Tony-winning set designer David Rockwell is in the throes of a banner year. By the time that it ends, his art and talent will have informed three Broadway shows and one Broadway hotel.
Broadway never had a specific hotel before per se. Now, thanks to Rockwell, there’s Civilian, a 27-story, 203 room theater-themed hotel at 305 West 48th Street, a half-block from Hadestown and Leopoldstadt. The jewel of this hotel is the Olio Collection, a first-of-its kind curated art exhibition with permanent and rotating artifacts, original works and archival photography.
At every corner, on every floor, is an evocative theater memory, triggered by costume sketches, set models, still photographs, murals and custom furnishings. More than 300 pieces of art are scattered throughout the public spaces and guestrooms, representing 100 years of Broadway.
Even King George’s crown from Hamilton is offered up for public perusal and scrutiny.
This is an idea whose time has come, although Rockwell admits it’s not the first time the idea has come up. “I’d had a couple of false starts on doing this before when other restauranteurs approached me about doing something in the theater district,” he says. “In this case, five years ago I got approached by a developer who had this little plot of land—it was a parking lot—and wanted to build a hotel there and asked me, since I do a lot of hotels, what kind of hotel would work there. I said, ‘Well, if you make it really about the theater community and partner it with the theater community, I’d be happy to do it—and I think that we’ll be very successful.’”
Right now, the Civilian is open, but the food and beverage services won’t be kicking in until early-to-mid September — depending “on things like getting their liquor license and the usual complications of opening a restaurant in New York,” Rockwell says. “Then it will be fully alive.”
Currently, Rockwell is zig-zagging back and forth between New York and Boston, where his third show of the season—A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical, starring Will Swenson—is testing the waters for a December 4 opening at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theater. His reason: “We’re going to change some things before coming into New York, based on how they’re going to change the action and the sequence of things, so it’s crucial the design stay flexible.”
Reports from Boston have it that A Beautiful Noise is full of imaginative meanderings and images. Ostensibly set in the office of Diamond’s therapist, the show (in Rockwell’s larger, less literal view) takes place “in Neil’s memory,” and the action flashes back accordingly.
“It begins sorta surprisingly. You think you’re at a big Neil Diamond Las Vegas concert,” says Rockwell. But in fact it’s a therapy session, and as Diamond talks he imagines and conjures up his history. “That’s what the set does. The set allows him to do that.
“It’s great to work with director Michael Mayer, Stephen Hoggett, an amazing choreographer, and a ‘magic consultant’—Kevin Adams on lighting. They all come together to make simple stage pictures that are complicated. Then we also have to deliver a Neil Diamond concert.”
The two previous 2022 Broadway shows which have Rockwell settings this season—Take Me Out and Into the Woods—have come and gone . . . and, quite unexpectedly, come again.
Richard Greenberg’s two-time Tony-winning play about a baseball center fielder coming out gay, Take Me Out, put in a super-successful run at the Hayes Theater this spring and summer (April 4-June 11) and will return in the fall (Oct. 27) at the Schoenfeld for 14 weeks of extra innings. Both Jesses are returning as well: Jesse Williams, the Tony-nominated center fielder, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, his Tony-winning attorney. Some set adjustments may be required.
Rockwell’s approach to designing a show is always the same: “You read the script. You listen to the music, if there’s music. You do a lot of research and try to find a way to create the world that the show takes place in. That comes from discussions with the director and the writer.
“With Take Me Out, there was a lot of discussion with the director, Scott Ellis, then research and then thinking about a compelling world to set the show in. One thing I’m always aware of is: If you complete the picture too much, there’s no room for the audience or the actors.
“What was so clear about Take Me Out was that the locker room, which ignites so much of the tension in the show, needed to be very downstage,” says Rockwell. The challenge was coming up with a design that had “the compression and intensity in the locker room but also the openness of baseball diamonds.” Mission was accomplished—and Rockwell even got in a stadium backdrop.
A revival of Into the Woods — the elegantly fractured fairy tale that won Tonys for Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine in 1988 — bowed in as a City Center Encores! before transferring to the St. James, where it opened July 10 and runs till October 16.
This was Rockwell’s first time working for Encores!, though he already knew the new Artistic Director of Encores!, Lear deBessonet, who directed Into the Woods. “I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream with her before in Central Park,” he says. “She does what the best directors do: They don’t tell you what they want it to look like. They tell you what they want it to feel like.”
Rockwell’s first decision was to place the band in the middle of the stage, slightly elevated and surrounded with different levels of acting areas so that everyone—the orchestra, the company and the trees—was in the same forest. Rob Berman, the conductor, and Lear had to be willing to have the action surround the orchestra. They’re not just on stage. They’re in the woods.
“There’s a certain invisibility about the orchestra. Design, at its best, is invisible because it supports the action. I’ve always been a student of how design sets the stage for the action.”
For Rockwell, the die was cast with his first taste of New York City at age 12. “It really changed my life,” the 66-year-old Chicagoan realizes. “I went to my first Broadway show—Fiddler on the Roof—and my first New York restaurant—Schrafft’s—with my four brothers. Our mother danced in vaudeville and started community theater in Illinois. Along the way, I just learned that what I really loved doing was using design to bring people together. Theater and architecture do that.”
He continues to be energized by both fields: “I actually believe that each project makes the other project better. I think the work I do as a theater designer makes me a better architect, and I think the work I do as an architect gives me a kind of spatial think about theater.”