(February 23, 2007)

Setting the Stage for “Curtains”

This is the fourth installment in the “Broadway Bound” series looking at “Curtains.”

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Anna Louizos has come a long way since making her Broadway debut in 2003 as set designer for “Avenue Q” — 127 steps, to be exact.

The theater where she started, the Golden, is that exact distance from the Hirschfeld, where she’s readying her next show, “Curtains.”

That same stretch of West 45th Street also includes her last Broadway outing, “High Fidelity,” which closed in December after 19 previews and 13 performances.

The sets are wildly different — “Q’s” crumbling row of outer-borough brownstones, the Last Great Record Store on Earth and, for “Curtains,” Boston’s Colonial Theatre.

Welcome to West 45th: Anna Louizos Way.

She also designed “Golda’s Balcony” and “Steel Magnolias” on Broadway and “White Christmas,” a Broadway-caliber show that has played large U.S. cities the past three holiday seasons. Off-Broadway this season, she recreated Washington Heights in a Latin-flavored musical called “In the Heights.”

While all are different projects, with different scales and budgets, it’s the same job, she says. They all involve turning words on a page into worlds on a stage.

Louizos says she was not given a budget to create the “Curtains” set.

“They don’t tell me how much I have to spend,” she says, sitting in the back row of the Hirschfeld as her set takes shape on stage. “They don’t want to stifle my creativity.

“They said ‘Let’s see what you design, we’ll see what it costs, and then we’ll talk,” she says.

If the money’s not there, Louizos says, producers might say “you have to be more creative, to come up with a way to keep what you want — and we usually do.”

When “Curtains” director Scott Ellis enlisted Louizos, it was for a Los Angeles run of “Curtains,” at the Ahmanson Theater. He didn’t want to talk about Broadway yet, she says.

“Scott was adamant about not even wanting to go there,” Louizos says. “We wanted to focus on making the show work in L.A. and let’s not talk about Broadway. And it’s bad luck, too. Not only is it arrogant, but it’s bad luck.

“Fortunately, we haven’t had to make that many changes to bring it to Broadway, because in the back of my mind, the show had to fit in a certain scale.”

Still, some things are new here:

• Since the show is set in the Colonial Theatre in 1959, Louizos re-created the Colonial proscenium — the gilded arch that forms the stage opening. The proscenium built for the Ahmanson had to be scaled back to fit into the smaller Hirschfeld.

• A dream sequence for star David Hyde Pierce involves “a fantasy staircase that will be bigger and prettier.”

• In Los Angeles, a riverboat came in from stage right. In New York, it’ll come in from stage left, which meant it had to be rebuilt.

•  “And we’ve added a couple of surprises,” Louizos says coyly.

“Curtains” has a book by Scarsdale’s Rupert Holmes and words and music by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, with additional lyrics by Kander and Holmes. Previews begin Wednesday for a March 22 Opening Night.

Louizos says she was excited by the challenge when she learned the musical would be set in 1959.

“I live for that,” she says. “The musicals in the ’50s were some of the best musicals ever produced. ‘White Christmas’ was set in the 1950s, so it was right up my alley.”

The period also reminded her of a designer who had inspired her early on.

“One of my teachers at NYU was Oliver Smith, one of the great Broadway designers from that period. Starting with ‘On the Town’ and then ‘My Fair Lady,’ ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Camelot,’ ‘Brigadoon.’ Those are all the great musicals of the ’40s and ’50s that he designed.

“I feel really thrilled that I get to create the same kind of world, the same type of scenery that he did.”

Stage sets of the era had several earmarks, Louizos says she learned.

“The sets were very painterly. The eye of the designer is very prominent. But I didn’t want to be so literal about the style of the designs of the period, because through our eyes today they seem very kind of primitive and not particularly well executed — a little too quaint,” she says.

“I wanted to pay tribute to the stylized scenery of the time but also keep in mind the more sophisticated tastes of audiences now.

Louizos’ design tips her hat to Smith in a more tangible way, too.

“When I did research on the Colonial Theatre, there was one section that showed people had signed their names on the wall and I thought that would be a wonderful thing to do. So we have a lot of graffiti that shows the names of all the cast and crew of previous shows that played at the Colonial Theatre.”

The shows include “On the Town,” with producer Paul Feigay and director George Abbott — and producer and production designer Oliver Smith.

Her research included poring through books and photographs, trying to establish a specific look.

“The musical within the show is a western, a takeoff on ‘Oklahoma!’ — about ‘Kansasland’ — and the Robin Hood story is woven into this Western-themed show.

“So there were plenty of Western musicals — ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ and ‘Destry Rides Again’ and ‘Oklahoma!’ — and I looked at those shows to see how they portrayed the West and I tried to capture that.”

As a set designer, Louizos works with costume designer William Ivey Long on a color scheme.

“He sent me swatches of his fabrics so I could look at his colors and whenever I painted something I would send him a copy of my backdrops or colors I was thinking of,” she says.

When Louizos designed “Avenue Q,” she was careful to use a drab color palette, “to make the puppets pop,” she says.

In “Curtains,” the sets and costumes are coordinated to enhance each other: “I get to play with color a lot more, which is fun,” she says.

Another component of the production is Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design.

“Peter and I discuss the real estate,” Louizos says. “We have to work out the real estate, which we share. There are footlights and there’s a reverse-bow scene, which we see from behind the actors taking their bows facing upstage. And the footlights need to pop up out of the floor.”

Because it’s a backstage musical, Louizos gets to show some of the stagecraft that goes into creating the look of a show.

“Whenever we see the show within the show, we get to see how the illusion works, because you see how the scenery comes in and how it forms the picture,” she says. “And it’s kind of magical to see it because you don’t ever get to see how those pieces get put together.”

Louizos learned how to put those pieces together while Louizos was working as an assistant under a Who’s Who of Broadway designers: John M. Falabella, Heidi Ettinger, Andy Jackness, Doug Stein, Adrianne Lobel and Tony Walton.

From Walton, Louizos says, she learned “ that you can be extremely talented and extremely nice. ... He’s the foundation for so many aspiring designers. He sets a wonderful example for people in our profession.”

Starting with “Avenue Q” off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre before it moved to the Golden — with an Off-Broadway budget and fewer union restrictions — Louizos and her four assistants got their hands dirty painting and building props and doing all the work alongside everybody else, because you want to get it done.”

Four years and 127 steps later, Louizos plans to be up on the stage at the Hirschfeld, dressing the set — adding details that lend authenticity, details she and her associate, Mike Carnahan, devised in Los Angeles.

“Everything got put in a box in L.A. and we’ll open the boxes and we’ll put things back. We took lots of photos in L.A. so we know how we want it to look.”

That, too, is the Louizos way.