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Remembering Tony Walton

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The following is a guest post from Senior Music Specialist Mark Eden Horowitz.

We mourn the passing of our friend Tony Walton (October 24, 1934 – March 2, 2022). Tony first began his association with the Library about twenty years ago, and about ten years ago we began acquiring his magnificent designs. We’re proud to play a part in preserving his legacy. Our heartfelt condolences to his wife, Gen, his assistant, Amanda, and his first wife and lasting friend who first brought Tony into our orbit, Julie Andrews.

There is a unique challenge to try to capture Tony Walton’s career in a single post. Just a list of his credits would more than fill it. And it seems impossible that it’s the career of one man, as his extraordinary talents are as wide ranging as the venues in which his work has appeared. He is arguably best known as a production/stage/set designer, but he is also a costume designer and an illustrator. While most closely associated with his over 50 Broadway shows over 50 years, there are also 20 films and television shows, Off-Broadway shows, shows in London, and various opera and ballet designs. It’s an extraordinary legacy. But his primary legacy is not in the quantity and variety of Walton’s work, but its quality… its quality and its beauty.

Annotated drawing for vine covered building exterior.
Tony Walton. Curtain design for The Sleeping Beauty performed by the American Ballet Theatre, 2007. Tony Walton collection, Music Division.

The range of Walton’s styles is as varied as the shows he worked on – musicals, comedies, dramas and revivals; fantasies and works of harsh realism; shows set in Ancient Rome, 17th century England and France, Russia in the 1800s, America from 1776, and including nearly every decade thereafter; shows set in hovels, Army barracks, dance halls, prisons, and boxing rings, to the Garden of Eden, the Orient Express, the White House, opulent penthouses, and luxurious ocean liners.

How important are designs? Before the first word is spoken, before the first song is sung, the audience is presented with a show’s design. It literally and metaphorically sets the stage. Designs tell us the time and place, set the mood, and convey the style of a show. It’s worth noting that designs are also more than how a show looks, but also how it moves – how one scene flows into the next, how disparate places can be seen at the same time, how a claustrophobic space can still allow a production number. A good designer controls time and space – making the mechanical seem magical. Walton was a master of all these things.

Drawing of Midler in burgandy wrap shirt with blossoms, short-sleeved jacket, neckerchief
Tony Walton, design for Bette Midler in “Clams on the Half Shell Revue,” 1975. Box 67, folder 8, Paul F. Stiga collection, Music Division.

One of the things that is special about the performing arts is that it’s a world of collaboration. Great artists can often be identified by the people with whom they collaborate. Walton has collaborated with the best… and the best have collaborated with him because he, too, was the best. Among them are writers and songwriters: Tom Stoppard, John Guare, David Rabe, Neil Simon, Stephen Sondheim, Bock and Harnick, Kander and Ebb, and Stephen Schwartz; Directors: Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse, Ken Russell, and Sidney Lumet; Actors: Julie Andrews, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Lauren Bacall, Richard Burton, Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, Whoopi Goldberg, and Michael Caine. And, yes, a designer’s relationship with actors is indeed a collaboration. Julie Andrews has spoken of how Walton’s costume designs for Mary Poppins helped inform her character – severe and grey on the outside, but with crimson, puce and bright yellow linings.

It’s inescapable to list highlights of the shows and films that Walton designed: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Pippin, Chicago, Lend Me a Tenor, Six Degrees of Separation, Heartburn, Deathtrap, Equus, Murder on the Orient Express, The Boyfriend… and the aforementioned Mary Poppins.

Draing of a crowned figure standing in front of red curtain held up by castle facade.
Tony Walton, panel for Pippin, 1972. Box 67, folder 8, Paul F. Stiga collection, Music Division.

A central aspect of the Library’s mission is to acquire, preserve, and sustain a comprehensive record of American history and creativity. Tony Walton’s work will endure as the epitome of creativity – by turns exuberant, beautiful, clear, linear, startling, comforting, and original. His work spans six decades, with designs that not only document the dozens of shows with which he was associated, but the evolution of the craft itself. His collection is not only priceless for historians and researchers, but as an inspiration and an education for future designers. We remember Tony personally with warmth and affection, grateful for his kindness and generosity, and in awe of his talent.

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