Robin Wagner (1933-2023)

Remembering Robin Wagner (1933-2023): A Career Designed to Impress

By: Ellis Nassour

June 8, 2023: Three-time Tony winning scenic designer and an artist much-beloved in the business Robin Wagner passed away Monday, May 29th following a long illness. He was 89.

Remembering Robin Wagner (1933-2023): A Career Designed to Impress

By: Ellis Nassour

June 8, 2023: Three-time Tony winning scenic designer and an artist much-beloved in the business Robin Wagner passed away Monday, May 29th following a long illness. He was 89.

He was a friend for over 50 years.

Robin always spoke in revered tones of working in theater. “One of the great things about being in this business and, especially, being a scenic designer is that sense of feeling reborn with every show. Each has new characters, new stories, new environments – and, most of all, new opportunities to help bring a piece of theater to life. It’s so true. And then there are the people you collaborate with who become not only friends but part of your family, part of your legacy.”

He was one of contemporary American theater’s most sought, successful, and respected scenic designers. He has over 55 solo Broadway credits (since 1966’s short-lived The Condemned of Altona), 17 Off Broadway shows (1960-2015), shows on the West End, in regional theatres, operas all over the globe, rock concerts (including a tour with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones) and ballet, which he  loved doing but says he was never good at. [You might doubt since Jerome Robbins always highly praised their collaborations.]

“I enjoyed the freedom I was given designing ballet and opera,” stated Wagner, “but its theater that had the magic, especially musical comedy. It’s what I liked most, what I related to.”

Wagner was the go-to designer in the 70s and 80’s. He was an innovator. His sets, often minimal, were technologically exciting, visually stimulating, and kinetic. With his roster of shows you might think he frantically designed show after show. “I didn’t.  I think too long, take too long. I’d oversee everything from the building at the shops, what type of paint and materials to use, the load-in, and what goes where in the flies. I never wanted to do more than two or three shows a season because you give up your life, even after opening night.”

Broadway shows included the rock musical Hair, On the Twentieth Century, The Great White Hope, Promises, Promises, Jesus Christ Superstar, A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, Dreamgirls, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, City of Angels, Crazy for Yoy, Jelly’s Last Jam, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Angels in America: Perestroika, Victor/Victoria, the 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate, The Producers, The Boy from Oz, and Young Frankenstein.

His Tonys were for City of Angels, On the Twentieth Century, and The Producers. He received another seven nominations.

Wagner spoke of his work process as a well-oiled machine. “I start with the book. If it’s a musical, I hear the music. Then, I meet with directors and hear their visual connection. I read the play or book umpteen times until I know every line. I read it through with   directors. It develops from there.”

He  found it more gratifying to work with models than to sketch. “I’d start with a simple quarter-inch scale model, like a toy theatre, with cardboard cut into props which I can move about freely. Sometimes, I throw them out and start over. As ideas evolve, and I have a better idea of what the show is, I keep making models until I have one I like, then I go to half-inch scale. It can take six months. That’s when the models come to life. Then you see them onstage, and you walk around in them. That’s magic time.”

After a show opens, with all his energy spent, he stated, “You feel like you’ve been in a cave. It was great, exciting, but you need to get away, unwind. I couldn’t wait!” Wagner passed up jobs in order to travel the globe. “Each country, each culture invigorated me – expanded my outlook.” After his second marriage and the birth of his three children, “I was adamant about keeping summers free because that was my only time with them.”

Wagner, an inductee into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, was tall and lanky, warm and friendly, and possessed a wry sense of humor. His memory is startling. 

Just before he closed his studio he reviewed a wall of 50 window cards of his shows and effortlessly recalled details in minute detail, even remembering materials he used. and tales never told. 

His studio was crammed with design awards from around the world and countless drawers of sketches, miniatures, and blue prints — only a fraction of his archive. His door was always open and he was generous with his time, and always eager to meet with young designers. 

He also had a sentimental streak. When discussing Michael Bennett, with whom he collaborated on seven shows, he choked up recalling the joy and excitement he brought to projects. “Michael was one of the most gracious human beings. Above all else, he was loyal and generous. He helped so many people get started and was always there when needed. When A Chorus Line became a smash, he shared it with everyone. It was the same with all his shows. Talk about taken much too soon!”   

The show with Bennett on the West End was Tim Rice and Benny Andersson’s and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ Chess, sung-through and with Wagner’s dynamic design and  style. It included a gigantic revolving chessboard which could tilt and 64 TV screens with reporters speaking 64 languages. After Bennett’s death, when the musical was mounted in a new production on Broadway, designed by Wagner, a book was added.

Always the dapper dresser, you might mistake him for anyone but a theater designer. Maybe that’s because growing up in San Francisco, he never had any interest in theater. 

He was the son of a Danish-born marine engineer and a New Zealand–born classical pianist who gave up music when she moved to the States to raise her children. Wagner says. “I was a dreamer, and encouraged to draw. We moved about quite a bit because of dad’s work. Drawing became my refuge.”

When he saw theater as a child, “what grabbed me were the magical moments, but I never had dreams of becoming a scenic designer.” Instead, he attended art school, and that’s how  he “accidentally stumbled into theater.”

He was enamored of Disney films like Fantasia and hoped to be an animator, creating the backgrounds of cartoons, not the characters. “I actually thought I was Pinocchio, trying to find my way into some kind of real life, which I still think I sometimes am.”

