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`Shogun': The Set's the Show

Spectacle nearly upstages drama in Loren Sherman's design for the new musical. THEATER: INTERVIEW

THE stage curtain doesn't rise; it folds - in the form of a huge black-and-gold lacquered Japanese screen - to reveal ``Shogun, the Musical.'' The spectacle we are swept into is the beginning of a storm at sea, complete with a British frigate rolling about in waves of a shimmering, silky blue. Silvery mermaids and mermen rise amid the waves. The sky darkens; the ship founders; you feel as though you are literally at sea in a gale. And that's not all.

There's the earthquake, in which the ground opens under the actors. Fiery red hunks of earth appear, and the back wall splits open like a roasted hotdog. In the sword-fight scenes, the scenery is as choreographed as the men, so that giant pillars move with a snap into place as the swordsmen do their savage dance.

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Shogun, the Look almost upstages ``Shogun, the Musical'' in the lavish new $6-to-$8 million version of James Clavell's novel-turned-televison miniseries, and now an upcoming Broadway show. The plot remains the same: the story of an English sea captain shipwrecked off Japan in 1700, who falls in love with a gorgeous, although married, Japanese woman.

The sets alone cost over $1 million, and much of the credit for the look goes to scenic designer Loren Sherman. He talked about the massive sets and special effects backstage at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, where ``Shogun'' is playing prior to its November opening on Broadway.

It will take 28 semi-trailers to carry the scenery and special effects that fill the mammoth stage here to New York. The Broadway theater is considerably smaller, ``so everything you see here will have to be either in the basement [there] or hanging overhead,'' says Mr. Sherman.

We are standing backstage under the catwalk in the Eisenhower Theater. There are two shows in this theater - the one out front that the audience sees and the one backstage that it doesn't.

We pass the barrel full of steely looking swords, nitrogen tanks for the fog, the board of lights. Sherman points out, ``This show uses moving lights, as they use them in rock shows. It allows the lighting designer to point the light anywhere, adjust the color, size, intensity, and patterns in the lights.''

We move on past the color-TV camera to see the scenes, and the infrared system that allows people backstage to see in the dark during the split-second scene changes.

We approach the stage, which is raked at such a sharp angle a puppy could roll downhill. Dancers have to be nimble enough to perform on that slant. We pass the fog ducts and then many huge yellow hoses for the smoke scenes. Further on, there are lighting-control consoles, the 500 dimmers; each box has 100 controls, each for a specific light. Nearby we see a huge pair of prop scissors, piles of pillows that are crash pads for when the sailors dive off the ship. Next, a pipe with 28 black-net fantasy horses on it, to be lowered just before a battle scene fought on horseback. A sedan chair and mattresses hang from the ceiling.

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Has someone measured all this to be sure it can all fit in the Broadway theater? ``Yes, says Sherman. ``The scenery will all fit. What gets smaller is the space around it - for the wardrobe people to work, spaces for the actors to run around. He explains that when the platforms used onstage are stored in the wings, people backstage have to stand on top of them, because there's no other floor space. ``So they have to know, when a cue is coming, it's going to bring all the platforms on stage. The floor will go out from under them....''

There are two computers for movement of the sets, Sherman points out. ``I really did feel like a kid in a candy store, in the computerized scenery movement.... I think this company has state-of-the-art computers. There are separate computers for scenery that's lowered in from above, and for scenery that rolls around on the floor. And they've developed a software program that basically makes it very easy to choreograph the movement of the scenery.'' Sherman says he doesn't have to operate a computer, just understand the process well enough to translate the movement he's looking for. ``If I need a design that does movements, the operator will put it in. ... They've designed a whole software program for this ship,'' he says. ``They programmed in movements to make it smooth, basically like one of those flight simulators.''

Even with the computers, the props must be carefully watched in the murk of backstage. What's going on there is ``quite dangerous ... in a certain sense,'' says Sherman. ``I mean the people are very professional; they're very good at it. But when you think about what's really going on, it's scary.

``The ship weights 4,000 pounds; the stage is sloping. So it always wants to roll down. And as soon as we're finished with the ship scene, all these stagehands have to detach it from the track and push it up into storage in the dark, in the smoke.

``Each set of beams in the [Osaka castle] weights 3,000 or 4,000 pounds, and there are three sets, and they're being lowered in the dark and smoke. So everyone backstage has to know when it's happening, where it's happening. ... You need to know what to expect.''

The view backstage is obscured by the smoke that figures in several scenes: purple smoke, red smoke, green smoke, fog-colored smoke. Sherman explains, ``We have two kinds of smoke in the show. One is a nitrogen fog, which is very much like dry-ice fog. It's very benign. ... Then there's another kind: It's called Rosco Fog, a brand name, and it's some kind of oil-based smoke ... that floats up in the air. The other tends to lie low to the ground. The lighting designe has been trying very carefully to adjust the cuing of it, in certain scenes turn it off and on'' for effect.

When Sherman talks about the sets, which are strikingly beautiful, he says that one goal is to use them to make the story clear. With the Osaka-castle set, one of his favorites, the columns and beams lock together ominously ``to help the audience understand that [the characters] are trapped in the castle, locked in the compound.''

He also staged the earthquake ``to help tell that part of the story.''

It's a case of serendipity, but Sherman had actually been to Osaka two years ago to work on a rock musical called ``Beehive,'' a review of songs from the 1960s. ``I'd always liked Japanese art and architecture,'' says Sherman, ``and was actually in the place that the castle was modeled after,'' he says.

Sherman went to Yale graduate school, where he studied theater design. Born in Chicago, he was bitten by the theatrical bug at 16 at the University of Chicago, where the charismatic head of the theater department, Robert Keil, inspired Sherman and a number of students now working as professionals in New York theater. He did his undergraduate work in design at the University of California, Berkeley.

Sherman has won an Obie award for sustained exellence in set design for Off Broadway productions. His Off Broadway projects have included ``Coriolanus'' and ``Richard III.'' He has also worked on Broadway (``Sleight of Hand,'' ``Shakespeare on Broadway'') and on the New York premi`eres of ``Baby With the Bathwater,'' ``The Marriage of Betty and Boo,'' ``The Dining Room,'' and others. Here at Kennedy Center, he has done the sets for ``Stardust'' and ``The Night of the Wood Grouse.'' His regional credits run from the Yale Repertory Theater, Arena Stage, and Williamstown, to Long Wharf and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angles.

He says the ``Shogun'' budget ``is probably 10 or 20 times what I've worked with before. But it still took us several weeks to cut certain things out of the show that made it too expensive. We cut out an effect at the end of the first act, where the whole stage was going to open up and form a river. ... There would be a curving cut, and part of the whole platform would slide away, so that there would be suddenly an actual river hidden underneath the deck. But it was simply too expensive. ... Even though the budget is large, it isn't unlimited.

``In general - and it may seem like a contradiction after having seen `Shogun,' and the ship, and all those very expensive, elaborate, effects and such - but my own philosophy about about set-design is: I don't think the set should ever just call attention to itself, because that's not what it's about. It's about the play.''

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