Andy Karl and the company of Rocky the musical
Andy Karl and the company of Rocky the musical

Immersed in Theater

There’s a moment in Act 2 of the hit Broadway musical Rocky, as Rocky Balboa gets ready for the fight of his life against the champion Apollo Creed, where the Winter Garden Theatre is literally transformed before the audience’s eyes.

The boxing ring makes a spectacular appearance that is already on a very short list of legendary Broadway moments, immersing the audience into a 360 degree, cheering sports arena – complete with a jumbotron and sports banners that appear out of nowhere – allowing every audience member the perfect view to cheer on Rocky as he goes the distance. Seamlessly moving 115 paying patrons onto the stage to view the final epic showdown from bleacher style seating, the mind-blowing finale uses an arsenal of theatre magic and design – including 12 live video cameras, two enormous video screens and a catwalk above it all where the commentators give the blow-by-blow – all to create one of the most exciting and moving finales ever seen on the Great White Way. Needless to say, the crowd goes wild as if they were at a prize fight. And in a way, they are.
Welcome to the world of immersive theater. Sometimes known as environmental staging, it involves breaking the fourth wall and sending the play tumbling into the auditorium, erasing the line between actors and audience. This is not a new idea: Harold Prince’s 1974 revival of the musical Candide turned the Broadway Theatre into a network of platforms and walkways, staging the action in front of, next to, and behind the audience. The result was the first hit version of that famously troubled musical. Not that success was guaranteed. As musical theater historian Ken Mandelbaum notes, the 1972 musical Dude transformed the theatre — once again, the Broadway: “The forestlike, in-the-round setting included a band placed around the house in various locations, ramps, a central stage on top of what used to be the orchestra seats, and seats where the stage used to be.” He adds that the conventional names for seating areas were replaced with names like Foot Hills, Trees, Mountains, and Valleys — all this for a show that ran 16 performances. Similarly, in 1983, the Nederlander Theatre was turned into an arena for Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap, a comedy about lady wrestlers, starring Debbie Harry, which eked out a single performance before closing.

Still, directors and designers are increasingly interested in reconfiguring the relationship between the play and the audience. Often, finding the right venue is the key. The show that probably most influenced the current craze for immersive theater is Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s 1998 Roundabout Theatre staging of Cabaret, currently back with us at the company’s Studio 54 venue. The famed musical, set in Berlin as the Nazis rose to power, splits its focus between the Kit Kat Club and the private lives of the characters who go there nightly. At Studio 54, the entire theatre becomes the Kit Kat Klub, complete with table seating and intentionally tacky leopard print décor.

Mendes first staged Cabaret in a nightclub setting at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1993. According to a spokesperson for the show, “Sam would only do it in New York City if Roundabout could find a small theatre that could become a nightclub.” Robert Brill, the show’s set designer, says, “Sam and Rob had begun to consider Club Expo/Henry Miller’s Theatre [on 43rd Street] as a potential venue for the production. As an operating nightclub, it fit the bill! From its strip-club-like entryway and its aroma of beer and cigarettes, to the faded historicalgrandeur of its neoclassical 1918 interior, it possessed both the decay and decadence that made it a perfect site-specific venue for Sam’s vision.” (What goes around comes around: That old nightclub space is now the site of the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, which is managed by none other than the Roundabout Theatre Company.)

CabaretBrill adds that this concept is the key to the production. “By transforming the theatre into the Kit Kat Klub, Sam’s vision deliberately and cleverly lures the audience into a world of decadence and into the world of our play set in Weimar-era Berlin. There’s a psychological and emotional response as we enter a theatre, right? It’s about building suspense and anticipation and taking the audience on a journey. So it has to happen gradually. From the marquee entrance, where you pass through the faded Studio 54 glass doors, through the lobbies and darker chambers that transport you to the club interior of red lampshades, you are swept into the world of our play even before the downbeat. It’s immersive theater at its best.”

There is, of course, more than one way to make immersive theater. The current revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is also the show’s Broadway debut. So the book writer, John Cameron Mitchell, retooled the concept: At each performance, the audience is told that Hedwig, the aggrieved East German transsexual would-be rock star, is making her Broadway debut. Adding to the joke, Hedwig is performing on the set of the Belasco Theatre’s alleged previous tenant, Hurt Locker: The Musical. The joke is carried out in many ways: Julian Crouch’s set depicts a forced-perspective view of a Baghdad street, with a junked automobile at center stage. Also, distributed throughout the theatre are programs for the fictitious Hurt Locker musical. Among its revelations: The song list includes “When Love Explodes (Love Theme From The Hurt Locker).” The running time is six hours and four minutes. And the cast includes D’Bree Dazeem, sister of Adele Dazeem (John Travolta’s famously mangled pronunciation of Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars).

HedwigMitchell says that changes to Hedwig, based on where it is staged, are the norm: “In the script we have an author’s note that encourages folks to make their productions site-specific. We don’t mind radical directorial approaches if the intent is serious, i.e., there was a recent production with 11 Hedwigs.” He adds, “I wanted to explain why Hedwig could possibly afford a Broadway-sized design package for a one-off show. We were considering putting up the show the year Rent was closing and our dream was to inherit their set and theatre. But it turned out to be much more fun — and nonlitigious — to create our own ‘bomb’ that was naturally based on a movie, like 90 percent of big shows.”

Other attractions explore the immersive concept in other ways. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill turns the Circle in the Square Theatre into a nightclub where Billie Holiday is giving one of her last performances; this approach adds to the show’s immediacy, most especially the question of whether or not Holiday will fall apart completely before the show is over. And the long-running musical Once, staged in an Irish bar, invites the audience on stage before the show and during intermission for a pint or two.

Obviously, this kind of theater requires actors with nerves of steel, as the possibility of (unwanted) audience interaction is always present. (An extreme case: In a 1974 performance of Candide, an impish Katharine Hepburn was seated next to the bed where Lewis J. Stadlen, as Dr. Pangloss, was lying; on the spur of the moment, she reportedly jumped into bed with him!) Fortunately, today’s shows are gifted with stars including Alan Cumming (Cabaret), Neil Patrick Harris (Hedwig), and Audra McDonald (Lady Day), who know a thing or two about audience interaction.

The current king of immersive theater is Alex Timbers, Rocky’s director. Previously, for the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Timbers had the set designer Donyale Werle turn the entire Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre into a cross between a 19th century museum and a frat house filled with old portraits, chandeliers, and bizarre objects such as a hanging horse carcass. For the current Off-Broadway musical Here Lies Love, the story of the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos is played out in a disco, with the cast members constantly mingling with the audience. Speaking of the visual excitement of music videos, Timbers told New York Magazine: “How to bring that kineticism and viscerality to the stage has always interested me.” He added, “I believe in theater. I’m advocate — an activist, even. I want to make musicals that are alive, as opposed to something in a gilded frame.”

In any case, the trend isn’t going away. The first Broadway show of the new season, the Tupac Shakur musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, features a totally reconfigured Palace Theatre, its orchestra seating replaced by bleachers; the intent is to bring the audience closer to the action. Who knows how other shows of the season will break the fourth wall?

Cabaret and Hedwig and the Angry Inch photos by Joan Marcus.