—Playwright Arthur Miller, as quoted on SMASH
Before the final curtain call for the television series SMASH, SET DECOR talked with Set Decorator Jacqueline-Jacobson Scarfo SDSA re: the grand stage sets she, Production Designer Ruth Ammon and their teams created for the portrayal of the staging on Broadway of two original musicals, the Marilyn Monroe bio BOMBSHELL and the contemporary romantic tragedy HIT LIST.
The SMASH production literally went to Broadway for a base of realism to anchor the mounting of these musical shows within-the-show, plus a depiction of the TONYS, Broadway’s awards gala.
In the series first season, Set Decorators Andrew Baseman SDSA and Richard Devine SDSA, with Production Designers Cabot McMullen and Jan Musky, introduced the behind-the-scenes, from backstage to apartments and offices, restaurants and rehearsal halls.
Jacobson and Ammon continued developing characters’ and storyline backgrounds, but the heavy loads this season were the huge stage sets!
There were other significant large sets, which would have earned the title “huge” any other season… the “off Broadway” presentation of HIT LIST…BOMBSHELL’s opening night party/extravaganza…and a TONYS PR push at the legendary Oak Room which was semi-transformed into a down-on-its-luck Las Vegas nightclub. But as fantastic as these were, the stage sets of BOMBSHELL, HIT LIST and the TONYS were breathtakingly true representations of Broadway theater at its best.
SET DECOR: Tell us about your collaboration with Production Designer Ruth Ammon…your process…
Set Decorator Jacqueline Jacobson-Scarfo: The fact that we have worked together before made our collaboration so much fun, since we had an established language and similar perspectives. Research is the key, and sharing concepts. Design and décor for this was very tactile—we would drape and light, and see how it all looked under various kinds of light. We spent time together every day, collaborating and then recalibrating as each set progressed.
We would support each other and try to move in a different direction together, whenever needed. We would always move forward, even if “forward” meant recalibration!
The music and the script were the starting point, then research…and we would always bring it back to the characters. Executive Producer Josh Safran is so passionate and collaborative, and had a strong sense of the story he was trying to tell. We worked closely with him, Choreographer Josh Bergassee and each director.
We loved the process of SMASH being a show within a show with real and staged rehearsals. We embraced the nostalgia with BOMBSHELL…Broadway…New York… the ‘50s…the melding of Hollywood and Broadway glamour.
Had either of you worked with stage sets before?
Ruth had designed for the live music acts of the Bee Gees at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which taught her about lighting, the most important component with stage sets. I had done summer stock, which taught me about the simplicity of a stage set…how important each piece of dressing is in relation to the stage. But SMASH taught me about lighting and drapery on a grand scale!
Please tell us about creating BOMBSHELL on Broadway…
Of the two distinctly different productions, this musical bio of Marilyn Monroe was the more traditional and theatrical. The presentation was of ideas of places, using forced perspective throughout…and a bold color palette. Everything about the BOMBSHELL visual ethos was as a nostalgic reminder of the glamour of the 1950s.
In the series storyline, in Season 1, BOMBSHELL had been previewing in Boston with many rehearsals. For Season 2, we got to do the full staging. We loved the process of building a set like Our Little Secret, having it evolve from rehearsal to Broadway stage…the same for At Your Feet, the story of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood serving as Marilyn’s babysitter on Saturdays.
That brings up another unique aspect—we worked with representations of real real estate, such as Bing Crosby’s Las Vegas home and Grauman’s…bringing them to life on Broadway with forced perspective and an emboldened ‘50s palette.
The BOMBSHELL opening night party had a completely different look, but equally nostalgic…
The BOMBSHELL opening night party needed to be as visually dramatic as any of our production numbers. Our inspirational theme was the film SOME LIKE IT HOT.
The lobby of “Reverend Ike’s”… the United Palace Theater, which opened in 1930 as one of Loew’s Wonder Theaters…worked well as a dramatic setting. We controlled the palette, like a 1920’s black and white film highlighted with gold. We re-designed the staircase and designed a black & white marble dance floor with a bandstand of the era. The fabrics and textures of custom lampshades, custom Spanish lace tablecloths, white banquettes and a graphic composition of all the elements created this set’s visual language.
HIT LIST…off Broadway & on Broadway…
The ultimate goal for this contemporary musical was to integrate the audience with the players. Everything we brought in had gritty urban reality infused with pop.
Our inspirations were the streets of NYC, including Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where we worked and where Ruth was living & working…the textures of buildings…street signs…street art. These gave a base for our framing of pop culture, not only the music and art, but also that layer of instant fame…love & fame…cult stardom…social networking…immediate media gratification.
