The smiling face, the princess, the skull, the dude with the glasses—they all come to life in the electrifying musical, Emojiland, currently downloaded to The Duke On 42nd Street until March 19. A Grand Jury Selection of the 2018 New York Musical Festival (NYMF), the production follows a diverse community of archetypes that begin to question their existence and purpose when a software update threatens to erase their code. With book, music, and lyrics by Keith Harrison and Laura Schein, the creative team includes scenic designer David Goldstein, lighting designer Jamie Roderick, projection designer Lisa Renkel and Possible Productions, sound designer Kenneth Goodwin, costume designer Vanessa Leuck, choreographer Kenny Ingram, and wig designer Bobbie Zlotnik.
“Emojiland is an ever-changing world of what the emojis would be like if they interacted with each other inside our smartphones,” explains Goldstein. “It's a completely digital world that we were able to envision from the ground up, and the show itself is about love and understanding and not judging people by face value. It is just such a feel-good musical.”
Directed by Thomas Caruso, the fast-paced musical had an equally quick turnaround time: the designers were brought onto the production in September 2019 for a show that opened January 11, 2020. Originally, Goldstein’s ideal version of the set featured video panels everywhere—638 tiles to be exact—but the design—and budget—had to be constrained. Ultimately, the design directive was to create a set design that could hold its own if—like in Emojiland itself—technologies such as lighting and projection were to be erased and the show must go on. “We wanted to create a set that was beautiful even without any of the content, which only helped to enhance it,” notes Goldstein. “We wanted to create a pixelated playground that provided a beautiful canvas for Jamie and Lisa to really electrify the show and add that visual element.”
The space at The Duke is very open, so the team had to build all their own entrances and decide how they wanted to create the movement of the emojis around the stage. They took inspiration from playgrounds, architecture, sculptures, and even binary code. “The entire shape of the world started with a video element that represents the smartphone screen and encompasses the whole world within that,” says Goldstein. “I created this jungle gym of pixels. I took the design to the table and realized it was rather flat. The other designers convinced me to play with it more and turn all the pieces.”
With one main video wall upstage center, the resulting landscape is lined with white pixel buildings that can be projected and transported anywhere. In addition to the stationary canvas, which is peppered with secret windows and scenic surprises, ten loose plastic cubes with built-in lighting act as props for the cast members to manipulate the world around them, constructing everything from thrones to walls. The multi-leveled set truly creates an enchanting playground for the cast, who climb blocks to reach platforms and then make their descent down the slide or the firefighter’s pole.
Collaborating with Renkel significantly shaped Goldstein’s scenic design, which he wanted to ensure had plenty of large surface areas for projections. “We started with a more pixelated set, and Lisa asked for more surface area. So we clustered the pixels in 4x4 or 3x3 squares rather than the 1x1 pixels. The size of the pixel cube is based on the size of one 500x500mm square of video wall,” explains the set designer.
LEDs are everywhere on the set. Besides the 10 LED cube props, ten chandelier cubes hang overhead. Thirty-five lightbox cubes are woven into the pixelated playground. “In the beginning, we intended to do milk plexiglass lightboxes, but I spec’d it wrong,” admits Goldstein. “I spec’d frosted plexi, and there was no money to change it. But the minute we put the light back there, we were so grateful for the frosted plexi because you could see more of the fixture and broke up the set. It was a lovely surprise that we were very happy about.”
A less pleasant surprise was that the various shades of gray paint on the series of pixels had to be cut last minute due to cost, resulting in only one solid white surface upon which to project. The video content still displays beautifully upon the current production’s white cubes, but next time, Goldstein promises a gray set to optimize the projections.
“This is a massive production, and we pulled off an incredible feat,” concludes Goldstein. “We worked with really passionate people who want to prove that they are really good at what they do in a lot of different departments. The product successfully showcases their art and their talent.”