TO his art-school colleagues he was a madman. By general consensus, he was the one most likely to succeed. More than two decades later, John Napier - who has dazzled theatergoers with startling stage creations in such international hits as ``Cats,'' ``Starlight Express,'' ``Les Mis`erables,'' and more recently ``Miss Saigon'' - is widely acknowledged to be the world's top stage designer. It is a tough, highly demanding profession. Only the very best survive.
``There's some sort of idea that theater design is effeminate,'' says the British-born Napier, who has - with his rugged face and frame - more the appearance of an athlete than an aesthete. ``Well, when I got to theater [design] school, the reality of it was effeminate; it was tacky. It was full of mincing ideas. There were no big ideas. Everybody was tiddling about with a pair of tweezers. So one of the things in which I have notoriety and one of the reasons I've been successful is that I cut across the grain of that image. I'm not interested in mincing around.''
Nor in mincing words. Before meeting Napier, this writer had heard and read anecdotes about the man, all pointing to an outspoken, even rather pugnacious individual. A few years back, for instance, he received Broadway's prestigious Tony Award (his fourth to date) for designing the widely hailed musical ``Les Mis-`erables.'' Instead of gushing the requisite gracious thank-you, Napier, asked with a palpably peeved expression, how he could be getting a prize for that show and not ``Starlight Express.''
``I put my foot in my mouth,'' remarks Napier, without hesitation. ``I should never have done it.''
That said, he still maintains ``Starlight Express'' is, in design terms, a far superior creation - with its daring use of ramps, bridges, kaleidoscopic colors, and high-tech lighting evocative of a gigantic toy train set on which actors in rollerskates whizz around like locomotives.
``I'll tell you why I was much prouder of `Starlight' than `Les Mis`erables,' the designer tells me in his London studio: ``Because `Starlight' was vulgar, and it was enjoyable. It was an attempt to do something that was popular but wasn't just vaudeville ... and was more to do with rock concerts than the detached world of theater that has become something in which you have to have a BA in English literature to appreciate.
``I don't subscribe to that. I think theater should be all kinds of shades and colors and textures and idiosyncratic things - mad things - and not just two actors and bare boards. ... `Les Miz,' as far as I was concerned, was yet again an award being given for something that was in the straight tradition of ... putting on classic pieces.''
Audiences are conscious of few if any stage designers. However good, they invariably blend in (so to speak) with the scenery. Not so Napier. Each of his creations is an event in itself. And his range is astonishingly diverse. There was Peter Shaffer's ``Equus'' (1973), in which virtually the only element of visual adornment came when the actors sported larger-than-life sculpted horses' heads and hooves of wire to convey, through mime, a stable of stallions that was central to the story.
With the hugely successful Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of ``Nicholas Nickleby'' (1980), the sprawling eight-hour epic format was given shape by Napier's dazzlingly inventive definition of the stage space by a complicated network of catwalks, ropes, and ladders, with ramps extending out into the audience. The style has since been much copied, but when used by Napier in that show, the effect was new and exciting.
With ``Cats,'' the designer's penchant for sculpture came fully to the fore. In the original London production, for example, an enormous junkyard constructed to convey a feline's view of the world is set on a giant turntable. At the beginning of the show, it slowly revolves halfway around the theater - taking with it the first few rows of the audience - and, in so doing, brings together two separate halves of the junkyard debris. The result is an amazing visual experience.
Another coup de th`e^atre comes later in the show when one of the cats runs out of lives and makes a dramatic heavenly assent. In the New York version, at the Wintergarden Theater, the set is extended to the point of actually breaking through the roof for the skyward climb.
Talk to anyone in the business, and you get the view that Napier is in a class all his own. A fellow stage-designer explains why. ``Given a problem, John doesn't tackle it head-on, as most people would,'' he observes, ``but from a 273-degree angle. He comes in from a completely different direction. Sometimes there's an obvious answer, but he never goes for that. ... He just has a wonderful ability to see beyond, in a theatrical sense, what others see.''
At this point the phone rings. Napier takes a call from New York to do with the proposed Broadwaytransfer of ``Miss Saigon.'' He explains that, typically, there's a phone call from either a director or producer, to see if he is available for a particular project. With ``Miss Saigon,'' the person on the other end of the line was British producer Cameron MacKintosh (``Cats,'' ``Les Mis`erables'').
``I can usually be heard mumbling and wheezing in the background,'' jokes Napier, `` I never attempt to engage myself in anything. I run a mile. I think: another thing to do, another trial with a blank piece of paper.''
After exhausting all possible escape routes, Napier will more often than not agree to do the show. He is then given the script, or with a musical such as ``Miss Saigon'' a scripted book, in which the characters are delineated, plus a scene-by-scene breakdown of the story and stage directions. ``There is no written thesis by which you can operate,''says Napier. ``In the case of `Miss Saigon,' for instance, there was a crafted book with lyrics in it, and it just said, `This scene takes place in a brothel; or a bar; or a hotel room. ... Then you're on the [US] Embassy roof and a helicopter lands.' And as a designer you're reading through something like [the helicopter landing] and you go, `Oh yeah?' ... you nearly tear it out to send back to them to say, `Can you rewrite this?'''
The full gamut of Napier's gifts is evinced by the fact that not only did he not tear the page out, but delivered the goods, and then some. Rarely do stage designs themselves get spontaneous, heartfelt applause. When I saw this show with its mesmerizing realism, I did. But then, for Napier's creations, it is not uncommon.
Not surprisingly, Napier's reputation is rapidly reaching beyond theater. Steven Spielberg sought out the British designer to devise the sets for his blockbuster film ``Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' but Napier had to turn him down because he wanted to fulfill his agreement with the RSC to design its upcoming stage version of ``Peter Pan.'' Rock star Michael Jackson used Napier's creations for his short 3-D film ``Captain Eo.'' And, more recently, the German-born illusionists Siegfried & Roy asked napier considered unlike anything anywhere, searched the world for the person they wanted to design and co-direct their new family show at Las Vegas's Mirage Hotel. At a colossal $67.5 million, it is believed to be the most expensive piece of entertainment ever put together for a stage.
In an interview, Roy, of the illusionist duo, could not speak highly enough of Napier's talents. ``What John has created is a dream come true for us.'' he says with enthusiasm for their breathtaking fantasyland of magic that's currently breaking all box office records in Las Vegas. ``It's a masterpiece. We are indebted to him forever. It's not a show; it's an experience.... It breaks all the rules for theatrical entertainment, and makes new ones.''
Despite his many years in the business and his countless accolades, it is clear that stage design has yet to become old-hat for Napier. ``It's a wonderful job,'' he says. ``I subscribe to the notion that the theater is an incredible place. I love the idea of it being a bastion of immediacy, with an audience that cannot be found with, for example, films. But movies have certainly had an effect on theater.
``There are several generations of people now whose visual vocabulary, their understanding, their logic, is to do with the way in which a film is constructed. ... They wouldn't actually understand the logic that would apply to the stage if we were to just deal with traditional ways of reproducing scenery.Each generaion moves on a bit. So the real challenge, if we don't want theater to become a kind of atrophied museum of ideas, is to go out there and, not compete with film, but actually investigate our own ways of being just as visually exciting.''