R.I.P. Tony Walton

We just learned of the passing of designer and director Tony Walton (1934-2022).

I once had the honor of talking to him for about an hour at a party, although I rather stupidly didn’t know it at the time. It was at at the home of a Broadway producer who’d bestowed a great distinction on me by seating me with the both of them at the head of the table, and I had no clue what it was about the whole time. (Broadway people will wonder how that is possible, and I guess the answer is because I spent most of my formative theatrical time regionally and south of 14th Street). But shortly after that encounter I realized what it was about, and kicked myself a thousand times. The year was 2008. I had written a mixed review of the Broadway show A Tale of Two Cities, which Walton had designed the sets for, and he and the producer friend were gently pumping me for insight as to why I didn’t like it. I’m certain I was very unhelpful, and condemnably unimpressed when I learned that Walton had done the sets. I didn’t know that he was one of the giants of late 20th century theatre. Later when I learned who he was, as I say, I kicked myself, and hard. Not just because I owed the man due deference (Ye Gods!), but because there was so much to talk about.

To make but partial amends, we memorialize Tony Walton here with a little look at his accomplishments. If you’re like I was and don’t know him, you most surely know some of his work, and likely even noticed and admired it, which isn’t always the case in the sometimes subtle and often anonymous realms of set and costume design.

First off, it’s important to know that Walton was the first husband of Julie Andrews. Friends since childhood, they were married from 1959 through 1968. It was through her of course that Walton got a costume consultant credit on Mary Poppins (1964). But that’s a blip in his long career. His first major credit was set and costume design for the original Broadway production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962, he also did costume design for the 1966 screen version, and designed the 1996 Broadway revival). He had a long and fruitful professional relationship with Bob Fosse, designing the original Broadway productions of Pippin (1972) and Chicago (1975), and he designed the look of the fantasy sequence in the movie All That Jazz (1979), as well as consulting on Star 80 (1983).

Some other design credits for the movies: Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Petulia (1968), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Equus (1977), The Wiz (1978), Death Trap (1982), and Regarding Henry (1991). For TV, he directed the children’s classic Free to Be…You and Me (1974), as well as specials for Andrews and Bette Midler. He designed Whoopi Goldberg’s 1984 solo Broadway show, directed by Mike Nichols. Other Broadway credits as designer included the original productions of Golden Boy (1964, the musical with Sammy Davis Jr), Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor (1973), Streamers (1976), A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (1980), Sophisticated Ladies (1981), Woman of the Year (1981), The Real Thing (1984), Hurlyburly (1984), I’m Not Rappaport (1985), The House of Blue Leaves (1986), Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (1989), Lend Me a Tenor (1989), Grand Hotel (1989), Six Degrees of Separation (1990), The Will Rogers Follies (1991), Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1993), Busker Alley (1995) and lots and lots and lots of revivals and other productions, including his Tony winning sets for the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls — which I saw! He also directed the 1999 edition of the Big Apple Circus (!), and several regional, touring and West End shows.

As it turns out A Tale of Two Cities was Walton’s last Broadway credit. It played about two months, so plainly I wasn’t the only person who wasn’t crazy about it. But, ugh! I am plenty mortified, and this is my penance. Walton was 87 when he died on March 2. He died of a stroke, and every time I think about him, I’ll be in danger of the same thing happening to me.