Robin Wagner, set designer who won three Tony Awards, dies at 89
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Robin Wagner, set designer who won three Tony Awards, dies at 89
Set designer Robin Wagner and the director and choreographer Susan Stroman, with a model of the set for Mel Brooks’s “The Producers,” in New York, on May 2, 2001. Wagner, the inventive Tony Award-winning set designer of more than 50 Broadway shows, including the 1978 musical “On the Twentieth Century,” in which a locomotive appeared to be racing toward the audience with the actress Imogene Coca strapped to the front of it, died on Monday, May 29, 2023, at his home in New York City. He was 89. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Robin Wagner, the inventive Tony Award-winning set designer of more than 50 Broadway shows, including the 1978 musical “On the Twentieth Century,” in which a locomotive appeared to be racing toward the audience with actress Imogene Coca strapped to the front of it, died Monday at his home in New York City. He was 89.

His daughter Christie Wagner Lee, confirmed the death but said she did not yet know the specific cause. She did not say in what borough he lived.

Wagner designed sets on Broadway, off-Broadway and for regional theater, for operas and ballets, and, in 1975, for the Rolling Stones’ Tour of the Americas. His stage for those concerts was shaped like a six-pointed lotus flower that was raked upward to the back in a delicate curve.

On Broadway, his work included the sets for the transcendent 1968 rock musical “Hair” (in The New York Times, Clive Barnes described a “beautiful junk-art setting”) as well as “The Great White Hope,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “42nd Street,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “Dreamgirls” and Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and “Angels in America: Perestroika.”

Wagner’s stage designs could be elaborate or simple, depending on the story and what the director wanted. He viewed scenic design as problem solving.

“When I’m reading the script, I can see it, how it fits together and how you get from one scene to another,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “I guess that’s what makes designers designers — they visualize things a certain way.”

For the musical “City of Angels,” which opened on Broadway in 1989, he created dual color schemes to match the interconnected stories that the show’s writer, Larry Gelbart, set in a world of mansions, soundstages and solariums in 1940s Los Angeles. In sequences involving an author who was turning his novel into a screenplay, everything was in color, while those involving a private eye movie character were in black and white, befitting the show’s homage to film noir.

In his review in The Boston Globe, Kevin Kelly wrote that Wagner’s set design was “brilliant, with flats moving on and off in a rhythm that is nothing if not movie-ish and with a final pull back to a Hollywood soundstage that is Cecil B. De Mille breathtaking.”

Wagner won a Tony Award for “City of Angels,” his second for scenic design following one in 1978 for “On the Twentieth Century.” He won a third in 2001, for “The Producers,” Mel Brooks’ hit about a scheming pair who try to make a financial killing by purposely staging a Broadway flop.

One of his most enduring designs, which did not receive a Tony nomination, was his simplest. For “A Chorus Line,” producer Joseph Papp’s ultimately long-running musical about dancers auditioning for a Broadway musical, Wagner’s design consisted only of mirrored walls, black velour drapes and a white line on the floor.

“That was the result of two years’ work of Michael Bennett and I trying to distill things,” Wagner told Playbill in 2007, referring to the director and co-choreographer of the show, which opened on Broadway in 1975. “We started with big things for visualizing scenes, and as we went through the show’s workshop period, they got smaller and smaller.”

He added, “And then we knew we needed a black box, which represents theater, and that we needed the mirrors, because they represent the dance studio.”

Robin Samuel Anton Wagner was born Aug. 31, 1933, in San Francisco to Jens and Phyllis (Smith-Spurgeon) Wagner. His father, who had emigrated from Denmark, was a maritime engineer and, for a time, the keeper of two lighthouses where the Wagners lived until Robin was 10. His mother had been a pianist in New Zealand before moving to the United States, where she was a homemaker.

As a boy, Robin 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,” he said in an oral history interview with Columbia University in 1992.

He created comic books in junior high school and, after high school, attended the California School of Fine Arts (later the San Francisco Art Institute) from 1953-54. While there, and after, he worked on set design with theater and opera groups, like the Actor's Workshop of San Francisco; built window displays for a clothing store; and got a paying design job in summer stock with the Sacramento Music Circus.

Wagner moved in 1958 to New York, where he became an assistant to one Broadway designer, Ben Edwards, and then another, Oliver Smith. From 1964-67, he was the set designer for Arena Stage, the renowned regional theater in Washington.

Returning to New York, he designed the sets for “Hair,” which Clive Barnes, in the Times, described as “masterly.”

George Wolfe, the director who worked with him on several shows, including the “Angels in America” productions, said that Wagner had a talent for finding the essence of a story. He recalled one of Wagner’s small, but effective, touches on “Jelly’s Last Jam,” the 1992 musical about jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton.

“Jelly was dying in LA, and Robin created three jagged neon lines that looked like the graphic of an earthquake,” Wolfe said in a telephone interview. “It was so breathtakingly simple; it was along the lower part of the back wall.”

He added, “Just those three lines, you knew it was LA.”

But there was also a complex engineer’s side to Wagner, which was on view with “Dreamgirls,” Bennett’s 1981 musical based loosely on the career of the Supremes. Wagner designed five aluminum, spotlight-studded towers that moved in various configurations to create — with minimal use of props — the illusion that the setting was changing from a nightclub to a recording studio to a Las Vegas show palace.

“And all the lighting bars were basically platforms,” Wagner told Playbill, “so the actors could climb up on those things and fly out, which they did.”

Wagner’s “Dreamgirls” design earned him a Tony nomination and one of his six Drama Desk Awards.

His final Broadway credit was for “Leap of Faith,” a musical about a fraudulent evangelist, in 2012.

In addition to his daughter Christie, he is survived by his partner, Susan Kowal; another daughter, Leslie Wagner; a son, Kurt; and a granddaughter. His marriages to Joyce Workman and Paula Kauffman ended in divorce.

The train that Wagner designed for “On the Twentieth Century” was one of his great creations, with its long, elegant, streamlined interior consisting of adjoining compartments that were open on one side to let the characters be seen. Train exteriors that slid in front of the compartments let the audience look at the actors from the outside, after they had peered inside at them.

“This gesture,” architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in the Times, “aside from notably enhancing the cinematic quality of the show — nothing is more movie-like than quick cuts from inside to outside — is also a gentle and pleasing play on the traditional description of the stage set as a room in which the fourth wall has been removed.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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