Who is the man building priceless real estate for Broadway?
The legendary Mel Brooks called him “a genius guy who does crazy sets,” and that’s about the only introduction needed for Beowulf Boritt, the Broadway set designer who won numerous awards, including a Tony in 2014 for act one–for his visionary point of view, his highly imaginative flair and his resolutely audacious approach to his profession.
Boritt may now be eyeing a second (or even third) trophy – as the mastermind of the musical fly at sunset and the game POTUShe was nominated for two Tony Awards this year.
While these two productions are wildly different in tone and subject, they share a common visual thread – each is set in a one percent domicile. In fly at sunset– which takes the very real stories of actor Cary Grant’s experimentation with LSD, playwright-turned-Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce and writer Aldous Huxley and imagines what would happen if the three got high together – Boritt has designed a sprawling Malibu glass house that could serve as a status symbol and a trippy facade to project the characters’ insecurities.
In the case of POTUS, a raucous feminist farce about seven extremely capable women tasked with keeping a highly incapable Commander-in-Chief out of trouble, all hell breaks loose in the White House. Even when tasked with recreating the stately interiors of America’s most prominent real estate, Boritt found ways, subtle and otherwise, to infuse a little irreverence. “No matter how much research I do, I remind myself that I’m an artist, not an anthropologist,” he says. “I want to get some exact details and be precise in a way that brings truth to the art. But I’ll definitely stray from reality when it tells the story better – and in a more exciting way.”
Ahead of tonight’s Tony Awards, which will air on CBS at 8 p.m. EST, T&Cs spoke with the set designer about how he crafted his masterpieces.
You are nominated for the scenographies of two shows, the play POTUS and the musical fly at sunset– which are so stylistically different. How was your approach to these projects different?
With POTUS I dug deep into the White House footage of the Biden, Obama, and Bush administrations – not the previous administration – to see what stays the same, what changes from administration to administration, and then I picked and picked details that covered them all because we weren’t trying to single out any particular president.
Then for Fly at sunset, a made up story based on real people i tried to convey how LSD affects the human brain and makes it expand and contract and twist and turn but also the power of our imagination and what the mind can TO DO. Sometimes the set was trying to do something visually beautiful and wonderful and create this fantasy world; at other times he was trying to create the vast emptiness we feel when we go into our own spiral in our brain and become trapped in an idea or a fear.
fly at sunsetThe trio of characters from reunites at a fictional seaside Malibu estate owned by Clare Boothe Luce to take LSD. How did you balance the hallucinogenic vibe of the scenes with the depiction of a fabulous California home of a high society figure?
I did a lot of research on the mid-century modern architecture that was spreading in Malibu at the time which led us to this idea of a big real glass house – we don’t always do that on stage , we often use plastic – so the reflections look incredibly true and you don’t end up with a fun house mirror. It seemed important in a show that is about people looking at each other.
And then we built a canvas curtain onto which our production designer could project a video of the house to come to life in this way that started to reflect the inner lives of the characters. So sometimes it could just be a very classy, elegant and literal house. Then it could also become more emotional. And then we played on the fact that it’s California and this tropical environment – we covered it with bougainvillea and put a big palm tree in it which made it feel nice and rich.
Hilarity, excessiveness and total chaos are the characteristics of POTUS. How did you manage to create a feeling of visual friction between the farce taking place on stage and its majestic background?
My guide to POTUS was – and I think it would be true of almost any prank – to create a place that feels fragile to make it look like the madness of the room might shatter it and destroy it in some way. This ups the ante. And in POTUS it gets to ridiculous levels because people are literally destroying space by walking through it. So it was about creating something that looked beautiful and wonderful so that when it starts to go bad, you cringe even more.
And you designed the whole thing like a giant turntable.
Because of the rhythm of the piece—in POTUS we go from place to place very quickly, and as the show goes on, it gets faster and faster. I wanted to create a set that could have continuous action in a cinematic way so you could follow a character walking through the door, into the next room, and then into the next room. What was essential in POTUS had no time out. You want the story to continue to evolve.
What specific design details have you taken from previous administrations?
There’s a big library in the back of the press secretary’s office, and different administrations have done different things with it. We hung up a bunch of world clocks because it seemed to indicate power and range, and that was a Bush administration detail.
And I found a picture of [President Biden’s former press secretary] Jen Psaki’s desk where she had a little ceramic elephant on it and I thought that was a fun detail to copy because as a set designer I always put an elephant on my set – it’s just a little signature personal. Then once we got into production, I realized it made it look like they were Republicans, so I took some donkeys and put them around the set too.
What other Easter eggs have you incorporated into the set?
In the copy of the White House Diplomatic Reception Room, covered in a mural of American Revolutionary War scenes, is a closet that is the key to the story. The door opens several times throughout the room and very sharp-eyed viewers would see that there is a big stack of cardboard boxes as if it were like a storage closet in the White House. One of them has “Lincoln bedroom sheets” on it, but all the others are allusions to presidential scandals. I don’t think most viewers will notice it, but once in a while someone will tell me they saw it. Those little details, I think they’re fun. They get to the heart of the show and the message it’s trying to get across while adding a bit of spice.
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