'Grand Illusion' Exhibit Lifts Curtain On The Secrets Of Setting The Stage

'Grand Illusion' Exhibit Lifts Curtain On The Secrets Of Setting The Stage

7:56am Apr 10, 2015
Florence Klotz's costume design for Follies, which opened in 1971.
Florence Klotz's costume design for Follies, which opened in 1971.
Music Division, Library of Congress
  • Florence Klotz's costume design for Follies, which opened in 1971.

    Florence Klotz's costume design for Follies, which opened in 1971.

    Music Division, Library of Congress

  • Coco Chanel's costume design for Le Train Bleu, which opened at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, in June 1924. Gouache drawing with notations.

    Coco Chanel's costume design for Le Train Bleu, which opened at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, in June 1924. Gouache drawing with notations.

    Music Division, Library of Congress

  • Oliver Smith's scenic design for Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Watercolor and pen and ink drawing.

    Oliver Smith's scenic design for Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Watercolor and pen and ink drawing.

    Music Division, Library of Congress

  • Florence Klotz's costume design for Pacific Overtures, which opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in June 1976.

    Florence Klotz's costume design for Pacific Overtures, which opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in June 1976.

    Music Division, Library of Congress

  • Tony Walton's grand drape design for Grand Hotel, which opened at the Martin Beck Theatre, New York City, in November 1989.

    Tony Walton's grand drape design for Grand Hotel, which opened at the Martin Beck Theatre, New York City, in November 1989.

    Music Division, Library of Congress

  • Robert Edmond Jones' set design for Scene I of The Birthday of the Infanta. Watercolors with graphite and ink.

    Robert Edmond Jones' set design for Scene I of The Birthday of the Infanta. Watercolors with graphite and ink.

    Music Division, Library of Congress

  • Lucinda Ballard's costume design for the 1946 revival of Show Boat.

    Lucinda Ballard's costume design for the 1946 revival of Show Boat.

    Music Division, Library of Congress

  • Peggy Clark and Elizabeth Montgomery's watercolor design for the Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre for Barocco and Golden Era, 1953.

    Peggy Clark and Elizabeth Montgomery's watercolor design for the Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre for Barocco and Golden Era, 1953.

    Music Division, Library of Congress

  • James Stuart Morcom's stage design for the Federal Theatre Project, between 1935–1939. Gouache, colored pencil, and wash on illustration board.

    James Stuart Morcom's stage design for the Federal Theatre Project, between 1935–1939. Gouache, colored pencil, and wash on illustration board.

    Music Division, Library of Congress

  • Oliver Smith (1918–1994). Scenic design for Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Watercolor and pen and ink drawing.

    Oliver Smith (1918–1994). Scenic design for Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Watercolor and pen and ink drawing.

    Music Division, Library of Congress

  • The composer's manuscript for "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady, 1956.

    The composer's manuscript for "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady, 1956.

    Music Division, Library of Congress

  • Oliver Smith's set design of Covent Garden for My Fair Lady, which opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York, on March 15, 1956. Watercolor and pen and ink drawing.

    Oliver Smith's set design of Covent Garden for My Fair Lady, which opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York, on March 15, 1956. Watercolor and pen and ink drawing.

    Music Division, Library of Congress

You won't want to miss the music in this piece. Click the listen link above to hear the full story.

Can you imagine choosing just 43 of the more than 20 million objects in the Music Division of the Library of Congress? Intrepid curators have created a small exhibition that lifts the curtain on how magic and spectacle are achieved on bare theater stages. It's called Grand Illusion: The Art of Theatrical Design and it includes drawings, sketches, watercolors, posters, and scale models created over hundreds of years.

The exhibit includes Oliver Smith's 1956 ink and watercolor sketches for My Fair Lady's set designs. "It was the most expensive production in musical theater [of] its time," says library music specialist Walter Zvonchenko. "The price for it was $485,000."

While the set designs evoke London's Covent Gardens, composer Frederick Loewe evokes jubilation in the melody he penciled on a piece of My Fair Lady sheet music. "It's ready for the copyist who would prepare the orchestrations," explains the library's Daniel Boomhower. "You could sit down at the piano and play and sing from this." Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics to "I Could Have Danced All Night" are full of exclamation points, and express Eliza Doolittle's joy after a night on the town. These original documents are all evidence of creators at work on what would become one of the great Broadway musicals.

