Put a staircase in a family residence, and you simply establish a convenient way to get from one level to the next. But place it prominently in a musical theater production, and you suddenly create the opportunity for a spectacular star entrance. It’s surprising just how many set designers have employed this device. Two of the most memorable moments in all of musical theater were created by eight-time Tony Award winner Oliver Smith. In “Hello, Dolly!” all eyes are on Dolly Levi as she makes her unforgettable entrance down the Harmonia Gardens staircase.
The other comes from “My Fair Lady,” in which a transformed Eliza Doolittle slowly descends the stairs in Henry Higgins’ London home. Wearing a stunning ball gown (usually white), Eliza will soon become belle of the Embassy Ball. Such entrances were especially popular in Broadway musicals of the 1960s. Think of “Man of La Mancha,” in which Miguel de Cervantes and his loyal manservant are led down an enormous staircase into the common room of a Spanish prison. Once witnessed, it’s impossible to forget.
William and Jean Eckart created the sets for “Mame,” Jerry Herman’s musical version of the Patrick Dennis novel “Auntie Mame.” The audience’s first glimpse of this freespirited woman occurs when Mame, dressed in gold pajamas and carrying a bugle, comes down the staircase of her Beekman Place apartment. Equally memorable is the title character’s entrance in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” Transformed by her fairy godmother, Cinderella slowly descends the royal palace’s grand staircase, where she is met by the handsome prince. It’s every young girl’s dream.
In the classic musical “Annie,” the famous comic strip character is first seen wearing the old, worn-out clothes of an orphan. But late in the second act, Oliver Warbucks gives an order to “gussy her up.” Annie soon reappears in her signature red dress atop the massive staircase in Warbucks’ Fifth Avenue mansion.
Three other shows make prominent use of a staircase:
- The 1971 musical “Follies” takes place in a soon-to-be demolished theater that once was home to the Weissmann Follies. One by one, the former headliners step into the spotlight and make their way down the stairs one final time.
- In “The Will Rogers Follies,” a gigantic staircase literally fills the stage. As the famous Ziegfeld Follies girls parade up and down this magnificent set, the steps light up with the brilliant hues of a neon sign.
- The final musical, a seven-time Tony Award winner including one for best scenic design, is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard.” In the grand foyer of silent film star Norma Desmond’s home, screenwriter Joe Gillis first spots the elusive Desmond when she appears on the second-floor landing before making her way down a black marble staircase. It’s the first of Desmond’s many trips up and down the staircase, the final one being when she utters her famous line “And now, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.” It’s one of the musical theater’s most riveting moments.
If such moments appear calculated to elicit an ovation from an unsuspecting audience, they do so shamelessly. But more importantly, they transform an ordinary entrance into an extraordinary one.