Theatrical lighting was a key element of the set, and was built into the set as part of the set, as opposed to hanging from a grid or a lighting board. We utilized clip lights as architecture on the walls, suggesting photographers’ flashbulbs and the stadium lights of music videos.
Our goal was to break out of the prison of brown set walls, to turn a gritty brick box into a real heartbeat. Taking HIT LIST to Broadway meant the sets were bigger and bolder, but it didn’t lose its authenticity. The most significant change was built into the script…incorporating interactive media as live theatrical experience.
HIT LIST included the VMA Awards…a contemporary music awards show set…
This was the pop star ultimate fame. It was fabulously hot! Rocking kickass dueling rock star divas! So, with Florence & the Machine and Lady Gaga in mind, we went for glamour, shiny, sexy with flashing lights, extraordinary silver lame’ chainmail drapes and drops…and 21st century chariots!
Please talk about the set decoration aspect of each of these stages…
The set décor was woven into the music and dancing…all the sets needed to work with the musical numbers.
Set dressing needed to be strong enough to withstand the dancing. Pillows would need to be glued to the sofas…drink carts had everything glued down, so if you turned them upside down, everything would stay in place.
And, of course, every stage set had a piano. In fact, pianos became one of the characters in every set.
We wanted fabrics that danced and moved in an elegant manner, so we experimented with fabrics and drapery, textures and light, particularly since colors change under theatrical lighting!
Many of the pieces were custom made. Because scenes of “rehearsals” needed to be realistic, the actual set pieces could not be placed until much later, so we set up sets in my office to make sure the bedding fit like a glove, that colors worked together with costumes, etc…
The SMASH version of the TONYS was such a fitting finale…please tell us about that from concept to finish…
This was where HIT LIST and BOMBSHELL came together on the same stage, where SMASH becomes one. This was a huge challenge, and one we happily embraced.
The Tony Awards are the biggest and the most prestigious event of the year for all theater professionals. It is also a signature event that symbolizes New York. In this set, we wanted to use scenic techniques that represented both the traditional and the modern, beautiful historic theater architecture and the elements of New York’s Times Square.
Like all awards shows, the proscenium sets the theme and magic of the evening. It frames the winners of the awards, as well as the presenters. In our proscenium, we used Art Nouveau-inspired designs lit from behind, with the ability to be gently or dramatically changed for different categories and musical numbers.
Leading up to the apron, we have elegant stairs emblematic of award shows. Paying homage to historic New York theater architecture, the stairs are covered with gloss-black Formica edged with gold and brass detailing and clear marquee bulbs. The apron, lit from below, has grating underneath to suggest New York Streets, one of the features in the HIT LIST number.
Mid-stage is a traditional grand red velour drapery with gold bullion fringe, which we re-purposed. With it is a custom made shimmer valence that has a slightly modern feel. Light booms and trusses in the wings and upstage are incorporated as an integral part of this particularly amazing night of theatrical experience.
Upstage is the contemporary wall of LED screens that adds exciting, colorful, moving images for each number, visually telling the story. Images include the amazing electric Times Square…TKTS red plexi stairs…Broadway in all its glory of lights…gigantic advertisements…cabs and pedestrians. These embody the overall look of the Tony Awards.
Then, we switch to the heart-breaking image of Marilyn as our BOMBSHELL team performs Let's Be Bad. For HIT LIST, we bring back the image of the Queensboro Bridge that we had established in earlier episodes, to experience the end of the first chapter of their journey.
…Please talk about the difference in decorating for stage sets, as opposed to characters’ spaces…
As Ruth points out, “The interface between departments is intensified with the extra elements of lyrics, score, choreography, and theatrical lighting.”
Stage sets are more streamlined, but we wanted them to be realistic to character as well as to setting. With HIT LIST, we would go from an abstract set like the iPad wall to a living room with books and chandeliers, to a hotel room with a piano… chairs, bar & TV…but the TV was the audience!
Each stage set also encompassed theatre seats, each bank of seats setting the tone of that theatre.
…As did the draperies, the theatrical curtains. We used literally hundreds of yards of fabrics and had many drapers sewing all at once! Our top resources were Rosebrand, Dazian, JC Hansen and Circle. Colleen from Circle would come and measure the stage beds and bedskirts on site to make sure everything fit exactly and perfectly.
And for a set decorator, it’s always a challenge to understand that stage sets have very few smalls!
…Please tell us about challenges in getting these production sets on time and workable for choreography and the actual shooting…
The schedules seemed impossible sometimes but it always came together. The passion of all the departments, especially set decoration...Assistant Set Decorators Carol Nast and Kate Foster and our fiercely dedicated set dressers...made it a labor of LOVE.
It was an amazing and fantastic experience. The set decoration crew was crossing their fingers for another season because we loved the process. It was a group effort to get the dream on the screen…it takes a team to get the dream!