When LCT's mammoth version of The Coast of Utopia was moving into its technical rehearsals, in the fall of 2006, its director, Jack O'Brien, and its assistant director, Benjamin Klein, were taken backstage by LCT's production manager, Jeff Hamlin. O'Brien took a look at the activity, turned to Klein, and said, "Welcome to Jeff's world." Hamlin gave me a similar entry into his universe the other afternoon, to observe a hive of stage hands, hammering, adjusting, welding and focusing lights on the set of Act One.
I had a special reason for requesting the tour: this production marks Hamlin's last in the Beaumont. He is retiring, after working on at least 45 pieces in that theater over the past 28 years, not to mention the times, in the 1970s when he worked as an assistant stage manager when the theater was operated by the New York Shakespeare Festival, Public Theater. Before we looked over the Act One set, designed by Beowulf Boritt, Hamlin had shown me the blueprints in his office.
Noticing the most salient aspect of the design, I asked, "Is this the biggest turntable ever placed on the Beaumont stage?" "Yes," Hamlin replied. "It's huge - 60 feet in diameter." He added: "This turntable is the turntable fromThe Nance - an LCT production done last spring at Broadway's Lyceum - "only augmented." The repurposing made sense not only for design reasons but for reasons of cost. When Boritt and Act One's writer/director, James Lapine, showed Hamlin and Paul Smithyman, LCT's associate production manager, and Andre Bishop, LCT's producing artistic director, their design concept last spring, everyone loved it. But when the budget estimates came back, it turned out that adjustments were necessary. Some of them, done by Boritt, were subtle. But the re-use of The Nance turntable and enlarging it was suggested by Bill Mensching, head of Showmotion, the scenic shop that had built the set for The Nance and that would build the set for Act One. Building onto the 30 foot turntable saved a significant amount of money.
The Act One turntable wasn't quite the beast that was, say, the set of the recent Ring at the Metropolitan Opera. But it required special handling. "We had to level everything," Hamlin explained, referring to the adjustments necessary at the Beaumont underneath the turntable. "That took three days." Hamlin proceeded to explain the electrical work necessary. "There are over 200 dimmers on the set." It's no wonder that of the 33 technicians installing the set the past two weeks that 17 are electricians. (There are 12 carpenters and 4 prop experts.) Needless to say, the turntable was checked to ensure proper functioning two weeks ago, before the façade-like superstructure on top of it - which has 6 scenic areas - could be set up and adjusted. Hamlin walked me through it; we dodged workmen as he showed me various wires and cables that string throughout the vast enterprise.
And make no mistake: this is as vast a set as the Beaumont has seen. That's saying something when, as Hamlin told me, you consider that in all of New York City, there are only two stage spaces (not auditoriums) larger than the Beaumont: Radio City Music Hall and the Metropolitan Opera. I pointed out that in 1930, when Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's play, Once in a Lifetime, a central point of Act One, was done at Broadway's Music Box, some of the stagecraft necessary for what we were walking through did not exist. "It's true," said Hamlin. "Back then, they would have had a set made with traditional flats and drops with no automated scenery. That's one of the reasons why the Once in a Lifetime cast could rehearse so much on the Music Box stage. They didn't need the load-in time that we do today to install the set."
Rehearsals for the cast of LCT's Act One will move onto the Beaumont stage this weekend. Normally, this occurs only for technical rehearsals. Hamlin explained: "with such a large and multi-leveled set, our director could not completely block the show in the rehearsal hall, so we will have staging rehearsals on the set for several sessions before we begin the technical rehearsals when we will add lights, turntable moves and costumes."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com