Hugh Jackman and Billy Crystal are among the boldface names vying for acting honors this Sunday at the Tony Awards, the big Broadway awards show that will be televised starting 8 p.m. E.T. on CBS.
But the true stars of the past season could be the people responsible for the plumbing.
A number of Tony-nominated productions feature scenes of a watery nature. In Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite,” a thunderstorm erupts just as Matthew Broderick, playing a frustrated father of the bride, sets foot outside the namesake New York hotel. In David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” the rain comes down heavily as the characters plot a late-night heist.
In Richard Greenberg’s baseball-themed “Take Me Out,” several cast members, including Jesse Williams and Michael Oberholtzer, both nominated for a Tony, take off their clothes and hit the literal showers.
“We auditioned multiple shower heads,” says the show’s scenic designer, David Rockwell, who wanted enough water to create the proper effect, but not so much that it would leave the stage a slippery mess. He also had to build a trough into the floor to catch the runoff, and make sure the stage was properly textured to help the actors avoid slipping.
Some in the audience still can’t quite believe what they’re seeing, according to Mr. Oberholtzer. “I get asked, ‘Is that real water?’ and I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ ” he says. For his part, the onstage soakings have sometimes left him unsure whether he needs to take a shower at home. “This is totally screwing up my whole hygienic schedule,” he says.
In “American Buffalo,” the rain falls outside the junk shop where the play takes place and is seen through a window and a door. For it to be truly visible, the lighting has to be exactly right, the production crew says.
“I added 4,000 watts of light just for the water,” says Tyler Micoleau, the lighting designer.
The crew added elements such as a metal trash can and metal plates to amplify the sounds of the drops as they fell. “It’s taking that rain and heightening it,” says scenic designer Scott Pask, whose work on the show earned him a Tony nomination.
The set for the shower scenes in the Tony-nominated drama “Take Me Out”
Another rainy-day trick of the theatrical trade: To persuade an audience that it’s pouring, have an actor enter a scene already sopping wet. That’s what happens to Andy Nyman, one of the cast members in Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy “Hangmen.” The show has five Tony nominations, including one for scenic designer Anna Fleischle.
Water does come down in the play, but Mr. Nyman’s true dousing comes from generous splashing of his hair, face and clothes before he comes on stage during a critical scene at a cafe. A light-colored jacket accentuates the effect. “It really shows the water,” he says.
Matthew Broderick also gets splashed before returning to the stage following his out-of-view hotel walk in “Plaza Suite,” which is nominated for a Tony in costume design. For the overall stormy effect, scenic designer John Lee Beatty, a veteran of dozens of Broadway shows, says the perfect rain recipe requires some tinkering.
He uses a combination of dribbling, misting and what he calls pure “vertical rain” to mimic a sudden shower—particularly one that, in this case, is viewed through a hotel-suite window. “We do a little more work than Mother Nature,” he says.
Mr. Beatty adds that he always finds working with water difficult. “The problem with rain is that it’s wet. Think about wet scenery, wet costumes, wet actors,” he says.
His biggest watery feat might have been a scene involving an overflowing toilet in “Mr. Gogol and Mr. Preen,” an Elaine May play produced at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1991. “The toilet got a good review,” he proudly notes.
Ken Davenport, a Broadway producer who has incorporated rain into shows, says it can easily win over theatergoers. “When audiences see something happening inside that shouldn’t happen inside, it’s always exciting,” he says. He thinks the current vogue for all things watery speaks to today’s desire for immersive forms of entertainment. “It’s more than just curtain up and curtain down,” he says.
Early on in its production run this season, “Company,” the Stephen Sondheim musical that has been revived, featured an end-of-act-one scene in which lead actress Katrina Lenk gets soaked in a rainstorm. The scene was later changed, with thunder-and-lightning effects standing in for the water. Among the show’s nine Tony Award nominations are best scenic, lighting and sound design.
Producer Chris Harper says the initial rain proved problematic on several levels. It damaged the stage floorboards and made for a stressful intermission, since the water had to be cleared away and a very wet Ms. Lenk had to be readied for the second act.
The scene “was just a huge problem we were making for ourselves,” Mr. Harper says.
In Tracy Letts’ “The Minutes,” nominated for best play, a storm serves as something of an ominous mood-setter—and is similarly relayed only through sound and lighting effects. Mr. Letts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who also stars in the production, says rain flowing inside the theater might have distracted theatergoers from the actual drama.
“It’s like bringing a dog on stage. You can’t take your eyes off it,” he says.