Death Becomes Him

A fascination with Jo Mielziner’s scenic designs for the 1949 premiere of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman paved the way for Brian Webb to recreate those very sets for the current Broadway revival. “I have always admired Jo Mielziner as a scenic artist,” confirms Webb, a New York-based designer who had read Mielziner’s day-by-day diary of his process for the play. “That diary fueled my fascination,” he adds. “Mielziner had given his designs to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and when I discovered the box of original drawings, I was flabbergasted at the amount of material for this one show.”

In 1998, Webb was struck by the ground plan, and how sculptural and three-dimensional it was. Faced with the library’s restriction on taking materials home, he used clear tabloid-sized paper with a ¼" grid and clear gridded acetate, laid over the originals, to transcribe copies. “I copied the plans point-by-point, connecting the dots, and putting my copies under the transparent original drawings to check my accuracy,” he explains. Webb scanned and printed his copies, then made a ½" scale presentation model he keeps in a Plexiglas case in his living room.

In 1999, when Death Of A Salesman was revived, Webb told technical supervisor Gene O’Donovan about his fascination with the original set design. More than a decade later, when the current revival was being discussed, O’Donovan told director Mike Nichols that he knew someone who had made a model of the original set. “Nichols had seen the original production,” notes Webb. “He knew the floor plan and design concept worked and that Mielziner’s concept was responsible for rewrites by Arthur Miller and the show’s seamless transitions.”

Webb proceeded with caution, especially early on. “I have a particular interest in iconic designs for important American shows, but I thought there might be a fair number of people who wouldn’t understand why we did something 60 years old, or we might get it all on stage and wonder what all the fuss was about,” he says. “I knew it backward and forward, and am pleased by people’s response in seeing this poetic set on stage.”

Webb went back to the original drawings and studied the notes indicating such details as the thickness of the wood, no knots allowed on the pine, and bull-noses on all corners of the house. “When we turned on the stage lights, we realized immediately the value of Mielziner’s careful specifications,” Webb notes. “The house is actually very small. Mielziner and [director Elia] Kazan must have spent hours discussing the use of space, and the furniture is slightly diminutive. Then we realized the small tables really forced the actors to confront each other.”

Bill Mensching’s ShowMotion built the sets, which were painted by Scenic Art Studios. “I don’t think in Mielziner’s lifetime his scenery was ever so lovingly created,” concludes Webb.

Suggested Articles:

See how Audience Systems designed practical seating for this heritage auditorium.

Bandit Lites has multiple shows on the road, from Garth Brooks to Jimmy Buffet, and Strickland has some advice for anyone planning a tour this year.

Hamilton. Drama Book Shop. Immersive Van Gogh. Sotheby’s. Four projects in the current portfolio of David Korins, scenic designer/creative director.