Book Reviews

The Performing Set: The Broadway Designs
of William And Jean Eckart

by Andrew B. Harris

Book Review by Alan Gomberg

The Performing SetAt 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?

Damn Yankees
Ray Walston (Applegate) and Gwen Verdon (Lola) in Damn Yankees. The Eckarts first imagined Applegate as a tightwad Devil, living in a fleabag hotel. When they realized that this wouldn't work for the show, they thought of him instead as a player in Washington politics, perhaps a highly paid lobbyist with questionable taste. (Eckart Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)
The Eckarts' Broadway career was relatively brief but prolific. Between 1951 and 1970, they designed the sets for 34 Broadway shows, three of which started Off-Broadway, as well as seven other Off-Broadway shows and five shows that started rehearsals for Broadway but never opened there (including two legendary titles, Reuben Reuben and A Mother's Kisses). For 16 of their Broadway shows, they also designed the lighting; for four, they also designed the costumes. (After their first child was born in 1960, they decided to no longer design both sets and costumes.) In addition, they designed several major regional productions and tours, three films (The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, and The Night They Raided Minsky's), and several television productions, including the sets and costumes for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. They produced Once Upon a Mattress, as well as designing its sets and costumes. Some of the other famous shows they designed: The Golden Apple, Damn Yankees, Li'l Abner, Never Too Late, She Loves Me, Anyone Can Whistle, and Oh, Dad, Poor Dad. Harris supplies useful and interesting information on each show. There is a wealth of Broadway history here.

Once Upon a Matress
Once Upon a Mattress, with Carol Burnett (Princess Winifred) glaring at Ginny Perlowin (The Nightingale of Samarkand). (Eckart Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)
The Eckarts were best-known for designing musicals. While most earlier designers tried to hide scene changes in musicals, the Eckarts believed that "[i]f the audience could accept the improbability of characters expressing their emotions through song and dance, then they could also accept sets changing in front of their eyes. ... With storytelling in mind, [the Eckarts] experimented with, developed, and perfected a variety of innovative scene change systems: a winch-driven device that guided set pieces silently across the stage on hidden tracks; mini-drops (or flying set pieces) that occupied only a small section of the stage area; a series of turntable systems that sometimes moved concentrically, sometimes in opposition; and the adaptation of a minimalist style which utilized a sophisticated modern art shorthand for communicating ideas. The Eckarts became known not just for designing but for choreographing set changes and making the changing of scenery part of the performance."

The Golden Apple
The Golden Apple with Priscilla Gillette (Penelope) and Stephen Douglass (Ulysses), in front of the Eckarts' stylized apple tree, created of geometrically framed layers of translucent scrim panels. The design was influenced by Mondrian. (Photofest)
In Harris's account, the Eckarts took an unconventional approach in the first musical they designed, The Golden Apple (the first musical to move from Off-Broadway to Broadway). In comparison with the sets for most Broadway musicals of the time, The Golden Apple sets were stylized and had a lightness to them; there was no attempt to create an illusion of reality. Faced for the first time with the task of designing many locales in each act, the Eckarts decided to not hide the mechanics of the design. Scenery moved on and off in full view of the audience, and the ropes from which the show's many translucent scrim panels were hung were clearly visible.

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.

She Loves Me

She Loves Me
She Loves Me: The Eckarts' sketch for Amalia's bedroom, and Daniel Massey (Georg) and Barbara Cook (Amalia) onstage in the set. (Photofest)

When the book moves into the period when the Eckarts were regularly designing hit shows, we see how they tried to find fresh solutions every time, including a complex use of turntables in Fiorello! and turntables in combination with winch-driven wagons in She Loves Me. Harris perhaps drops the ball a bit when it comes to discussing how the Eckarts later used the innovations they helped pioneer in The Golden Apple and Mister Johnson. Or did they simply not reuse some of those design techniques very often? It's not clear.

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.

The Performing SetThe Performing Set: The Broadway Designs of William And Jean Eckart
By Andrew B. Harris
Hardcover. 238 pages, many illustrations.
University of North Texas Press
Publishing date: April 2006
List Price: $37.95
ISBN: # 1574412124