Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Book Review by Alan Gomberg
At one time the husband-and-wife design team of William and Jean Eckart were celebrities, at least among New York theatregoers. Reviewing Once Upon a Mattress, for which they designed the sets and costumes, the critic for Cue magazine suggested that "a growing number of theatre buffs ... go to musicals primarily to see the Eckarts' sets." In Dressed to the Nines, a Julius Monk revue, a song titled "The Hate Song" included the lyric: "I hate Eileen Heckart / Jean and William Eckart / I hate Gregory Peck-art, too." And yet the Eckarts seem a bit forgotten today in comparison with some other great set designers of Broadway's Golden Age. Perhaps Andrew B. Harris's lovely new book, The Performing Set: The Broadway Designs of William and Jean Eckart, will change that.
The Eckarts may have been somewhat underappreciated even in their heyday. While their designs often inspired encomiums from the critics, they were nominated for Tonys only twice, for Fiorello! and Mame. Were they taken for granted in comparison with other designers? Did they make it look too easy?
Harris's illuminating discussion of the Eckarts' work on The Golden Apple might have been even more interesting if he had placed it in the historical context of other Broadway designers who had earlier attempted to achieve greater fluidity and theatricality in scene changes, such as Jo Mielziner, Albert R. Johnson, and Harry Horner.
Another early show on which the Eckarts did innovative work was a play, Mister Johnson, Leo Rosten's adaptation of a Joyce Cary novel set in Africa. Rosten's episodic script required 40 set changes. The Eckarts' solution was to cover the stage with a deck and use winches to move set pieces on and off. They'd had problems on previous shows with stagehands placing scenery in slightly different positions at each performance, affecting both lighting and sightlines. In addition to making the set changes fast and smooth, winches ensured that the set pieces would be in exactly the same position at each performance. (Harris says that the use of a deck and winches was virtually unknown on Broadway at the time.) I wish that the book had more photos of Mister Johnson. There are three, but they don't really illustrate what was so special about the sets.
Visually, as you might expect, the book is often captivating. Each of the hit musicals designed by the Eckarts gets its own chapter. Those chapters are illustrated not only with sketches but also with photographs, many in color. (Some of the earlier color photographs appear faded, as is often the case with color photographs of Broadway productions before the 1960s.) Even the flops (two or more to a chapter) are covered in some detail, though they tend to be illustrated with few or no photographs, only sketches. This is a bit disappointing, as it is often especially interesting to compare a rendering with the finished product. Perhaps few good photographs exist for some of the shows or perhaps there were rights problems in some cases. Whatever the reason, it's somewhat frustrating.
I also wonder if Harris might have found some photographs that would have better illustrated the things that were special about the Eckarts' sets for Mame. There are some attractive photographs here, but they give little sense of how the sets really looked. And with two pages devoted to sketches and descriptions of Mame's living room as it changes over the years, it would have been helpful to have at least one photograph of that set.
Speaking of Mame, the biggest hit designed by the Eckarts, it was after that show that their Broadway career went downhill. Not that they weren't designing Broadway shows. In fact, they were extraordinarily busy some of the time - designing flop after flop. And then the offers stopped. The Eckarts would later wonder if they hadn't finally fallen into the trap of repeating their own clichés. When an offer to teach at Southern Methodist University came along, they took it. They came back to Broadway just once, for the 1974 production of Of Mice and Men.
Though the book doesn't go into great detail about their post-Broadway career, at the back we get either a sketch or photograph illustrating every show they designed from 1951 till William's final set, for a production of Macbeth in 2000. (Jean had died in 1993.)
Harris's writing is a bit awkward at times. There are occasional loose ends, a few repetitive passages, and some factual errors, along with some misspellings of names and other typos. Also, the notes at the back sometimes fail to clarify sources for quotations.
Though The Performing Set might have been a better book, it's still a good one. Indeed, I imagine that many people will find it fascinating, even if they might wish that it sometimes delivered a bit more. The Performing Set gives us a chance to revisit the design esthetics of an earlier time on Broadway and it is a delightful trip.
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