Dreamgirls has long been admired for its production design. The physical production is part of what made the show a hit in 1981. Without the revolving light towers, light bridges, eye-popping costumes, and breath-taking lighting, the show would probably have been just another Broadway musical.
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Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes ranged from plain (even shabby) to ultra-glamorous. There were 300 costumes total.
“The only thing we – Michael Bennett, the director; Tharon Musser, the lighting designer; and I – knew at the beginning of the project was that we were doing a show about show business, with all the paraphernalia and costumes and technology of the music business – lights, microphones, nightclubs, concert halls, and recording studios,” scenic designer Robin Wagner said. “We wanted a space that was comon to all those places, and the only place common to all of them are the basics of a working theatre.”
Dreamgirls is constructed like an Elizabethan play. Shakespeare only provided the locale, weather, and the participants...it’s up to the designer to fill in everything else. “The really radical thing about Dreamgirls,” said Wagner, “is in the way the piece is constructed to allow this kind of design. More often than not you have a script that says you’re going from a gas station to an airport, and all the jokes are about gas stations and airports. Since all the sight gags are about tires and wings, you’re stuck with a kind of design that has nothing to do with theatre, or anything else for that matter. It has to do with sight gags. Dreamgirls just didn’t happen that way. The design evolved along with the show.”
There were three elements that came together: Michael Bennett’s love for the black box, Tharon Musser’s desire to have lights everywhere, and Robin Wagner’s desire to have mobile scenery. The set grew out of the process of elimination. It had to be extremely versatile, giving Bennett the ability to set a scene in one locale and shift it in a matter of seconds.
The result was five light towers (each 21 feet high with bases measuring 68 by 33 inches) that revolved and moved about the stage by themselves, three enormous light bridges that descended from the flies, and two sliding black panels that acted as a cyclorama. By adjusting these simple pieces, it allowed them to suggest locales rather than show. “By moving the towers and the bridges,” said Wagner, “by changing the size of the cube with the basic relationship between the two, you feel like you’re in a different place.”
Peter Feller, Jr. of Feller Precision, Inc. was hired to automate the set. He devised a simple system of tracks and cable drum winches. The towers moved on straight tracks that allowed each to move from left to right (or vice versa). There were two tracks for the four downstage towers and one for the fifth upstage tower. A cable drum winch in the base of each tower rotated it. The towers were connected by their tops as well: by a cable and I-beam (allowing for the unevenness of theatre floors) in the flies.
Cable drum winches were also used to move the staircases for the act two opening. The cable drums were located in the cellar of the theatre because of a shortness of space on the stage floor. They were remote controlled deck winches with variable speed motors and predetermined stops.
Two of the three light bridges were raised and lowered on 14 1/4” rope cables. The cables ran over pulleys over a main headblock and then down to a 8" diameter cable drum. All lines wrapped up on the cable drum (no counterweight was used). The cable drum wrap-up was turned by a very large speed reducer driven by an electric motor. The limit stops were elevator-type limits mounted in the guide rails in which the bridges travelled.
Because of little room on the stage floor or in the flies, a dead haul machine was used (rather than a cataway). This eliminated the need for the counterweight arbor that could carry 6000 lbs. (the weight of the bridges) and travel 18 feet. Instead, it was run by a typical electro-mechanical hoist.
There was also a center track running from downstage to upstage that carried the three small units (the dressing room, the nightclub, and the finale wagon). Because the track ran the width of the stage, there was no way to drive it with winch cables (because of all the other winch cables running across the stage). Instead of a winch cable, they used a small, rubber-tired friction-drive motor that trailed a cable as it moved downstage. To stop the wagon at the proper place, there was a proximity switch. This was a small sensor that passed along the stage floor. At the proper stopping point, there was a block of magnetized metal. When the sensor passed over it, the magnetism was amplified and the wagon stopped.
Several surfaces were also equipped with edge lighting (the Plexiglass surfaces of the light bridges and the stairs for the act two opening). Because of the 3/4” thickness of the surface, bulbs were impossible. Lasers were considered but ultimately ruled as too dangerous (aside from the fact that only one color was available). Irwin Math at Fibre Optics was hired to light these set pieces. Underneath the light bridges and the stairs, small black boxes containing high-intensity lamps were fixed. Each one was focused on the light pipe (a long flexible piece of glass that was strapped to the back of the scenery). Between the lamp and the pipe, Math also put a rotating color wheel so that the color and intensity could be selected.
Wagner acknowledged that the manipulation of the set is dependent on the people that are running it. With such a complex and precise show, the excellence of the crew is as vital as the performers. Wagner once said, “If one of them is out or has a cold, the show has trouble.”
Otts Munderloh looked for a "plastic" sound. He used Sennheiser 816 shotguns in the footlights, an APSI sound console, and Altec 9940 amplifiers. Apparently, this was commonplace sound equipment. The unusual part was the new MSL-3 speakers by Meyer. He chose these large speakers because "with all that close, hand-held miking, the speakers had to be able to accept a lot of power." AKG 451 microphones were used by off-stage singers to suppliment the onstage vocals. In addition to that, he also used the Shure 545, the Shure SM-58 and wireless mics by Sony.