Boris Aronson: Vision and Execution
In an extraordinary six-year period, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince brought four landmark musicals to Broadway: Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973) and Pacific Overtures (1976). All four iconic productions of these remarkably disparate shows featured scenic designs by the same man: Boris Aronson. A son of the Grand Rabbi of Kiev, Aronson pursued his artistic apprenticeship in Revolution-era Russia, made a name for himself in New York’s Yiddish theater of the 1920s and was honored with six Tony Awards and 13 additional nominations over the course of a Broadway career spanning 44 years. Although a generation older than Sondheim and Prince and born half a world away from the two New Yorkers, Aronson’s unique trajectory as an artist made him not only, in Sondheim’s words, “a man who is a course in the history of twentieth-century theatre,” but also the ideal collaborator for the younger men in their efforts to redefine the American musical.
Aronson was born around the turn of the 20th century, most likely in 1898. As a teenager he attended art school in Kiev, a city soon to become a center of the Jewish avant-garde, and during the Revolution he was drafted with other art students to artificially extend building facades so that gigantic political slogans could be painted there. Fascinated from childhood by theater, Aronson soon gravitated to stage design and embraced the iconoclastic theories of two directors, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Alexander Tairov, who both rejected Stanislavski’s rigorous realism and advocated unified productions in which the designer worked with the playwright and the director as an equal creative partner.
Aronson studied with and subsequently became an assistant to Tairov’s chief designer, Alexandra Exter. Trained as a painter in Paris, Exter incorporated Cubism and Futurism into the theatrical application of Russian Constructivist principles. That application, Aronson explained, was nothing less than revolutionary:
In the naturalistic theatre, there was only one method of stage design; a set always had to be an exact copy of real life. … Now, however, the intention is, in principle, to bring out the inner essence of each dramatic work. … Instead of one-dimensional painting, which had no organic connection with the stage, [Constructivists] constructed three-dimensional stage sets made up of several levels, platforms, stairs, and ladders, which allow the actor to move about freely and to employ diverse means of expressing his emotions effectively.
By 1921 Aronson’s artistic path had already carried him from Kiev to Moscow. The following year he left Russia for Berlin, where he studied, painted and wrote two books, one on Jewish graphic art and the other a study of a fellow artist and theater designer he had known in Moscow: Marc Chagall. His success as both author and artist enabled him to immigrate to New York, where he quickly found work in the Yiddish theater and attracted favorable attention there. Productions in English followed, and Aronson made his Broadway debut with the musical Walk a Little Faster in 1932. In 1935 he designed his first bona fide Broadway hit, George Abbott’s Three Men on a Horse, which ran for more than 800 performances, as well as Clifford Odets’ influential Awake and Sing! Aronson won his first Tony in 1951 for a Broadway season in which he created the sets for three plays, including Odets’ The Country Girl and Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo. Later triumphs during the 1950s and 1960s included Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, William Inge’s Bus Stop and The Diary of Anne Frank.
Despite these achievements, Aronson remained frequently dissatisfied: Weary of designing too many living rooms and kitchens for too many conventional plays, he chafed at the restrictions of Broadway scenic realism and was painfully aware that mainstream tastes in the commercial theater favored his more successful colleagues Jo Mielziner and Oliver Smith. The very qualities for which some people praised his designs — the “strong, expressionistic composition and forced perspective” admired by Smith, the “turbulently dramatic” touch lauded by director and critic Harold Clurman — were precisely what displeased others. Indeed, scripts that could draw fully upon Aronson’s talents and training came along only rarely.
One such play was Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., a modern reworking of the Old Testament Job story re-enacted beneath the tent of an allegorical traveling circus. Aronson’s acclaimed design for the 1958 Broadway staging was the fruit of an unusually close and rewarding collaboration with director Elia Kazan, who wrote to him afterward, “It’s almost as though the line of demarcation between your work and mine was not clearly marked at certain points.” This kind of production was Aronson’s ideal, and it helped to win him the assignment that would change the course of his career and ultimately lead him to Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim: 1964’s Fiddler on the Roof.
