Simanaitis Says

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THE BOOK BRITISH Theatre Design: the Modern Age gives fascinating insights into dance, plays, the Great British Musical, and opera. Here in Part 2, I share tidbits on two British musicals and a Verdi opera, each with unorthodox settings.

Starlight Express. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pop-music fable Starlight Express pitted Rusty, an obsolete steam engine, against modern diesels, all wanting to impress first-class carriage Pearl. Wearing mechano-punk costumes, the actors were all on roller skates!

Designer John Napier: “We had to find a practical and dynamic solution to a piece where all the actors were on skates all the time. So we had them moving on a continuing spiral which raked through the proscenium into, and right round, the auditorium; and they got from level to level on a bridge which interlocked.”

Starlight Express had more than 7400 performances between 1984 and 2002, the ninth-longest-running West End production in history. It is also the most successful musical in Germany, having been performed in a purpose-built theater there since 1988.

Poster for the Japan-Australian tour, 1967–1968.

Wife Dottie and I each saw Starlight Express, both in London’s West End and here in Southern California. Alas, U.S. litigious potential precluded performers skating through the audience. But Starlight Express was a hoot either way. And, of course, Rusty and Pearl triumphed.

The Phantom of the Opera. Another Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza, The Phantom of the Opera has particularly impressive theatricality. This musical opened in London’s West End in 1986, on Broadway in 1988, and is by far the longest-running show in Broadway history, having reached its 10,000th performance on February 11, 2012.

Designer Maria Björnson: “Against the backdrop of the Paris Opera, we used drapes swagging downwards and upwards, dark Turkish corners leading off to nowhere, and candles rising out of the floor through mist as devices to underline the repressed Victorian sensuality and ritualistic quality of the piece.”

Wife Dottie and I were fortunate to see two different U.S. tours and I saw a West End Phantom. All were magical.

Rigoletto. Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto was originally set in 16th-century Italy. The Duke of Mantua and his hunchbacked court jester Rigoletto are given a maledizione, a curse. In a cruel twist, Rigoletto and his beloved daughter Gilda pay the price of the Duke’s evil ways.

Director Jonathan Miller chose a completely different locale for this 1982 National Theatre production of Rigoletto.

Designers Patrick Robertson and Rosemary Vercoe: “The action is set in Mafia-controlled Little Italy, New York, in the 1950s. Edward Hopper paintings inspired the visual aspect, particularly Act III. The drawing is of Rigoletto as chief barman in the ‘Duke’s’ hotel headquarters in Act I Scene 1. He wore a dark overcoat and hat for the street scenes, a grey work jacket for Act II.”

Daughter Suz and I have seen the Metropolitan Opera’s 2013 Rigoletto, with a similar gangster setting, this time in glittery Las Vegas. This production is scheduled for the Met’s free streaming on May 16, 2020.

Verdi’s Rigoletto, streaming free by the Metropolitan Opera On Demand, May 16, 2020.

See you in ’Vegas? ds

© Dennis SImanaitis,, 2020


  1. sabresoftware
    May 12, 2020

    Not truly related to set design, but we were recently treated to an entertaining production of As You Like It which was turned into a musical by the fusion of two dozen Beatles tunes into the play. The set was based on 1960s Vancouver and included props such as a psychedelic VW Microbus.

    Another twist was that as we were coming in to get seated there was already action on the stage with a wrestling match in a ring under way. We were somewhat bewildered at first as to what was going on, but this event morphed into the banishment of Rosalind and her cousin Celia as the play started.

    Truly different and highly entertaining. This production will be moving to Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the coming year.

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