Stella by Stagelight


Frank Stella, who has been lauded as the master of Minimalism, the man who saved abstract painting, and America's greatest living visual artist, was a Princeton freshman when The Pajama Game took Broadway by storm in 1954. The original multi-award-winning production launched or cemented the careers of such musical theatre legends as then producer Harold Prince, directors George Abbott and Jerome Robbins, composer Richard Adler, lyricist Jerry Ross, choreographer Bob Fosse, actress Carol Haney, and her understudy, chorus girl Shirley MacLaine.

More than 40 years later, Stella agreed to design the sets for the musical's first major revival since the late 1950s. The tale of labor unrest and romance in the Sleep-Tite pajama factory was reborn in England's Birmingham Repertory Theatre under the directorship of British actor/writer/director Simon Callow, best known for his roles in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Shakespeare in Love and his productions of Shirley Valentine in the West End and on Broadway, and Carmen Jones at The Old Vic in London.

Callow became interested in The Pajama Game when he first heard the music 20 years ago. "I became a director in order to stage it," he claims. In the process of putting together his creative team, Callow consulted producer David Mirvish, owner of The Royal Alexandra and Princess of Wales Theatres in Toronto and former owner of The Old Vic, regarding a set designer. Mirvish, a modern art dealer prior to his theatrical ventures, had represented Frank Stella; the artist's 20'-wide lobby murals and elaborate central dome decorate the Princess of Wales Theatre. Not surprisingly, but quite audaciously, Mirvish recommended Stella to Callow for the design.

At first Stella was incredulous. The only time he had tried his hand at set design was for choreographer Merce Cunningham's "Scramble" in the 1970s. "It was a real minimalist set that didn't go over too well," he says. "They used it twice and never revived it." Stella eventually agreed to design Pajama Game and to "once more meet another kind of challenge.

"I was ready for this. My studio is like a huge theatre set. The way I live, the way I work, is not disciplined in the conventional way. I don't really have any theatrical ideas, but my sense of physical space and drama is pretty much straightforward. I know what's theatrical and I just aim for it. I'm not trying to bring high art to the stage. I don't think you can produce high art by having that be your goal. This is, after all, entertainment," says Stella.

The sets are imbued with the artist's energy, vitality, and creativity. The curtain is an exuberant jumble of vibrant colors, designs, and shapes, seemingly in constant motion and evocative of the era. "They gave me a free hand and said I didn't have to be literal. I didn't worry too much about that. I was a young man in the 50s, so I felt I had the spirit of the times in me." A scene set in the pajama factory is backed by a stage-filling flat of a black-and-white sewing pattern; a skewed illustration of a smart 1950s interior, fronted by a table and counter, becomes a kitchen. A gigantic rib-like swirl, set on a blue, white, and red vertical background, defines Hernando's Hideaway. The closing scene is a magnificent mural with banners.

Callow wanted to recreate what he calls "some of the essence of the 1950s musicals--the fantasy, the fluidity, and the energy--without being archeological about it." He goes on to say that Stella's vibrant and brilliant "canvases" correspond exactly to the freewheeling manner of the intended staging. "What he has produced is full of stylization and a lot of fantasy. It's sexy and uninhibited."

Stella drew his inspiration from a variety of sources. "I watched Doris Day a lot," he says, referring to the 1957 film version of The Pajama Game starring Day. "I thought about the stage and what to do within that box to make it come alive; to create an imagery for the music and the choreography to bounce off and put something there for the eyes as well as the ears; to find a way to get the box off the ground."

Reflecting on the differences between painting and set design, Stella observes, "Painting, you really have control, the time and will to make changes. There are no deadlines, although working to deadline also makes it a little interesting. I guess I would like a little more time to change things. Maybe I can make improvements. There are also physical constraints. British theatres are tiny, there's no room to expand, and I was limited to flats. Maybe they're a little too flat, very painterly and graphic. The complicated ones are like billboards. They also have to be matte for the lights. I would like a little resolution. The level of expectation is very high. You don't notice the sets as much as I would like. It could be a little sharper." Birmingham Rep resident lighting designer Tim Mitchell's geometrically patterned lights work in admirable symmetry with Stella's designs, as do West End costume designer Christopher Woods' eye-popping costumes--they bring his 'paintings' to life.

"Many scenes just take place in front of drops," Stella continues. "My favorites are the picnic scene, Hernando's Hideaway, and the sewing pattern, although there isn't quite enough detail in the pattern, it's too abstract. It is difficult finding the balance between two- and three-dimensional creation. There is not quite the same reaction to sets as there is to painting. They are not handmade. The designs are constructed into a finished product and you're stuck with the results. The entire process has been enlightening, illuminating. I'm not disappointed. I certainly would do it one more time but it's like being married. You have to be asked."

While waiting to be asked, Stella is engaged in two large sculptural commissions: a 35' x 50' bandshell sculpture, in which performances will be held, in Miami, FL, and a major work for the National Gallery's Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. Past designs and models for architectural projects such as a Kunsthalle in Dresden, Germany "came pretty close, but were never realized." "Architect Philip Johnson told me my problem was client management, not architecture." Simon Callow disagrees. "Within the dazzling aesthetic of Frank's designs, you're freed from a lot of restrictions. I confess to an initial fear of working with such a renowned figure, but he turned out to be easygoing and completely down to earth."

Following limited engagements at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and The Princess of Wales in Toronto, The Pajama Game opens for an indefinite run in London's West End in late summer and aims to reach Broadway next spring.