Fiddler, produced by Prince, was a show that Aronson — Russian-born son of a rabbi, childhood witness to pogroms and veteran of New York’s Yiddish theater — lobbied to design. Prince had reservations that his work was too dark and heavy, but director Jerome Robbins wanted Aronson, especially after seeing his designs for J.B. at an exhibition Robbins visited with Fiddler’s creators. “This is a perfect set,” Robbins told lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Prince eventually yielded to his director’s choice, and Aronson embarked on the arduous task of translating Robbins’ vision of the musical into scenic reality. His ultimate solution, the opposition and synthesis of “the homely realism of poverty” with his old friend Marc Chagall’s fantastic painted images of shtetl life, proved so iconic that Broadway would not see a revival of Fiddler on the Roof without Aronson’s sets until 2004.
Hal Prince was convinced of Aronson’s gifts. After the designer’s death he wrote, “It is likely no author has engaged my mind, lit a fuse which ignites my imagination, tempted me to inch ahead more than Boris.” In a belated but welcome American realization of Meyerhold’s and Tairov’s Moscow ideals, Aronson was Prince’s partner throughout a show’s entire evolution from inception to opening night.
After Fiddler Aronson and Prince would collaborate on two musicals with scores by John Kander and Fred Ebb that Prince himself directed: Cabaret (1966) and Zorba (1968). Rather than fashioning conventional stage settings for these decidedly non-traditional shows, Aronson instead created conceptualized, abstract “limbo spaces” within which all the individual scenes took place — an approach that would be central to his work with Prince and Sondheim in the following decade.
Cabaret’s stylized black limbo space, in and out of which smaller set pieces were rolled on wagons, was given depth and perspective by streetlights, storefronts, an omnipresent iron spiral staircase at stage left, the red neon cursive “Cabaret” sign and, most memorably for anyone who saw the production, the enormous trapezoidal mirror hanging over the stage. As the mirror’s angle changed, it could show the audience a distorted, grotesque reflection of the performances in the Kit Kat Klub or reflect the audience themselves. The latter effect served to underscore the political parallels Prince saw between the anti-Semitism of Cabaret’s pre-war Berlin and the racial conflicts of 1960s America.
Zorba, although it has proved less durable than the perennially popular, seemingly indestructible Cabaret, further developed the collaborators’ methods. This time Aronson evoked a stylized amphitheater in which Prince’s contemporary Greek chorus donned costumes and re-enacted their communal play-within-a-play of life and death, love and loss. Prince and Aronson resorted to fewer rolling set pieces for particular locales than they had in Cabaret, relying more often on reconfigurations of the mobile stairs and platforms that made up the unit set. The production’s abstract framework enclosed the detail of specific scenes, reinforcing the timeless aspects of the story being retold. Aronson won Best Scenic Design Tony Awards for both Cabaret and Zorba, an accolade from his peers that had eluded him since 1951.
Then came Company: Aronson’s first Sondheim show, his favorite among his Broadway productions and one of his career-defining scenic achievements. His challenge was to capture onstage contemporary New York City itself, which served not only as the pioneering concept musical’s setting but also, more importantly, as its central metaphor for modern love, sex and marriage. This was not the picturesque New York of Loesser’s Guys and Dolls or Bernstein’s On the Town, nor even the grittier ethnic New York of Sondheim and Bernstein’s West Side Story. Instead Aronson strove to convey onstage the Manhattan whose streets he walked every day: a mechanized, “antiseptic” city in which, he observed, “people sit stacked on top of each other in transparent cages.” The final result was his famous steel and Plexiglas “urban jungle gym” composed of moving platforms and elevators, a dazzlingly complex multilevel abstract structure within which, aided by lighting and hundreds of projections, Prince could move his ensemble cast about and seamlessly interweave Company’s many scenes and musical numbers. Aronson’s design was utterly modern and American, a brilliant realization of Prince and Sondheim’s radical departure from the norms of traditional, linear book musicals, yet simultaneously the unmistakable fruit of his Constructivist training with Alexandra Exter five decades earlier.
New York would again provide the setting for Follies: the crumbling theater in which impresario Dimitri Weismann once staged his Ziegfeld-esque revues, a prospect that immediately sparked Aronson’s imagination: “an empty stage is a goldmine — a concept that really fascinates me.” Nor could the designer simply decorate the Winter Garden’s own bare stage, because Follies required an evocative limbo space in which the characters’ mundane present and their ghostly past repeatedly converge and diverge in surrealistic fashion before taking an unexpected Felliniesque turn in the “Loveland” sequence.
