- Written by Michael S. Eddy
- Published: 31 August 2009
When Rent moved into the Nederlander Theatre in 1996, the venue was in need of renovation. The producers and designers wanted the space left as it was, however, as part of the shabby aesthetic of their show. So when Rent closed after a 12-year run, the Nederlander was in desperate need of an overhaul. Not to mention that the economics of Broadway today dictated that the theatre be able to handle larger and technically more complex shows going forward.
as the next production, so they had only five months from when Rent loaded out and Guys and Dolls came in.
Sachs Morgan’s Founder and Director of Design Roger Morgan, a Tony-Award winning Broadway lighting designer before becoming a theatre consultant, had handled a number of historical renovations and knew how to pull together the right team for such a demanding project, including: EverGreene Architectural Arts, Inc. for the historical paint and plaster work; Irwin Seating; PRG Scenic Technologies was the rigging fabricator/installer and handled the front of house lighting position renovations; Nolan Engineering Services analyzed the structure; SECOA provided rigging elements; Lite Makers, Inc. reconstructed the custom architectural lighting fixtures; and I Weiss manufactured the drapery.
Broadway is Bigger
The mandate was to adapt the Nederlander, a 1,200 seat theatre—now 1,232—so it could accommodate modern musicals. Prior to the renovation it really couldn’t handle today’s bigger shows, especially from a technical standpoint. Further complicating things was the fact that although the Nederlander Theatre has not been granted landmark status, the owners decided to treat it as if it already had been, out of respect for the original design.
Normally the house staff heads up most technical upgrades with additional stagehands brought in as needed. Boese knew that with the tight time frame as well as the extensive grid reconstruction they would need to bring in an outside company. PRG Scenic Technologies won the contract.
“It was like working with family,” says Morgan. “These guys are stagehands and they understand deadlines. PRG is terrific that way plus they have wonderful people working there. Freddie Gallo, president of PRG Scenic Technologies, is himself a terrific carpenter; he gets right in there and works with the guys. They’re all there to support the project and make it work.” PRG’s scope included the demolition of the old grid, the installation of structural steel; installation of head blocks, rigging hardware and front of house lighting positions.
Morgan realized that with the new grid they could also put in the base for a counterweight system in the previously all hemp house, which each production installs each time it loads in a show on Broadway. “We decided we should put in a great grid, head blocks and beams, so any show could put in whatever they want, wherever they want.’”
The next step was the grid itself. “PRG came up with a clever solution,” says Morgan. They built a platform that was about 15 feet wide and as deep as the stage, and then rigged it off chain hoists, like a window-washing scaffold. They could go up and down stripping out the old grid; installing the new steel beams; then put in the new grid floor.
Easier said then done according to Gallo. “The head block beams were tricky to install because they had to be put in at a very high elevation and there was no way to lift them to that height. Typically head block beams are put in as the building is being built when they have a crane outside. The beams were like 70-80 pounds per foot and they were around 40-feet long. So we ended up drilling holes in the roof; put chain motor stands on the roof sitting on steel beams bridling across roof structure; and actually lifted the head block beams into position. We couldn’t put them in as one piece, we had to put them in by sections and then they needed to be welded together.”
Gallo worked closely with Nolan Engineering Services to solve another rather tricky challenge. “The beams that were in the building are pre-1920s steel, and the actual chemical mix of steel was different then,” comments Gallo. “So that steel has less carbon in it—which for us meant the issue was it is very difficult to weld through it. So all of our connections were done with a novel approach that the structural engineer came up with, a bracket to connect all the old steel to the new grid.”
The next challenge to give modern musicals flexibility in design was up in the front of the house ceiling. “We put in a bunch of front of house points that didn’t exist before,” describes Gallo, “so now there are ways to hang trusses just about anywhere they want in the front of the house.”
“I have used this method in about 20–30 theatres,” says Morgan. “I like to listen to the crew and this makes it easier for them to hang the clamp on one rail and put the cable on the other, so if they need to move a light, it saves a lot of time.”
With all of the renovation of the lighting positions in the house, a new interconnect panel was installed backstage. The design team worked with Union Connector to build a patch panel that allows the show’s dimmers backstage to connect to the FOH circuits.
Seating is obviously important in any theatre, and so too in this renovation.
“It was great working on this project with the Nederlanders and Jim Boese, who is in charge of their real estate,” sums up Morgan. “He is a true theatre guy and he really, really cares. In fact he is now the president of the League of Historic American Theatres. This being done right was important to him and to me. It is one of the most rewarding projects I have ever worked on.”