'Leopoldstadt' designers on how the play resonates across time and space

The set, costume, and lighting designers of Tom Stoppard's family epic, all 2023 Tony nominees, spoke about how the show evolved from London to Broadway.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

A Broadway designer's challenge is to immerse audiences in another place and time, conjuring it well enough that they feel a part of it even if they've never been. For the team behind Leopoldstadt, a 2023 Best Play nominee by Tom Stoppard, that's a loaded task.

On the one hand, Leopoldstadt is a lively drama about an extended Jewish family in 20th-century Austria, and its success comes from the fact that "we're invited into the Merz-Jacobowitzes' commonplace gatherings, debates, trysts, squabbles, and playtimes as though we, too, are kin," as New York Theatre Guide's critic observed. Tony-nominated designers Richard Hudson (set), Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes), and Neil Austin (lighting) are integral to achieving that effect, sparing no detail on the well-to-do family's warmly lit, inviting manor with clothing to match.

On the other hand, the play quickly darkens as it inches ever closer to World War II, and Jewish Austria soon becomes the last place any audience member would want to be. But that feeling is also key to Leopoldstadt's emotional heft. The design follows suit, with the house gradually deteriorating, the clothing getting simpler, and the warm lighting subtly becoming starkly cool.

The designers first undertook this task in 2020 when they mounted the world premiere of Leopoldstadt in London. "The production for Broadway was created from scratch, based on the London design," said Reiffenstuel. "We had the opportunity to sharpen the design and heighten some design ideas."

They made some of these changes out of necessity — the lighting equipment Austin used in London, for example, was no longer available by the time of the 2022 Broadway transfer. But the shift to new technology ended up deepening the storytelling. "The final act of the play is really enhanced by the ability of the [new] LED rig to produce strong cold blues," Austin noted, as the chilling light sets a melancholy, empty mood.

"Hopefully, [my lighting] supports the actors and Tom's story invisibly — subtly steering the audience’s focus and emotions to create a seamless whole of storytelling narrative," he continued.

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Other tweaks were made with the audience in mind — Hudson amended his sets to better "facilitate quick, seamless scene changes," as Leopoldstadt has no intermission. On the costuming end, Reiffenstuel recognized that the play's dozens of characters are difficult to keep straight. That's partly intentional on Stoppard's part — a major theme of the play is how people and memories fade away in history — but the Broadway transfer allowed her to clarify things.

"[Director] Patrick Marber and I decided to color-code some of the characters’ clothing to make it easier for the audience to follow the character through the ages," she said. Rosa is in blue in 1899, in 1924, and in 1955. Sally is in brown in 1899, 1924, and 1938, and so on. We enhanced this idea in New York."

Their efforts have clearly succeeded. Leopoldstadt extended on Broadway multiple times (now through July 2) and has six total Tony nominations.

"I think the play has landed with so much more resonance on Broadway," said Austin. "That’s partly because we’ve had time to adapt and tweak the production, but it’s also undoubtedly the understanding and innate affinity the New York audience[s] have to the story."

It's unfortunate, of course, that this understanding is due to the wide-reaching effects of the Holocaust. But though the play is tragic, its reception in both the U.K. and the U.S. has made working on it a positive experience, reminding the designers — and audiences — of the unifying power of theatre. As Reiffenstuel said, "Art is a global language that communicates and connects us."

"Broadway and West End audiences for a Stoppard play are by and large the same," Hudson observed. "The intense concentration, the appreciation of the profundity of the ideas and words, the humour and the essential importance of the shared experience are the same on both sides of the pond.

"Different cities and collaborators, different cultures and traditions, all linked by one common objective – to make theatre that speaks to everyone."

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Photo credit: The cast of Leopoldstadt on Broadway. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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