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In Memoriam: Robin Wagner

Robin Wagner

Robin Wagner, arguably the most successful and influential Broadway set designer of his generation, died May 29. He was 89 and died in his sleep.

Born in 1933, Wagner, a native of San Francisco, attended Balboa High School and attended art school for two years at the Palace of Fine Arts, later the California School of Fine Arts. He began his theatre career in San Francisco, designing productions of Don Pasquale and Amahl and the Night Visitors for Golden Gate Opera Workshop as well as Tea and Sympathy for Theatre Arts Colony and Waiting for Godot and The Miser for Actors Workshop, co-founded by Jules Irving and Herbert Blau. He also designed productions for San Francisco Ballet Company.

Moving to New York, Wagner designed several Off-Broadway productions. His first Broadway experience was as an assistant to Ben Edwards on Hugh Wheeler's Big Fish, Little Fish (1961). He also assisted Oliver Smith on Hello, Dolly! (1964), the blockbuster comedy Luv (1964), and the Sherlock Holmes musical Baker Street (1965). His first Broadway credit as designer was Jean-Paul Sartre's The Condemned of Altona (1966), for the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center. Success came with Hair (1968), which ushered in the era of rock musicals. In The New York Times, Clive Barnes noted that Wagner's "junk art setting (a blank stage replete with broken-down truck, papier-mâché Santa Claus, jukebox, [and] neon signs)" was "masterly." It wasn't the last time the designer would be involved in a production that rewrote the rules of musical theatre.

Wagner's next big hit was The Great White Hope (1968), a fictionalized account of the Black prizefighter Jack Johnson. That same year, he enjoyed a smash success with Promises, Promises, featuring a pioneering automated set. "Robin Wagner's settings are so architecturally and decoratively perfect for time, place, and period that they seem to absorb the characters like the blotting paper-style backgrounds of top-class advertisements," wrote Barnes in the Times.

Wagner won his first major award, from the Drama Desk, for Lenny (1971), an often-surreal bio drama about the comedian Lenny Bruce. It was another collaboration with Tom O'Horgan, the director of Hair. He and Wagner teamed up next with the original Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar (1971); Wagner's elaborate design was controversial, yet it netted him his first Tony nomination.

The already-successful Wagner found his place in theatre history on A Chorus Line (1975), a once-in-a-generation hit about dancers baring their souls while auditioning for a Broadway show. The set design, a black box that revealed a set of mirrors for the number "The Music and the Mirror" and turned into a gilded sunburst for the finale, was a marvel of economy, proving that musicals didn't require spectacle to succeed. As part of the "dream team" that included lighting designer Tharon Musser and costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge, Wagner joined Michael Bennett, director of A Chorus Line, on the musicals Ballroom (1978) and Dreamgirls (1981). The latter, tracing the rise of a Supremes-style girl group, was famous for Wagner's use of rolling periaktoi, an ideal solution for a narrative stretching across dozens of locations and more than a decade. "The score's method is reinforced visually by Robin Wagner's set," wrote New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich. "Mr. Wagner has designed a few mobile, abstract scenic elements -- aluminum towers and bridges -- and keeps them moving to form an almost infinite number of configurations." As Wagner said, "Change and mobility are what I love about stage design. It is for a moment and then disappears. It has the effervescence of life but also life's terminal quality. It's brief."

Other key Wagner projects included Seesaw (1973); Mack and Mabel (1974); On the Twentieth Century (1978), featuring gleaming Art Deco luxury railroad train interiors, a train engine hurtling at the audience, and a 6,000lb show curtain; 42nd Street (1980), another exercise in Art Deco style; City of Angels (1989), which juxtaposed two plots, one in black and white and the other in color; the Gershwin Brothers celebration Crazy for You (1992); and Jelly's Last Jam (1992), a musical about jazz great Jelly Roll Morton. The latter was directed by George C. Wolfe, with whom Wagner collaborated on Tony Kushner's two-part epic Angels in America (featuring the indelible image of an angel breaking through an apartment ceiling), and The Wild Party (2000), a daring and highly controversial musical that sought to capture the sexual and racial cross-currents of New York in the 1920s.

Wagner also designed Victor/Victoria (1995), the occasion of Julie Andrew's long-awaited Broadway return; The Life (1997), a look at the gritty, pre-Disney era Times Square District; the cult musical Side Show (1997), about Daisy and Violet Hilton, Siamese twins who had a brief show business career; a smash revival of Kiss Me, Kate (1999); the blockbuster hit The Producers (2000); The Boy From Oz (2003) a bio musical about singer Peter Allen, which launched Hugh Jackman's Broadway career; and Young Frankenstein (2007). Wagner's final Broadway project was the musical Leap of Faith (2012).

In addition to work Off Broadway -- he was also a trustee of the Public Theater -- Wagner maintained relationships in the 1960s and '70s with Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. His designs were also seen at American Ballet Theatre; Elliot Feld Ballet; Hamburg State Opera; Hartford Theatre Company; Metropolitan Opera; New York City Ballet; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; and Vienna State Opera. He received the Lumen Award for The Rolling Stones 1975 Tour of the Americas. As a playwright, he was a founding member of Ensemble Studio Theatre. He taught in the graduate theatre arts programs at Columbia and New York Universities.

Nominated for many awards, Wagner received Tonys for On the Twentieth Century, City of Angels, and The Producers; he earned Drama Desk Awards for Lenny; On the Twentieth Century; Dreamgirls; City of Angels; Kiss Me, Kate; and The Producers. He received a Maharam Award (now known as a Henry Hewes Design Award) for Seesaw. He is also a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame.

The twice-married Wagner is survived by his partner, Susan Kowal and three children -- Kurt Wagner, Leslie Wagner, Christie Wagner Lee (Richard) -- and a granddaughter Clementine Lee.

(30 May 2023)

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