This is the second Broadway musical for George Tsypin, the sculptor, architect, and opera designer, following Disney's The Little Mermaid, and his first impulse was to send the show airborne. “We had to find a theatrical language to capture the world of comic books,” Tsypin says. “I desperately wanted to bring that illustrative world into space, which led me to the idea of pop-up books, which brilliantly do both. And I felt that everything had to move, and fly, like Spider-Man, and enlarge the experience.”
So began a period of intensive experimentation with a team of illustrators to learn pop-up techniques, for which “there's no computer program, and professional pop-up illustrators weren't very helpful, as what we were doing was so different.” The big problem, he says, was that no one thought it could be done, until lightweight, durable carbon fiber was adopted as the primary set material.
Graphically, New York predominates in the show, “which was right up my alley, as I've been obsessing about the city in my work for years. But there's a certain style to the architecture in comic books, which is usually in the background and very dry, not expressive.” He and Julie Taymor decided that the sets should be in black and white, for a flavorful film noir feel that also allowed Ishioka's costumes to stand out. “When we were loading in last summer an actor in a Spider-Man costume walked across the stage, and I knew that was perfect. Everything came alive.”
Yet the sets are also alive with color. “Every single piece of scenery had to include lighting,” he says. “They're all lightboxes that go to different colors. Our huge skyscrapers look like cardboard cutouts but they are in fact sophisticated panels with LED lights and many layers of materials. Don Holder was so excited when we got it working, as it allowed him to light the show from the front and back and from the inside, with all these colors.”
Tsypin kept the staff at PRG Scenic Technologies busy with innovations. “The proscenium was the most difficult thing for the shop to create,” he says, “and not just the lightbox element, but also that it's permeable for the sound and packed with pop-up pieces like a giant Spider-Man and Green Goblin.” It's also free of right angles, “something I'd been experimenting with for years," he adds. "Most proscenium stages and sets are symmetrical and static. Here the entire proscenium is tilting—one panel goes one way, a second goes another. Fred Gallo [of PRG] killed himself to make this.” (Editor's note: a separate story on the technical components of the set will be coming soon.)
An audience favorite in Act I is the number “Bouncing Off the Walls,” where an empowered Peter Parker (played by Reeve Carney) does just that in his home. “That's another piece that took a long time,” Tsypin says. “In the beginning, the room was supposed to rotate, and then it evolved into something more puppet-like. Puppeteers operate the very light walls, which are built of carbon fiber and fabric; the idea is a 3D trampoline, made of material that's very soft and forgiving for the actor. It adds to the concept of the whole world in motion.”
Audiences in the balcony—the best place to see the entire breadth of the show—are treated to Spider-Man's landing all but in their laps when he flies. Says Tsypin, “I wanted him to walk sideways around the balcony, but there's too much equipment there. Figuring out where to place the landing platforms was one of those decisions that involved the totality of the theatre. The thing about this show is there's no wall between the stage and the house. We break it to give the audience an incredible experience.”
For a gallery of George Tsypin's model shots, click here.