Bob Crowley has designed more than 50 theatrical productions in Britain and on Broadway, plus worked on music videos with Sting and on movies with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder.
But he's only designed one musical: the Royal National Theatre's production of "Carousel." And he's prouder of its opening sequence than anything else in his 15-year career.
"It's like a summation of things," he says. "I feel there was a synthesis between music and design and direction and choreography. . . . It was as if one mindset was at work."
In the show's eight-minute prologue, we see young women working like galley slaves at looms in a cotton mill. At the close of the workday, a curved rod descends holding their coats on pegs. The set's turntable revolves, and they meet their beaus at a shipyard. Then, magically and wordlessly to the strains of Richard Rodgers' lush "Carousel Waltz," the men and women arrive at a carnival, where carousel horses appear one by one, crowned at the end by the umbrella-like roof of the carousel.
The carousel's brief appearance is the only time it is on stage, as Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II intended. "People think it's a musical about a fairground. It's not. It's about life and death," Crowley says.
Creating the opening sequence was a "wonderful meeting of all the different elements," the Irish-born designer says. He is referring to his collaboration with director Nicholas Hytner and choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan and, specifically, to a long afternoon spent in Hytner's house, "sitting in a room, playing the music over and over, and saying, 'What does this say? What can that do?' "
The prologue is also a stunning preview of the major images in Crowley's Tony Award-winning set. Many of these were inspired by a 1992 trip he and Hytner took to the Maine coast to research the setting for this 1945 musical, which opens a week-long run tonight at the Lyric Opera House.
"You saw where people actually worked. They fished the sea. The winters were hard, the summers were hot, and you could see how difficult life could be there as well as being a beautiful landscape. You saw the mills all around you as well. We were then able to root these people. It gave them a reality," Crowley says.
The trip also reinforced Crowley's feeling for the American painters Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer and Grant Wood who influenced his designs. But his greatest inspiration came from a Shaker meeting house he and Hytner visited in a little town called Sabbathday Lake. The walls of one room were painted "this fabulous blue," he says. A more intense hue of that blue is the predominant color in his vision of "Carousel."
"It just seemed to be right. If you're going to put heaven on Earth, you have to do it metaphorically," he explains.
Another image that seems right is the circle motif that recurs from the huge clock in the mill, to the carousel, to the rounded hillock on which the show's protagonists, mill worker Julie Jordan and carnival barker Billy Bigelow, sing "If I Loved You."
On an obvious level, the circle serves as a reminder of the carousel. On a deeper level, Crowley explains, "It is a very primitive image. If you go throughout the centuries, people have drawn circles to represent the world goes around." And, it is a highly appropriate image for a musical that is essentially about patterns repeating themselves over generations, or to borrow a cliche: What goes around, comes around.
The set for the touring version of "Carousel" is the third Crowley has designed for this National Theatre production. The first was created in London in 1992 for the proscenium stage at the National's Lyttleton Theatre and subsequently moved to the West End. In 1994, he redesigned the show for the thrust stage at Lincoln Center's Beaumont Theater in New York. Now he has converted it back to the proscenium configuration for its 10-month American tour.
"I think the present version of this is pretty bloody wonderful given what we were able to do, given the restrictions," he says, referring to the different-sized stages in the 25 cities of the tour.
Unlike most American designers who specialize in either sets or costumes, Crowley designs both. Doubling up, he explains, is the European tradition. "It's in the training," he says. "You're encouraged to do both. So you're not separated at birth."
His approach to the costumes for "Carousel" followed the minimalist style for which he is known. In a desire to simplify the lines of the clothing, he says, "We brought [the show's time period] forward. Normally, it's set in the 1870s with bustles and crinolines. We've made it more work-a-day and turn-of-the-century. . . . There's a feeling that these people are not a million miles away from us."
Despite a prolific career in Great Britain, where the 43-year-old designer is an associate of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, Crowley has designed only five shows including "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and "Richard III" in the United States. He recently spent 10 weeks outside of Boston, however, working on director Hytner's film of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," starring Mr. Day-Lewis, Ms.Ryder and Paul Scofield.
Crowley's work on music videos for Duran Duran as well as Sting has been limited to designing costumes. "A bit to do," he calls it, explaining that his work on each took only about a weekend. Whether designing music videos or Broadway musicals, however, he modestly says his role is basically the same "just an image maker."
Currently, he's in talks with Disney about a stage musical, and he's also been working with Paul Simon on a Broadway show called "The Capeman."
And, he's especially excited to be designing his first full-length ballet the Royal Ballet's "Anastasia," an assignment that grew out of his work on "Carousel." The ballet was originally choreographed in the 1970s by MacMillan, who died during rehearsals for "Carousel." Because MacMillan had wanted Crowley to design "Anastasia," for the past two years the designer has been working with the choreographer's widow.
"So," Crowley says, alluding to the patterns in "Carousel," "I have myself come full circle."
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Pub Date: 3/19/96