Tonys: David Rockwell, World-Renowned Architect, on Why He Also Designs Broadway Sets

The 58-year-old, who received best scenic design Tony noms this year for the play 'You Can't Take It with You' and for the musical 'On the Twentieth Century,' talks to THR about his life and work.
Joan Marcus
'On the Twentieth Century'

David Rockwell is the founder and president of Rockwell Group, a Manhattan-based architecture and design firm that employs 250 people and does work around the world. He is the man principally responsible for the renovation of Grand Central Terminal, the Mohegan Sun Casino, the redesign of FAO Schwartz, the suites at MetLife Stadium, the TED Theater, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, the redesign of the Hotel Bel Air, the Dolby Theatre, the 81st and 82nd Academy Awards sets and Nobu restaurants worldwide, among many other beautiful spaces. And, to no one's surprise, he won the 2001 Presidential Design Award, was a 2002 inductee into Interior Design's Hall of Fame and was honored with the 2008 National Design Award for outstanding achievement in interior design.

So why, you might wonder, was the long-haired, soft-spoken, backpack-toting 58-year-old recently in the lobby of Times Square's American Airlines Theatre, of all places, just after a Wednesday matinee of On the Twentieth Century let out? Because as a side hobby of sorts, he also designs sets for Broadway shows, and on this particular afternoon he had graciously agreed to give me an up-close look at one of them before we sat down for an interview.

The day before we met, Rockwell received best scenic design Tony nominations for two of the three shows on which he worked last season — one a play, You Can't Take It with You, and the other a musical, On The Twentieth Century, both revivals directed by Scott Ellis, with whom he previously collaborated on 2012's Harvey. (The production for which he was not nominated was the musical Side Show, which, like the other two, happened to be set in the 1930s.) His earlier noms were for his work on the 2003 musical Hairspray and the 2013 play Lucky Guy and the musical Kinky Boots.

What keeps Rockwell, an architect as in-demand as any for large-scale projects, coming back to Broadway? "There's a cross-pollination," he tells me as we make our way from the rear of the theater to the front, headed backstage. "I think it [his work in the theater world] helps make our architecture better and I think the architecture gives me a kind of rigor that helps us in the theater world." He cites the "pop-up" TED Theater that he built in early 2014 — a 1,500 seat venue that sets up in five days and then comes down — as something he couldn't have done without "the detailed experience of being in the theater and thinking about how things move." He adds, "The toolbox of a set designer is very different than the toolbox of an architect, but the storytelling piece is very similar."

Rockwell, one of five boys whose parents moved around a lot (he had lived in Chicago, New Jersey and Mexico by the age of 12), has always derived enjoyment from creating worlds within worlds. "When I was a kid," he recalls, "I knew that the way I was able to communicate and connect with people was through making. I was always a maker of spook-houses and carnivals and constructions and Rube Goldberg things. That was just a natural instinct." He landed one of his first gigs at the age of 10, when he helped to paint the scenery for a production of The King and I that was being mounted by the community theater that his mother helped to start on the Jersey Shore.

Not long after that, his family began making preparations to relocate to Guadalajara. "Before we moved," he says, "we came into New York and had a day in the city. It's like one of those corny things, but it totally changed the trajectory of my life. We walked around the city — we walked through Times Square. I went to have my first restaurant meal — with my brothers, I ate at Schrafft's, which was the place to go before a matinee. And then we walked over to the Imperial Theatre and I saw Fiddler on the Roof." He continues, "Right away, I knew that there was something about the multiple things I did that day — the Boris Aronson set; the restaurant experience, which was the first time dining was anything other than a full-contact sport with four older brothers; and walking around the city — that there was something magical about these communities."

Thus began a period of contemplation during which Rockwell figured out what interested him about design: performance, movement, community and spectacle. "The thing that intrigued me about Fiddler was how the set, the music and the story all worked together," he says. (He became a lifelong fan of Aronson's work, later befriending the scenic designer's widow and collecting his work.) Things were very different in Mexico, he says: "Public life there was like theater — festivals, marketplaces, mariachi." Consequently, his area of interest expanded beyond the theater to include "architectural place-making and marketplaces."

