How Broadway’s set-making guru is tackling the comeback — from mold in stage fog to costumes that don’t fit anymore

How Broadway’s set-making guru is tackling the comeback — from mold in stage fog to costumes that don’t fit anymore

10/23/2021 7:52:00 AM

How Broadway’s set-making guru is tackling the comeback — from mold in stage fog to costumes that don’t fit anymore

As show openings pile up, there’s a flurry of deadline, behind-the-scenes work for Neil A. Mazzella’s Hudson Scenic Studio.

AdvertisementStory continues below advertisementTagging along with Ellis provided a true nuts-and-bolts portrait of backstage life in the theater, because he’s in charge of the nuts and bolts. And loving this world is a requirement to be in Mazzella’s employ.

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“If you want to be with me, you have to be a theater person,” said Mazzella, a Yale Drama School grad so well thought of that he has just been awarded the Yale Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the university’s alumni association. “You have to be engaged.”

A truism of the physical world plays out in all the nooks and crannies of a theater: Things fall apart. The natural deterioration of machinery and material in a playhouse in which upkeep had basically ceased leads to damaged wiring and moth holes in costumes, among other problems. headtopics.com

Story continues below advertisement“We had to schedule dry-cleaning like we never had to before,” Mazzella said. Leaks have been discovered in some theaters; issues peculiar to putting on a show have cropped up in others.Advertisement“In the fog system of ‘Hadestown,’ we found mold,” Mazzella said, in the “Hey, no biggie” tone of a guy who has troubleshot everything. “We had to change all the hosing.”

Some Broadway houses are more than a century old, but all of them, regardless of age, are workplaces, and making the environment hazard free for actors and stagehands is a topmost concern. At the Belasco, Ellis led a tour into the belly of the theater, a cavernous basement used by the actors as a green room but known more legendarily as the

“Elephant Room.”Ellis explained where that name came from: Once upon a time, magician Harry Houdini performed an illusion with a real elephant that required it to “disappear” by being lowered through a trap door in the stage and into the basement below.

The elephant is long gone, but the job of maintaining a healthily operating backstage is forever. “The cast wants to know what we’ve done to make it safe,” Mazzella said. “That means cleaning it and keeping it clean top to bottom.”At the St. James Theatre, where “American Utopia,” the David Byrne theatrical concert, has reopened, the ongoing upkeep issue is more exotic. The set consists of hundreds of metal chains hanging 27 feet high around three quarters of the stage. On a recent morning, Mazzella greeted stagehand Timmy McDonough, who was brandishing a garden rake to comb out kinks in the chains. It seemed a painstaking task. headtopics.com

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AdvertisementStory continues below advertisement“They break off all the time,” McDonough said. “It’s a lot of chains, but it has to look perfect.”So it goes in this season of renewal, of touching up scenery and replacing casters on turntables. Mazzella made a stop at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on West 43rd Street to see how work was progressing on “Mrs. Doubtfire.” One of the few new musicals this fall, it was just getting on its feet in March 2020, when the pandemic brought down the curtain. Its second life began with a preview on Oct. 21. But before that, an order had come in to Hudson to redo one of the sets. So he had a crew of painters and carpenters onstage, adding what he said was “more detail in than your own apartment.”

With so much riding on completing all these jobs, one might think the head of Hudson would be a nervous wreck. But this is one chill maestro of the hoists and winches.AdvertisementStory continues below advertisement“I don’t believe in stress,” Mazzella said.

“I don’t go with the highs. I don’t go with the lows. I have been there for ‘Hamilton’ and for ‘Moose Murders,’ ” he added, referring to one famous hit and one infamous flop. “You just have to stay balanced.” Read more: The Washington Post »

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