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A Film by Michael Kantor

THE STARS

Designers & Theater Circle

Robin Wagner

Since he designed “Hair,” the breakthrough musical that altered the look of American theater in the late 1960s, Robin Wagner’s personal style of large-scale, fast-moving, automated scenery has set a standard for contemporary design in America. During the 1970s Wagner designed the scenery for “Lenny,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Sugar,” “Seesaw,” “Mack & Mabel,” “A Chorus Line,” “On the Twentieth Century,” and “Ballroom”; since 1980, he has designed the musicals “42nd Street” and “Dreamgirls.” These have won him all of the major theater design awards. In addition to his work on Broadway, Wagner has designed scenery for the Vienna State Opera, the Hamburg State Opera, the American Ballet Theatre, the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, as well as for television, film, and rock group tours.

Robin Wagner

Born: August 31, 1933
Key Shows
  • "The Boy from Oz"
  • "A Chorus Line"
  • "Crazy for You"
  • "Dreamgirls"
  • "Flower Drum Song"
  • "42nd Street"
  • "Hair"
  • "Jelly's Last Jam"
  • "Jesus Christ Superstar"
  • "Kiss Me, Kate"
  • "Merlin"
  • "Never Gonna Dance"
  • "On the Twentieth Century"
  • "The Producers"
  • "Promises, Promises"
  • "Saturday Night Fever"
  • "Seesaw"
  • "Side Show"
  • "Sugar"
  • "Victor/Victoria"
Related Artists
  • Julie Andrews
  • Donna McKechnie
  • David Merrick
  • Jerry Orbach
  • Ann Reinking
  • Susan Stroman
  • Tommy Tune
  • Ben Vereen
Robin Wagner’s structural, sometimes minimal, technologically exciting, visually simulating, and kinetic work will be remembered as the classic scenic design of the 1970s and 1980s. He is not a set designer in the old-fashioned sense of the term. He is not painterly; he does not design traditional box sets or painted drops. His work cannot be called delicate or decorative. He does not sketch pretty pictures for the scene shop, but rather, builds models of good scale, models that work, models that show how the scenery works.

The most memorable facet of Wagner’s scenery is that it moves. Automation plays a key role in all of his designs, which are in constant motion — movement that is full of surprises. No one who saw “Jesus Christ Superstar” can forget the floor slowly rising in the back as though it were hinged at the footlights, then bodies beginning to crawl, and finally the floor continuing to rise almost straight upwards. And what about the excitement of the train speeding across the night sky in “On the Twentieth Century” and then, three-dimensionally, the train with its headlight gleaming, heading down the track right towards the audience? And in “Dreamgirls,” constantly moving light towers created different spaces as they pivoted and moved back and forth across the stage.

Automation plays a key role in all of his designs, which are in constant motion.

The second memorable aspect of Wagner’s scenery is its scale: the larger structural scenery in “Lenny,” the tall light towers in “Dreamgirls,” the cavernous spaces in “A Chorus Line” and in “Ballroom.” Also, he seems to work well with lighting designers, and his scenery allows for the theatricality of light. His sets are filled with lights — not the lighting designer’s lamps hung from rails or at the sides of the stage, nor footlights, nor follow spots, but lights that are part of the scenery, lights that can be seen from the audience, lights that are part of the action of the show. The train lights in “On the Twentieth Century” not only lit the stage, they were part of the moving scenery. The theatrical lights of “A Chorus Line” and “Dreamgirls” similarly served a dual purpose. The lights surrounding the Stardust Ballroom created the space and mood of “Ballroom.”

Finally, Wagner’s scenery has substance; it never consists of painted canvas flats. There is wood and metal and weight. The act “curtain” in “On the Twentieth Century,” made of contemporary materials such as formica-covered plywood, weighed 6,000 pounds.

Source: Excerpted from CONTEMPORARY DESIGNERS, 3RD ED., St. James Press, © 1997 St. James Press. Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.

Photo credits: Photofest