In 1955, when he was 20, he discovered theater. “I wanted to figure a way to be around it. I got a job running a light board at San Francisco’s Theatre Arts Colony. Then, I worked with the Actors’ Workshop on a production of Waiting for Godot. We gave one performance at San Quentin, which received a lot of press, and were invited to Expo ’58, the Brussels World’s Fair, representing American regional theater. On the way back, we stopped in New York. And you can’t come to New York and not want to stay.”

Doors opened Off Broadway, where he brought fresh ideas. It wasn’t long before he was noticed and brought aboard to assist 24-time Tony nominee (nine wins) Oliver Smith on such shows as My Fair Lady and Hello, Dolly; and 14-time Tony nominee Ben Edwards [10 for scenic design]. “That was my education, my training!”

Early on he lived at the Chelsea Hotel where he met avant-garde master and enfant terrib Tom O’Horgan, who was a lifelong friend. His breakout came working Off Off Broadway with O’Horgan.

Author and theater professor Arnold Aronson wrote, “Wagner never formulated an approach or sense of the right way to design. He took risks and tried almost anything. He approached his work asking ‘How do I do something that makes the hair rise on the back of audiences’ necks’? He constantly challenged his imagination.”

As times changed, Wagner moved away from flats and drops to large-scale, fast-moving, automated scenery. His design for Burt Bacharach, Hal David, and Neil Simon’s 1968 Promises, Promises (based on the film, The Apartment) was the first totally automated show on Broadway.

In 1968, when producer Michael Butler decided to move Hair from the Public Theatre to Broadway, he opted for a totally new production. “He brought in Tom to rethink it. And did he! Did we! It was a massive overhaul and was a fun collaboration.” Wagner was never shy about admitting that most of his set design was anything he and the hippie cast could find on the street. His design altered the look of American theater forever.

A Chorus Line
was his favorite set, “because it was simple. The type of simple that took two years’ work, with Michael and me constantly distilling the elements. Finally, we realized we could do the whole show with nothing but a line on the floor. That was the real beginning. We knew we just needed a black box to represent the theatre, and mirrors to represent the dance studio.”

His most talked about, perhaps, most dazzling and puzzling set was for Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. “I could write a book about that one.” It was his third time working with O’Horgan. “We were at the point where we could finish each other’s sentences, thoughts, but Superstar became the exception – at first.”

Opera’s controversial Frank Corsaro was set to direct, but early in he was sidelined following an auto accident. “When it appeared he wouldn’t   return soon, music mogul and producer Robert Stigwood, decided not to delay production. Wagner was already signed and collaborating with Corsaro on a design. The late young costumer Randy Barcelo was also aboard. O’Horgan had a smash with Hair on the West End, which Stigwood produced; and he (assisted by none other than Harvey Milk) had a hit running on Broadway with Julian Barry’s controversial Lenny, the life of provocateur comedian Lenny Bruce, starring brilliant Cliff Gormanand giant puppets by Jane  Stein.

“Stigwood brought Tom on. He demanded everything be scrapped. We started from scratch. However, Superstar wasn’t Hair. There were hippies galore in both shows, but Hair was as free-wheeling as could be. Superstar, sung through and based on a record, was heavily structured and required actors who could act and sing Lloyd Webber’s scores in unheard registers.” 

When Stigwood asked O’Horgan to discuss his concept, the director quipped, “It’s all in my head.” In fact, it wasn’t. He was stumped.

Looking for inspiration, O’Horgan listened to the rock opera over and over, read and reread the lyrics. Nothing came. He and Wagner went to see a French Sci-Fi documentary that was drawing crowds. “It was as scary as the scariest horror movie,” laughed Wagner, “but it was visually stunning. The premise was that the savagery and efficiency of insects could lead them to take over the world. We were blown away. Tom asked, ‘What about this? Insects as a super race who take over the world and put on the Passion play?’”

Wagner replied, “I’ll see what I can come up with.” He thought the next day would bring another idea. It brought a visit to the Museum of Natural History to catch an exhibit on giant protozoa. O’Horgan, all excited, blurted, “Robin, how’s this? Reflect nature in the sets. For ‘Hosanna,’ I want the company carrying poles with all manner of protozoa as they wave palms and dance into Jerusalem.”

And that was the inspiration for the design that won Wagner his first Tony nomination. “I only wished Tom hadn’t been so secretive about our sources. I think if critics had known what we pulled together they would not have been so harsh. The set was years ahead of its times – and today still has fans who found it breathtaking.  

Tony nominee and Emmy winner Sheryl Lee Ralph, Dena in Dreamgirls, recently said, “Robin, that dear man, kept us on our feet, constantly moving until we were breathless.”

His design, another innovation, drew from Wagner’s engineer’s side with five aluminum, spotlight-studded towers that moved in various configurations to create with a minimal use of props, recording studios, dressing rooms, nightclubs, and a Las Vegas show palace. 

No one who saw Jesus Christ Superstar has forgotten the proscenium-wide wall subbing for the curtain with scantily-clad bodies in nets that lowered as if hinged to the footlights to become the stage, Wagner’s flying bone bridge with high priests hovering from the flies, or the crucifixion cross floating over rows of audience members; or Twentieth Century’s 6,000-pound logo “curtain” of Formica-covered plywood and its Art Deco train with Imogene Coco strapped to the engine hurtling across the night sky and down the track toward the audience; or the Mylar mirrors of A Chorus Line that descended from the flies to put the audience into the show.  

“Theater,” stated Wagner, ”has been my passion. I could never get away from it. I wouldn’t know what else to do, short of opening a taco stand in Baja (California). It’s always been exciting. I still get chills when I see something great. I don’t know any other place where that can happen. My goal has always been to make the hair rise on the back of audiences’ necks.”

He accomplished that, and much more.