Wild West Germany: Designing Sets For Der Schuh des Manitu, Part 1: The Story

Given the current wave of film-to-stage transfers, most theatre professionals are probably excessively aware that transforming a popular film into a successful stage production is challenging under the best of circumstances. Movies, after all, are able to depict chase sequences, swift changes in venue, and vast expanses of earth and sky through the magic of cinematography and film editing. Our stage medium, on the other hand, is obviously limited to the physical playing space of the stage itself. For this reason, conventional wisdom has been that simply “putting the movie on stage” is a recipe for disaster.

But what if the movie being transformed is a German Western adventure comedy that is so silly it makes the work of Mel Brooks look downright Chekhovian? What if the film is so iconic to its culture that audiences might just revolt (or, worse, not show up at all) if a single beloved movie moment is omitted from the stage version?

Under these circumstances of content and culture, my creative challenge for the design of Der Schuh des Manitu, a German musical currently running in Berlin at the Theatre des Westens, was exceedingly clear: how would I design a set capable of accommodating the moment-to-moment action of an epic Western tale that, among other things, is filled with countless chases, a structure that burns to the ground, a hilarious building collapse that, believe it or not, is caused by an errant champagne cork, and a gravity-defying mine escape sequence, and how would I do it in such a way that actually augments the piece so that it is exhilarating for the audience, who already intimately knows and loves the story?

The genre gap was not, however, the only divide initially in need of bridging. Sure, the language barrier between American director Gip Hoppe, German director Carline Brouwer, Dutch producer Joop van den Ende, and me was surmounted rather easily as we met in the middle land of English. But if I’m being honest, I couldn’t even say the title let alone know what it meant. And since the movie was so beloved, a bona fide icon to the nation of Germany, I obviously felt an enormous responsibility to deliver the goods.

Unfortunately, the piece itself did not make meeting these feelings of responsibility an easy task, for the humor central to Der Schuh des Manitu’s success is, well, very specifically German. In fact, much of it escapes translation into any other culture on the globe, especially the American one from which the story was first derived. For example, the main, recurring joke of the piece is that all the characters speak with Bavarian accents, something that is evidently hilarious to most Germans, save, I presume, the Bavarians themselves.

The final large obstacle presented by the material, of course, was the source from which it sprang.

Let me explain.

In the late 1800s, Karl May wrote a series of hugely successful action/adventure novels set against the rugged backdrop of the American West. The only problem, of course, was that, even though Herr May had struck literary gold with the creation of the characters Ranger and Abahachi, the author had never actually bothered to visit the American West. As a result, the writer had no accurate knowledge of even the most basic details. Very serious film versions were made of May’s novels in the 1960s. The German television show Bullyparade then did parodies of said films, which, in 2001, culminated in a movie directed by Michael (Bully) Herbig known as Der Schuh des Manitu, which is also, of course, the title of the musical I was designing.

How, then, to effectively translate to the stage this wildly successful German film farce, five times removed from its original source material, and set in an American West that, while beloved and somehow true to the German nation, never really existed?

After several readings of the script and multiple viewings of the film (which I am happy to report has an officially-dubbed English version and is indeed hilarious), followed by countless conversations with Joop, Gip, and Carline, design ideas swiftly began to suggest themselves to me, a result, no doubt, of my budding understanding of the show’s humor, which was proving to be universal and rather contagious.

Having been encouraged by the production team to make unapologetically epic choices, I soon decided that projections would have to be a large part of the design. Thus, the first and most central aspect of the playing space was to be a 30'-tall by 60'-wide projection screen upon which the ne’er existent backdrops of desert and wide open western skies could be projected in true Monty Python-esque absurdity. In front of this screen, actors could sing, dance, and prat fall to their hearts’ content, all while actually interacting with the events transpiring onscreen behind them. (This would have the delightful effect, at times, of being a bit like a 3D movie.)

Next, I chose to contain the show within the framework of an Old West Opera House. Going for this “stage-within-a-stage” conceit added the necessary theatricality to the material without infringing on the “reality” of the movie. It would also allow the space to be replete with the requisite tables, chairs, bar, and even a gallery where the orchestra (dressed as an old-fashioned jug band) could be seated. This juxtaposition of a somewhat drab, realistic realm was to be a permanent structure that would surround the projection screen—a literal wooden frame for the show within a show that transpires.

