Interesting article in The New York Times this morning about Broadway productions eschewing lavish sets to save money. But in my opinion, one of the examples that Patrick Healy uses is a little misleading.
Healy mentions the "spartan kitchen" in Billy Elliot, designed by Ian MacNeil. He says the Tony-winning musical "which recouped its $18 million capitalization in 14 months, takes place largely in a community center dance hall, and some of the most critically praised dance scenes involve no more than a chair or an empty stage."
Well it's true that at one point, Billy does use a chair as a prop. But that's hardly all that's happening on stage. For example, the rigging that allows him to "fly" with the aid of an adult male dancer must be pretty complex and expensive.
And the "spartan kitchen" that Healy mentions is built around a mechanical set that's raised and lowered from the Imperial Theatre stage. I believe it required blasting through the floor of the theatre to install, which could not have been cheap. (Unfortunately, I couldn't find a picture.)
Now I'm the first one to admit that I like scenery that gives me something on which to chew. James Schuette's rundown shop in Superior Donuts and John Lee Beatty's opulent Manhattan apartment for The Royal Family were terrific. I also liked David Gallo's basement nightclub in the musical Memphis.
But the scenery isn't always what leaves a lasting impression. Really, it depends on the show.
Healy mentions that the set design by Scott Pask for the current Broadway revival of Hair is somewhat sparse. Between listening to music that I love and watching the hippies run around the theatre interacting with the audience, I hardly thought about the set. Or lack thereof.