June 6th, 2019
by Josh Ferri
Emmy Award winner David Korins won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards, and is up for a 2019 Tony Award, for his career-best work as the scenic designer of Broadway's Tony-nominated musical adaptation of Beetlejuice. Korins (whose recent Broadway work includes Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and War Paint) caught up with BroadwayBox to share with us some of his inspirations and the hidden Tim Burton references deep within the world of Broadway's Beetlejuice.
I've been working on the show for over six years. I was hired before there was even a writing team, which is insane! I have to say, I've designed hundreds of projects, and this is by far the most technically complicated show I've ever worked on. I think it's the most technically complicated show I've ever seen. There isn't a piece of scenery that doesn't have a light embedded in it, or a speaker, or a magic trick, or an illusion, or a place for a costume change, or for a puppet. The show demands a lot of its environment, and our challenge was, first, to make it work eight times a week, and, second of all, you have to make it look seamless. But, also, you don't want it to look so slick. Tim Burton did a lot of writing about what he wanted the aesthetic of Beetlejuice to be like, and he talked about it being homemade. So, even though we are a big Broadway musical, we really challenged ourselves to choose textures, materials, and methodologies that were simple theatre magic. Many of the illusions are very, very old school illusions that have been done for hundreds of years. It's not like it's a highly-automated show in that way; it's just incredibly complicated to try and pull it all off.
The movie Beetlejuice has that iconic model that the character of Adam is building in the attic. And although that is not in the show, we really wanted to pay homage to it, so the entire set of Beetlejuice the musical is actually riffed off of this hand-drawn, hand-illustrated, hand-crafted, do-it-yourself model aesthetic. Every single piece of the scenery is literally hand drawn. And I don't mean hand drafted. I mean we drafted the show, and then I took my hand and tried to capture the wrist of this incredibly gifted illustrator, Tim Burton, and do the line work. All of the wallpaper is hand drawn. We literally drew onto every single piece of scenery with etching and sketch marks and hash marks to create illustrative shadows.
We started by going back to the source material, Tim Burton. There's a zillion references in there of different Tim Burton films, because I think people forget that Beetlejuice was only Tim Burton's second movie. In the 30 years since then, people have now started to think Tim Burton as an oeuvre and as a visual landscape, in general. So, we did a visual mashup and stuck as many different references as we could of his work (Edward Scissorhands, Coraline, Nightmare Before Christmas).
For example the graveyard scene is really paying homage to The Nightmare Before Christmas and all of that claymation and hand-sculpted work. There is obviously not a graveyard in [the film] Beetlejuice, and we felt like that would be a really amazing thing to lead off the show with. We're saying to people who love Tim Burton, “We know the world, and you're in good hands.”
Additionally, some of the lighting looks are direct lifts. Jack Skellington's bow tie is represented in the third chandelier of the home. There's a little miniature sandworm as a wall sconce in the look three of the show. Actually, a really fun one is in the Maitlands home over the fireplace, there's a painting. And the painting is actually a still image from the opening film sequence of the movie, paused. I redrew over it so that you would actually have the Vermont home and the small New England town represented from the movie literally in the stage set.
In the first meeting, Alex Timbers and I made a pact that we would do a version of a home that evolved and that we could trap the Maitlands in. One of the most delicious things about the show is that we get to see the house change four complete times, which is pretty amazing if you forget about the technical nightmare that it is.
We knew we had four distinct looks to create, in addition to the attic, the bedrooms, and the Netherworld. We actually went through a whole bunch of iterations of what would it mean to have the house be able to unfold like origami. At one point during the design process, he said to me, “Instead of doing that, what we should do is make a house that actually tracks up and down and that shares a floor.” And by doing the house that shares a floor, we were able to literally change the fireplace mantle, all the chandeliers, all the lighting fixtures, the baluster of the staircase, all the furniture, literally all the wall surfaces, the windows, and the doors as we changed between the four different looks. So, the only thing that it shares is essentially the ceiling and the floor, which holds it all together. The kind of ballet that goes on backstage is as choreographed as anything going on onstage.
The attic was a really fun way to create a dramaturgical backstory for the Maitlands. The story for them is being regretful of not living a full life when they were alive. So there's all these hobbies—it's almost like a graveyard of hobbies in the attic. There's yarn making and ceramics, and there's bicycling, and there's fishing equipment, and there's tools, and there's all sorts of things in the attic that were from a life left behind for them. So that if you cast your eye around that set, you'll see a whole bunch of things that they tried and then abandoned.
In the father's bedroom, there's a whole bunch of overly hyper-sexualized pieces. There's obviously that huge golden phallus, and the wallpaper is representative of the female reproductive system. There's all sorts of things embedded there in that design.
The fireplace mantel in the third version is reminiscent of the altar that happens in the movie. There's teeth that we put onto it, which I think are fun and are actually from Burton’s illustrations. He has these incredible monsters and clowns and things that we lifted the teeth from.
The Netherworld was really paying homage to Coraline. The Netherworld in the movie was really kind of a meh-looking waiting room, with that iconic scene of the shrunken head. I wanted, with Alex, to conceive of a space that felt more kinetic and more meandering and more maze-like, because the whole idea of the Netherworld is that it goes on and on forever. I had the idea that we could riff it off of the umbilical tunnel that stretched out almost like an accordion between the two worlds in Coraline. That's how we got our inspiration.
Alex Timbers and I also worked on Pee Wee Herman on Broadway, and if you look at the Pee Wee Herman door, and the portal, it's the same Tim Burton shape. He's famous for those forced perspective, asymmetrical angles and openings, and we really felt we had to infuse the show with that.
I never worked on a show that changed so much from its out-of-town tryout to its Broadway bow. We had a big, huge creative team summit meeting, and we made a list of (and I'm not kidding) like 600 notes that we wanted to do. Some of them were character driven, some of them were narrative, some of them were design. And we did. If there were 600 notes, we did 698 of them. There was an unbelievable effort, and I think it shows. There is nothing else like it on Broadway.
See David Korins' incredible, Tony-nominated set come to life in Beetlejuice at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre.