Anatomy of a Scene: Tony-Winning Designer Bob Crowley on 'An American in Paris'

Matthew Murphy
Brandon Uranowitz, Robert Fairchild and Max von Essen in 'An American in Paris'

The designer of the Gershwin-scored musical breaks down his process behind creating two pivotal moments in the show.

“The responsibility of putting Paris on stage in front of Parisians gave me nightmares,” says Tony Award-winning designer Bob Crowley of constructing the scenery and costumes for the musical An American in Paris. The show, which is based on the 1951 Oscar-winning MGM film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, premiered in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2014. It opened on Broadway to rave reviews in April, winning Crowley his seventh Tony Award for set design.

For a story set in post-World War II France about an American artist who falls for a ballerina/shop girl, Crowley’s aesthetic is decidedly modern, with intricate projections created by 59 Productions. But the designer also used a couple of old-school tricks to create layered illusions. “It’s all very impressionistic,” he explains. Also, since it’s a heavy dance show, the scenic pieces are moved by ensemble members instead of on automated tracks so the ballerinas won’t trip on grooves in the floor.

The London-based theatrical designer talked The Hollywood Reporter through two scenes in the show to explain how he achieved the effects.

“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”

Courtesy of Bob Crowley

“It’s Henri’s fantasy of a career singing and dancing in New York. You’re going from this grungy, little club in Montmartre where there’s no proper lighting and some little tables scattered around. Those little clubs are universal. And then the idea was to have all these gorgeous chorus girls emerge through the back and over the furniture and out of the piano. Then you go into this whole glittering chorus line of beauty.”

Courtesy of Bob Crowley

“The tables go into the wings, and the cabaret stage moves upstage. A backdrop flies in with a stylized 1930s art deco image of the New York skyline. It’s quite a complex drop, in that the back of it is painted black and it has tiny little holes all over it that [lighting designer] Natasha Katz can then light up the buildings through. That’s very much a period piece of scenery. Projection is a fantastic tool, but it’s very contemporary-looking and I wanted that set to look like a recreation of a 1930s piece of scenery.”

Matthew Murphy

“There’s no more beautiful building in New York than the Chrysler Building, which is from the art deco period as well. And so the shapes of those three pieces of scenery are all based on the Chrysler architecture. For the projections, we sort of used the idea of it’s almost like fireworks so it has a kind of a movement to it. As the transformation happens, you get the idea of things spiraling outwards, then the scenery moves in on top of it. It’s like moving through a movie screen. It gives you a sense of movement coming toward you. That’s what the projections do. The scenery came first and the projections came after.”

Lovers at the Seine

Courtesy of Bob Crowley

“This is when Lise and Jerry meet for their first rendezvous. That’s the first time they’re alone. There are three things going on there. There are built boats, which float in front of a backdrop that’s lit from behind. Then there’s the edge of the river where the fisherman sit, and then the projection of the Pont des Arts. There are usually three things going on at one point in time.”

Matthew Murphy

“That’s a perspective view of the river. My obligation was to try and put the river and the bridge on stage. And so I had this idea of skewing the perspective so the audience has a bird’s eye view as if you’re floating on the river. The projection allows the water to move, so you have a sense of movement, and they’re dancing on the edge of the river.  You’re seeing things from two perspectives. It’s a bit like cubism. It gives the audience a thrill. You’re not just being literal about something. You’re making something poetic and painterly. Dance is suggestive of all sorts of things. And the scenery had to be in the same kind of style as the dance.”

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