Eventually, the family returned to the U.S. and he went off to pursue a B.A. in architecture at Syracuse University. While an undergrad, he studied abroad for a year in London, during which he saw so much theater that his interest in being professionally involved with it was reignited. At the age of 19, he returned stateside and, while working on a research project, decided to reach out to the noted lighting designer Jules Fisher. ("We've been friends ever since," he notes, "and actually did Side Show together.") Fisher recommended that Rockwell meet with a colleague, Roger Morgan, who offered Rockwell a job as his "glorified assistant." It was the spring of 1978 — Morgan was working on The Crucifer of Blood, which would open in the fall, and for which he would win 1979's best lighting design Tony — and the younger man took a semester off from school to get his first taste of life on the Great White Way. (Two blocks away, the original production of On the Twentieth Century was just beginning its run.)

After his stint with Morgan, Rockwell returned to school, graduated and began apprenticing with architects. When he was 24, one of them appointed him project designer for The Wild Cat Saloon, a cabaret inspired by Paris' Crazy Horse Saloon that was being constructed at 227 East 56th Street in New York. (The head carpenter on the project was Sam Ellis, who years later served in that same capacity on You Can't Take It with You.) At the establishment's opening in 1983, Rockwell was approached by an impressed hospitality industry executive who wanted the architect to renovate one of his restaurants. With that impetus, Rockwell decided to try to make a go of things on his own and, in 1984, started The Rockwell Group, through which he could work on any sort of project he fancied.

That's precisely what he's done over the ensuing 31 years.

These days, when Rockwell is sought after for far more projects than he can possibly take on, he says he chooses which ones to pursue by asking himself the following two questions: First, is it a project that feels irresistible? ("One of the keys for me is not knowing the answer," he says. "Knowing the answer before you begin is the worst approach.") And secondly, is his relationship with the potential collaborators one that is "significant" to him? (In the theater world, for instance, he likes the idea of cultivating relationships with specific directors in order to experience the "maturity" of their work together over time.)

Over the course of the 17 Broadway shows on which he has served as scenic designer — dating back to 2000's revival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and including many original productions, too — he has come to realize that his responsibility in the theater is "to find a way to unlock the physical key, to come up with an idea that really supports the piece" — while, of course, staying on schedule and within a budget. Unlike some scenic designers who conceive of a vision and then delegate the details to others, he prides himself on being very hands-on. "I'm involved in every single little detail," he says, "and the reason is that's the joy of it."

As we make our way through a backstage corridor, we come upon the dressing room of actress Mary Louise Wilson. The 83-year-old scene-stealer, relaxing after the show with her door open, spots him and excitedly tells a visiting friend, "This is the man who made the train!"

The train in question is the massive and remarkably active set piece on and in which most of On the Twentieth Century's action takes place. In a season of impressive creations — among them large ships in The King and I and The Last Ship, awe-inspiring abodes in Airline Highway and Skylight and a multimedia enclosure in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time — this one takes the cake. Several versions of it appear in the show; the biggest is 33-feet long, weighs roughly 13,000 pounds and assumes numerous different formations. (A car gets added, a car gets taken away, etc.) Indeed, like the show's star Kristin Chenoweth, it actually receives applause when it first is seen on stage.

"We really pushed the limit of what can happen in a theater," Rockwell says, noting that the train is able to move left and right and upstage and downstage. He says it took 14 months of "intensive design" — in collaboration with a lighting designer, tech director, prop master and set shop, all of whose contributions he emphasizes were essential — to bring it to life. "We did a survey of the theater and we knew where every piece of material would go and where everything would be stored," he says. Then, he continues, "We built it in a shop in Connecticut and got every piece right. And then they took it apart and brought it here."

