10 Iconic Theatre Set Designs
That Have Stood The Test of Time
by Steve Sykes, Columnist
A friend of mine recently attended a performance of the 20th anniversary tour of “Rent” and posted a pre-show picture of the unit set. I was struck at how, despite its simplicity, it was instantly recognizable. That got me thinking of the most iconic, instantly identifiable sets in modern theatrical history. Here’s one man’s list of the top 10, placed in order of their premiere performances.
(opened May 11, 1981)
Jim Croce sang of a “junkyard dog,” but Andrew Lloyd Webber took his career to the next level with a musical about junkyard cats (one of two ALW productions on this list). And that marvelous junkyard, designed by multiple-Tony-Award-Winning designer John Napier, is a feast for the eyes. The set pieces are enlarged to create the illusion that the performers are the size of the titular animals, and the set stays static aside from the tire. Setting the stage (pun intended) for later landmark set pieces, the tire carries Grizabella to the cats’ version of the afterlife, the Heaviside Layer, during the show’s climax.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
(opened May 6, 1982)
Is this cheating? Perhaps. Let’s get right to the 800-pound plant in the room – Audrey Two. Not so much a set piece as a character, Audrey Two starts out as a hand puppet and ends up a massive puppet operated by multiple stagehands. The carnivorous creeper was designed by Jim Henson Company alum Marty Robinson, who 10 years earlier brought Mr. Snuffelupagus to “Sesame Street.” And whether you consider it a set piece, a prop, a character or all three, Audrey Two is the center piece of Little Shop’s Skid Row.
(opened Dec. 11, 1983)
The only non-musical on this list, “Noises Off” features a reversible set. During Act 1 and Act 3, the audience sees a rehearsal and a performance, respectively, of the play-within-a-play, “Nothing On,” from a standard perspective. During Act 2, the audience sees the action from a backstage perspective. This requires a set that is fully functional from both sides so that the comical entrances and exits can be appreciated from both views. In theaters that can support it, this is accomplished with a rotating stage.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
(opened May 2, 1984)
We move from a set piece that is actually a character to a set of characters who form a set piece. Sondheim’s musical about George Seurat and his master work, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” is a brilliant piece of stagecraft. Actors mingle with cutouts to form the pointillist’s signature painting, which gets a high-tech remix in the “present-day” second act.
(opened Oct. 8, 1985)
Forever linked by longevity, “Les Miz” and the next entry on our list also share the distinction of containing two gasp-inducing set elements. The first, a turntable stage, was revolutionary at the time (again, pun intended) and is still frequently employed today. The second, the fly-in barricade, is as mesmerizing as it is critical to the show’s plot.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
(opened Sept. 27, 1986)
I’ve seen “Phantom” live once – from the bloodiest of the nosebleed seats at the Chicago Lyric Opera. I’ve often wondered how anyone sitting closer could take it all in. Like “Les Miz,” ALW’s blockbuster has two trademark set pieces: the crashing chandelier that literally brings down the house and the mist-filled catacombs beneath the opera house. Breathtaking 30 years ago, the “Phantom” set still impresses today.
(opened Sept. 20, 1989)
A quote from a 1990’s stage comedy says something to the effect of “You’re nothing on Broadway if you don’t have a chandelier or a helicopter.” The latter refers, of course, to “Miss Saigon” and its harrowing embassy escape scene, but eye-popping visuals permeate the show – not the least of which is the Cadillac that The Engineer famously humps in “American Dream.”
(opened Jan. 26, 1996)
Form follows function for the sparse, utilitarian set of “Rent.” Nothing says struggling artist like folding chairs, bare tables, minimalist platforms and a wall full of handbills. But about those tables – their nondescript quality allows them to act as everything from hospital beds to the Last-Supper-evoking Life Café. And the tables were one of the pieces saved for the recent Fox 20th anniversary broadcast.
(opened May 28, 2003)
The list moves from one of the sparsest sets to one of the most intricate with the Stephen Schwartz blockbuster. “Wicked” is a feast for the eyes before the show even starts: Its gigantic map of Oz guarded by the Time Dragon is mesmerizing. And the visuals only get more impressive – from Glinda’s bubble to the surreal clock face with the misplaced numbers.
(opened Feb. 17, 2015)
While “Rent” has a straightforwardly simplistic set, “Hamilton’s” is deceptively so. What initially appears to be nothing but a bare stage and scaffolding evolves to include a turntable stage and walls that grow as the U.S. grows. For more on the subtle set magic of “Hamilton,” check out this piece in the Huffington Post written towards the beginning of the show’s frenzy.
Steve is a marketing content developer for Horace Mann and has more than 20 years of professional communications experience. In addition to contributing for the FRN, Steve has also written columns for multiple Miami Dolphins fan sites. He enjoys karaoke, board games, community theater and taking various FRN team members’ poker money.