With these two elements firmly in place, I felt confident that the original film was being sufficiently confined into a new theatrical realm and that these beloved characters’ sudden corporeality was fully translated and justified from the set designer’s perspective. Many questions remained, however, chief among them being how I would keep things literally moving within this new theatrical box which Der Schuh des Manitu was finally living—foot chases, horse chases, a hand-cart-on-train-track chase, and that extremely intricate mine cart escape at the show’s climax. Chases, it seemed, were a gag as never-ending as those damned Bavarian accents.

Through the combination of deck tracks that could swiftly winch scenery across the stage, a scrolling projection screen, various elevators—oh, and two 60'-wide, full stage treadmills—it became possible for the actors, in true cartoon-like fashion, to chase each other like mad without ever actually going anywhere. (Warner Brothers’ cartoons have always been one of my great inspirations as an artist.)

To collect the scrolling Cinerama images of a false American West that would aid in the illusion of movement during each of these chases, I headed to the present day American West, with the admittedly unrealistic hope of uncovering even the slightest remnant of its non-existent past.

Over the course of a full week, co-projection designer William Cusick and I, along with a professional photographer and a hired driver, trekked through Middle of Nowhere, USA. Across the Mojave Desert of Arizona and Nevada, we collected images that we hoped would equal the grandiosity of this mega show, with music that ranged from styles reminiscent of a soaring spaghetti Western to Aaron Copeland, from the epic Bernstein score for The Magnificent Seven to show-stopping Broadway production numbers, and even a yodeling number, which I can safely say, without fear of contradiction, is a requisite for any show performed with Bavarian accents. But because we obviously weren’t interested in reality here, no single image would have been sufficient. Thus, the library of photographs we collected during our “vision quest” in the Mojave Desert was extensively manipulated to create the stylized world of our show.

Given the myriad set design elements that I was juggling, it was, by now, abundantly clear that design was very much the driving force of this show. That was somewhat expected, I guess, as Joop always views meeting the demands of a show’s physical production to be his primary goal as a producer. What was not at all expected, though, was that, while I initially knew very little about this beloved German piece, it was, despite its madcap zaniness and go-anywhere style, shaping up to be a love letter to the American West.

There was little time for such musings, though, for with both the core of the deck and the heart of the backdrop securely under development, it was time to turn my attention to that iconic, all-out, action-packed, old fashioned, hootin’ and hollerin’ mine cart escape at the musical’s climax. Depicting this classic sequence on stage would, indeed, prove to be the zenith of the show’s design—a thrilling culmination of costume, puppetry, projection, video, and set design.

So, a giant Adidas sneaker appears, and the actors rush inside it in search of their treasure. The stage then transforms into the vast labyrinth of a silver mine and a chase for the treasure ensues. Of course, the villain is vanquished; all romantic couples are properly joined; and the knowledge that nothing bad will ever happen again seems to be shared by all.

Then—oopsy daisy!—someone accidentally pulls a lever that causes the entire mine to collapse, and my greatest challenge begins.

Chunks of stone and timber fall from the ceiling! Sparks fly! Ranger, Abahachi, and their cohorts dart into a heavily-automated mine cart that begins to soar through the maze of the mine toward a seemingly uncertain but completely assured escape, and the design is forced to “jump to a completely different track,” if you will.

In order to accommodate the demands of this escape sequence, all the technology we’d been relying on had to be abandoned. While we still used projections, the scale of the set pieces that create the silver mine demand their minimization, and the 3D video depicting the mine cart’s travel is recreated by these fully dimensional portals, which are, themselves, automated for several axes of motion (including, at one point, an entire inversion, as the portals and video spin in endless revolutions).

To further create the illusion of an upside-down cart flying wildly through a tunnel, we added to all this assorted forced air-, pyro-, wind-effects, and even wig changes.

The chase culminates with the cart making one final descent into the floor as the set transforms back to the exterior of the giant shoe. Then, a duplicate cart smashes through the toe of the sneaker and the actors spill out onto the stage floor.

Thankfully, there was a lengthy time allotted for load-in.

Designing this show was not an easy task, but governed by the edict to contain the film for the stage in a way that would augment the material in its new form—and thanks, too, to the use of the various theatrical tools and technologies available to me—the hit German film comedy Der Schuh des Manitu was finally designed to be a thrilling, vibrant, and successfully translated film-to-stage musical.

Stay tuned for part 2, a visual focus on Gallo’s sketches and models for the show.

David Gallo’s scenic designs can be seen in more than a dozen cities worldwide. He won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Musical for The Drowsy Chaperone, and his work as the original set designer for August Wilson’s later plays garnered him two additional Tony nominations. He was selected to represent American set design at The Cooper-Hewitt Design Triennial, and his work is part of the national archive at The Smithsonian. Visit www.davidgallo.com.

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