sensed splendor and grandeur, not equipment. With the ceiling that we suspended—the actual trusses that supported the ceiling—we designed the five main trusses that connect the ceiling together as walkable lighting trusses, that can be gotten to easily; to hang lights and equipment on, and rig sound from, but in a way that’s much more discreet.

We worked closely with Neil Austin, our lighting designer for the show, who has done a great job. We have certain little, hidden up-lights around and Neil has another series of theatrical lights to emphasize different parts of the auditorium. While he was not, the lighting designer of the auditorium, he really stepped in at key moments, and really helped with that.

One thing was we’ve built followspot platforms into the second arch that’s away from the stage. Neil was very instrumental in the placement and specifics of those and saved us from having a serious problem later. I will say that throughout the rebuild we tried to consider things, decisions based on our show’s needs now and the needs of shows 10 years from now.
Marquee at the 43rd Street entrance of the Lyric Theatre A Marquee Takes Flight

In addition to all the work in the auditorium and lobby, Christine and I were asked to design the marquee details for the show as well. We had so many different projects going on simultaneously. I have to give credit to Gary Beestone, who in addition to being the international technical director for the show, took over the project direction reins for all these projects. I cannot tell you how impressed and lucky we are, that Gary was on this project.

So, our involvement with the marquee started back in London. I remember when Christine and I first saw the renderings for the Palace marquee, we said, ‘Oh, that’s unfortunate.’ But it was none of our business; we’re set designers. At some point we made a passing comment to our producers Sonia [Friedman] and Colin [Callender], that maybe they don’t need all that was planned for the marquee. Maybe let the original iron work and brick work of the Palace façade be a part of the experience, this kind of historic moment and then just have the nest. Which is our big image from the book and the poster. They liked the idea and told us to go ahead and design it. We did a lot of work back and forth with them, the marketing companies, the signage companies in London, and we really helped design the marquees there.

Having been through that process, we now arrive in New York and the 43rd Street side—the original marquee for the Lyric Theatre. It has the original 1903 historic façade, which is, of course, beautiful and amazing original masonry work. And then, from the point where that ends, moving west, there’s this 1996 sort of, less nice-looking faux-brick surface that feels like it doesn’t quite belong with the historic façade. Visually, there was this jarring moment. So he had this over 200’ expanse of which a large portion is ‘what do we do with this football field of brick and concrete, that is the façade of the building?’ 

It just was like a challenge to Christine and myself to come up with an idea that is worthy of that amount of space; a big idea. We went through a lot of different thoughts, but Christine ended up having this idea about the wing from the artwork from the show. It’s just a black wing on a grey background that has this wonderful, inky, burned-through quality. Christine thought, ‘Well, what if we just took that idea of that wing, and just made a massive metal structure of the wing? That really felt ominous, and large, and filled that space. Something that had this Richard Sera-like quality of being a behemoth art structure.’

Everyone really responded to that; it makes a beacon that people as they’re walking by really respond to. The iconic nest with the child then went on top of the fly house—on both the 42nd and 43rd Street sides. [The ‘Wing’ Marquee structure is 150-foot and weighs 50,000-lbs.] Proof Productions from outside Philadelphia, built the wing itself for us; Landmark Signs installed it. The production manager for this portion of the project was David Benken. Like I said there was a lot of things going on at once.

A Rare Opportunity
Christine and I were thrilled to have the Lyric as a canvas, both inside and out. It was important to us to honor the history of this theater that’s been here for so long; it has had a life before us and will after us. That’s where we started our research process; we started with the Lyric’s history itself; ‘What can we learn about the original Lyric Theatre? What photos of the theater being built, and of shows in the theater can we find?’ We did take a lot of visual cues from that research; in terms of the scale of the wallpaper, and this feeling of the rhythm of patterning, on the circle fronts; we took that directly from the original Lyric Theatre. We tried to honor the history of the theater while renovating it for our production and for shows moving forward.

I’ll never look at a theater the same way again. Any time I step into any theater now I cannot help but look around everywhere; at every little detail, handrail, step, chair, doorway, and curtain. It’s shocking all the details that I never saw before and I’ve been working in theaters my whole life. 

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