Rockwell makes a point of tipping his cap to the legendary scenic designer Robin Wagner, now 81, who won a Tony for his work on the original On the Twentieth Century, photographs of which Rockwell had seen before embarking on his work on the revival. "I wanted to create a fresh approach," he says. Even so, he continues, "When I was offered the job I did call Robin and talk to him about it — he's a great designer and he was very encouraging." He adds, "It's a show that's never been revived [until now] because it has so many demands" — he cites the vocal demands of the female lead, the physical demands of its male stars and, last but certainly not least, the "physical production" required to house them all in a realistic train.

So how does the Rockwell train work? "There's a chassis underneath the train that's a robot," he explains, "and that chassis has a turtle that can rotate. So the chassis itself has a rotation piece underneath so it can rotate; it can also slide four feet left or four feet right." All of this movement is not just for show, he emphasizes, but to serve the story. "Once we got a sense of the train being a character in the show and started to understand the dynamics of it, it was clear, with Scott, that the comedy of it required the train to be as downstage as possible, so allowing this automation to get right down to the lip of the stage and then retract behind the black was key."

Because the audience does see the train up-close and from all sides over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour runtime, cutting corners with any aspect of it was not an option. Rather than creating sets with false fronts, like those on Hollywood backlots and many Broadway stages, Rockwell had to create a fully-realized, three-dimensional train. And because "you [audience members] are spending most of your night inside that train and get to explore the interior," he filled it with lovingly-designed items. "Every part you see of this set was made for this show," he says, pointing out the train's elaborate, period-specific wallpaper (metallic leaf) and trim, monogrammed pillows, vases, typewriters and luggage. Even the size and color of the "Repent!" stickers, which feature hilariously into the show, were carefully considered.

Everything is also industrial-strength, out of necessity. "This set gets more beat up than most," Rockwell says, referring to the show's hyperkinetic screwball action — constant door-slamming and pratfalls and running from car to car and pull-ups on door frames and the like — "and you do take that into account." He elaborates, "As in most cases, we built a rehearsal version of it, and it became clear these needed to be very durable." (The same was true of the multi-story single set for You Can't Take It with You, which housed one very big and wacky assortment of characters.)

Rockwell's research for On the Twentieth Century fascinated him so much that he even constructed for it a "show drop" — something that appears in front of a curtain to set a mood for audience members as they arrive and take their seats — that is more detailed and elaborate than most Broadway sets. Inspired by period poster art and industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss' original plans for the 20th Century Limited, and meant to convey the extravagance and speed with which the train was associated throughout its 65 years on the tracks (1902 to 1967), it weighs thousands of pounds. "It's chrome, brass, gold, laminate and fabric," he says. "I think most people associate the 1930s with Art Deco, but it's actually Streamline Moderne, which was a reaction to Art Deco that was elongated and more about movement, so it has these kind of beams of light that the train emerges from. And you can see that each one of the patterns is slightly different." (On the train itself, Rockwell went so far as to paint metal objects bronze to try to disabuse people of a widely-held misconception about Deco/Moderne design: that it's all about chrome.)

As my conversation with Rockwell wound to an end, I couldn't get out of my mind one big question: How does this man — who has designed so many structures that are meant to last for a long time, and whose very name connotes a certain sense of reliability and permanence — feel about the fact that his Broadway sets, like all Broadway sets, are destined from the start to wind up in a scrapheap? On the Twentieth Century is a limited engagement; it will close on July 19, only five months and four days after it opened, and after that, apart from photographs, it will live on only in the memories of the lucky few who were able to be in New York and afford tickets to see it during its run. Why, in spite of that fact, is it still worth it to him to pour his heart and soul and time into them?

The married father of two kids, aged 15 and 13, paused for a moment before sharing his answer. His own father, he tells me, died when he was just three, and his mother, who remarried and raised him with a step-father, died when he was only 15. "It forced me, early on, to acknowledge that nothing lasts forever," he says quietly. What's most important, he came to realize, is appreciating people and things while they are here, for however long that may be, and doing things that make one happy. "As a set designer, you're in some ways creating the world of the play, the world of the musical. It's a fantastic, joyous thing. And it's a particular thrill when you're creating work that makes people happy."

Sitting in the wings of this majestic theater, with his grand creation (well, one of many grand creations) feet away, he smiles and adds, "It's been a fantastic experience."