The earliest object in this Library of Congress show is a 1668 stage set engraving for the opera Il Pomo d'Oro. Zvonchenko says the production, in Vienna, was spectacular. "There was a huge proscenium arch, and this thing would extend like almost 100 feet back. There were huge pulleys and chains which could support in the air as many as 200 or 300 people."

Flying gods and goddesses! Dragons! Sometimes they bumped into one another in mid-air.

The exhibit also includes George Gershwin's full, hand-written orchestral score for a never-heard-of-it song in the never-heard-of-it 1929 musical Show Girl. Gershwin had needed Ferde Grofé to orchestrate Rhapsody in Blue. Five years later, he'd learned to do it himself.

"Gershwin was measuring himself against great composers, and great composers in his mind orchestrated their music," says Boomhower. Show Girl ended with a ballet — set to Gershwin's American in Paris. That tune had a future.

Many of the objects in Grand Illusion were created during the Depression, a time when audiences were worried about the future. These musicals, Zvonchenko says, served a social purpose.

"They were a relief," he explains. "They were a release from the pain and the rigors that came with the Great Depression. You needed a Fred Astaire and a Ginger Rogers to go dancing across the stage, to try to tell people: Hey, There's still some joy, there's still some life."

The evidence can be seen at the Library of Congress until the end of July.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On this program, NPR's Susan Stamberg often pulls back the curtain on movie magic. This morning, she explores the magic of the stage. It's the focus of an exhibition at the Library of Congress called Grand Illusion: The Art of Theatrical Design, with sketches, posters and scale models from a century of theater. Susan takes us backstage.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Can you imagine choosing 43 objects from more than 20 million holdings in the music division of the Library of Congress? Even a musical theater lover would need a nap after maybe 10 minutes. But intrepid curators found behind-the-scenes stuff that parses theatrical illusions through original documents like Oliver Smith's 1956 set designs for "My Fair Lady."

WALTER ZVONCHENKO: It was the most expensive production in musical theater to its time.

STAMBERG: Library music specialist Walter Zvonchenko.

ZVONCHENKO: The price for it was $485,000.

STAMBERG: Oliver Smith's ink and watercolor sketches evoke London's Covent Gardens. Composer Frederick Loewe evokes jubilation in the melody he carefully penciled on a piece of sheet music.

DANIEL BOOMHOWER: It's ready for the copyists who would prepare the orchestrations.

STAMBERG: The library's Daniel Boomhower.

BOOMHOWER: You could sit down at the piano and play and sing from this.

STAMBERG: Well, not until you have the lyrics. Alan Jay Lerner's words express Eliza Doolittle's joy after a night on the town.

Bed, bed - you couldn't go to bed with all these exclamation marks.

A piece of paper, penciled jottings - the creators at work on what becomes one of the great Broadway musicals.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MY FAIR LADY")

AUDREY HEPBURN: (Singing as Eliza Doolittle) I could have danced all night. I could have danced all night and still have begged for more.

STAMBERG: The earliest object in this Library of Congress show is a 1668 stage set engraving for the opera "Il Pomo D'oro." Walter Zvonchenko says the production in Vienna was spectacular.

ZVONCHENKO: There was a huge proscenium arch. And this thing would extend, like, almost 100 feet back. There were huge pulleys and chains which could support in the air as many as 200 or 300 people.

STAMBERG: Flying gods and goddesses, dragons - sometimes they bumped into one another in midair.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SHOW GIRL" SCORE)

STAMBERG: George Gershwin's melody for a never-heard-of-it song for the never-heard-of-it 1929 musical "Show Girl" is a handwritten full orchestral score. Gershwin had needed Ferde Grofe to orchestrate "Rhapsody In Blue." Five years later, he'd learned to do it himself.

ZVONCHENKO: Gershwin was measuring himself against great composers. And great composers, in his mind, orchestrated their music.

STAMBERG: "Show Girl" ended with a ballet set to Gershwin's "American In Paris." That tune had a future.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

STAMBERG: Many of the objects in Grand Illusion: The Art of Theatrical Design were created during the depression. Walter Zvonchenko says musicals served a social purpose then.

ZVONCHENKO: They were a relief. They were a release from the pain and the rigors that came with the Great Depression. You needed a Fred Astaire and a Ginger Rogers to go dancing across the stage to try to tell people, hey, there's still some joy. There's still some life.

STAMBERG: The evidence can be seen at the Library of Congress until the end of July. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

INSKEEP: You can see some at npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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