Less is More: Incredible Staging for Contemporary Musicals

Staging is a key element to setting up the place and plot for the story. I remember vividly the wonderful and mesmerizing experience I had watching the West End production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which won directing and set awards both in the US and UK. I had rarely been that impressed by a stage that reflected the concept, spirit and essence of the show as accurately.

Though their scale is not comparable, small contemporary productions still manage to get me as immersed and focused on the story and characters with a minimalistic, though very relevant and specific, stage set and staging. Usually set in a black box theater – simple theatre that does not bear a specific design – using few props and set elements, I’ll examine in this post how some contemporary shows have successfully managed to strongly draw the audience into the story and its settings without artefacts and glitter.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change!

Beyond the wonderful comedic quality of the music, book and libretto for this four-character piece, the minimalist staging clearly captured each space and mood, reinforcing the comedic or dramatic tones for the different songs.

I was really impressed and moved by the Paris production, in which the show was wittily translated into French. The set was comprised of four swings and four cubes that cleverly transformed into various pieces of furniture or as part of sets and were also used as storage space for all the props.

The swings were wonderfully used to materialize the car (“On the Highway of Love”) or for the performers to wait between scenes, or cubes turned into a movie theater (“Tear Jerk”), tables for restaurants (“A Babe & a Stud,” “Single Man Drought”) or living room (“Hey There, Single Gal/Guy”). The simplicity yet specificity of each set element made the piece, especially the transitions between songs and scenes, flow very nicely.

Watch this video on YouTube.

The Fantasticks

The Fantasticks, one of the longest running shows off-Broadway, was recently scheduled to close but eventually was able to stay open thanks to anonymous fans, who clearly were attached to the beauty of the libretto and music as well as the candid simplicity and truthfulness of the story reflected by the use of a simple yet very original staging and set. Indeed, one member of the cast is set to play the wall between two neighboring houses, where the boy’s and the girls’ families live.

The direction and sets get the audience intrigued with the use of a big trunk, from which you never knew what was going to get out. The minimalist staging allows the audience to focus on each character and their internal journeys and evolution through the piece, without artefacts, leaving only space for the life and truth of the character.

This show was to me amongst the most moving I saw off-Broadway the same year, out of 10 shows. Its directing and staging brought attention to the acting and enhanced the immersive aspect set by the intimate venue and its thrust stage, at The Jerry Orbach Theater on 50th street & Broadway.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Ordinary Days

I was lucky enough to attend the Paris premiere production of Ordinary Days by Adam Gwon. And yet again the well-thought staging with a minimalist set made every place appear clearly as the characters would walk the streets of New York and transition through various venues from the Met, to a Starbucks, to the inside or rooftops of Manhattan flats.

In a black box type theater, the director managed to play with heights and angles, using a minimalist set and props such as a ladder and two boxes which became a table, storage boxes, museum benches and so on. (Fun fact: I later learned that the two boxes actually came from the set of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change!)

That specific set and staging gave life to beautiful and moving moments that vividly pictured what the characters were seeing, such as when Warren throws a rainfall of colored flyers from an artists’ rooftop into the streets of Manhattan, or when Warren and Deb examine pictures at the Met.

How do you feel about black box theater or minimalist staging? What type of set do you think serves contemporary musicals’ storytelling?

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