Just as in Company, a multilevel Constructivist set provided the solution: the apparently gutted, rubble-strewn stage that audiences saw in fact concealed state-of-the-art machinery to slide multiple scaffolding units of varying sizes and heights in different directions, creating numerous playing spaces and achieving the fluidity of time, space and perspective so integral to Follies. In the second act, Aronson restored the Weissman Theatre to its pre-war heyday before the public’s eyes for “Loveland,” only to dramatically dismantle that lavish decor in a “chaos effect” and return the partygoers and the audience to the present — this time with a new trompe-l’œil backdrop showing a New York day dawning beyond the Weissman’s now-demolished rear wall.
The decidedly lighter prevailing tone of A Little Night Music presented Prince and Aronson with a new challenge: finding scenic analogues to the wit and buoyancy of script and score while, yet again, efficiently executing numerous scene changes. “To me, the setting must be like champagne, it must sparkle,” Aronson declared. It was decided that Night Music’s limbo space would be (in curious anticipation of another Sondheim musical) a forest, but one made up, according to the composer, of “metaphorical trees, not literal trees.”
Recalling his own youth, Aronson soon found his central image to convey the white nights of a Scandinavian summer: “I had a very vivid memory of white birch groves in Russia. … Birch trees would give the show the lyrical quality called for.” Every scene of the musical, even interiors such as Fredrik and Anne’s bedroom and Madame Armfeldt’s dining room, took place among these trees, which were painted on silk applied to sliding panels the height of the proscenium. The gliding screens likewise gave Prince the scenic fluidity he needed to move the action from one setting to another in an almost cinematic fashion.
Screens would also figure into Aronson’s fourth and final partnership with Prince and Sondheim, Pacific Overtures. Lightness and fluidity were again the scenic goals, but this time as part of a spare Oriental aesthetic. The conceit for Pacific Overtures, described by Sondheim as “a Japanese idea of a Western musical of a Japanese subject,” required sets and props that would mirror as well as reconcile the 19th-century clash of cultures depicted between imperial Japan and imperialist America. Screens, either flown in from above or carried onstage by black-clad stagehands, were among the devices Prince and Aronson borrowed from Kabuki theater for this purpose; Sondheim composed what he called “a Japanese screen score.”
Essential to Aronson’s designs were Japanese prints, already a highly stylized art form from which — with the help of a Xerox color copier, at that time a technological breakthrough — he created complex, still more stylized collages for the screens, drops and the show curtain. This most abstract of Aronson’s musicals with Prince and Sondheim produced some of his most daring and striking stage images.
Boris Aronson won three Tonys for his work with Sondheim and Prince, taking home the trophy for Company, Follies and Pacific Overtures. (His designs for Night Music were also nominated, but that year Tony Walton received the prize for Pippin.) Declining health precluded further Broadway projects, and his final work for the stage was Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 1976 American Ballet Theatre production of The Nutcracker, subsequently filmed for television.
Aronson died in 1980. His late-career acclaim — five Tony Awards in 10 years — represented belated appreciation for his neglected genius much less than it did the long-awaited arrival of collaborators and projects enabling him to fully realize his vision of both process and product. Hal Prince recognized Aronson during Fiddler as the right man in the right place at the right moment, uniquely equipped to join forces with Prince to achieve the theatrical innovations at which the director aimed.
Today the musicals that they together brought into being have long since taken on independent life, the original stagings remembered only by those lucky enough to have seen them and by students of theater design. Nevertheless, Aronson’s impact on these pioneering works’ evolution into their now-familiar forms — and on the subsequent course of American musical theater history — remains incalculable.
For further reading: My primary source was the magisterial and marvelous The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson (Knopf, 1987), written by Frank Rich with Lisa Aronson, the designer’s widow and frequent production assistant. Of additional interest are Joseph Horowitz’s Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts (Harper Collins, 2008) and Foster Hirsch’s Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre (expanded edition, Applause, 2005).
CHRISTOPHER WEIMER, an associate editor for Everything Sondheim, is a professor at Oklahoma State University, where he teaches courses in literature, Western humanities and Spanish.
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