Boris Aronson was primarily a set designer. He is best known for his work on The Diary of Anne Frank (1955), Bus Stop (1957), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Cabaret (1966), Zorba(1968), Company(1970), Follies(1971), and Pacific Overtures (1976). Aronson won eight Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards for Best Scenic Design. The collection is made up mainly of designs, but also includes production materials, scripts, and other papers.
Biographical/historical: Boris Solomon Aronson was a scenic designer, occasional costume designer, painter and sculptor. He was born around 1900 in Kiev (currently the independent Ukraine), the son of a rabbi, and came of age during the Russian Revolution. He studied art and design at the School of Modern Painting in Moscow, as well as studying with the avant-garde painter and stage designer Alexandra Exter. He continued his education in Paris and Berlin, and in 1923 wrote a book about his friend, the artist Marc Chagall. (Chagall's cubist-fantastic paintings based on Aleichem's stories would later inspire Aronson's sets for Fiddler on the Roof.) In 1923 he emigrated to the United States and began designing sets for New York's Jewish theaters, first with the experimental Unser Theater and later with the Yiddish Art Theater. These early designs clearly showed Aronson's rejection of naturalism in design. A good example of this is Aronson's depiction of Hell as the human mind in The Tenth Commandment (1926). It was during these years that Aronson developed his theories on stage design: the set should permit varied movement; each scene should contain the mood of the whole play; and that the setting should be beautiful in its own right.
Aronson's first foray into English-speaking theater was the 1927 production, 2 x 2 = 5. As the Great Depression progressed he worked diversely, designing productions for Radio City Music Hall, on Broadway, and joining the Group Theater. The Group Theater was founded in 1931 by Harold Clurman,Cheryl Crawfordand Lee Strasberg and was based on the principles of ensemble acting, first seen in the Moscow Art Theater. Aronson and Clurman (who once called Aronson a “master visual artist of the stage”) would eventually work together on 11 productions, including the Group Theater's Awake and Sing! (1935), Paradise Lost(1935), and The Gentle People (1939). Aronson's notable productions of the 1930s include Walk A Little Faster (1932, starring Bea Lillie) which featured innovative use of curtains, for example, one was shaped like an iris lens.
During the 1940s Aronson continued to innovate by using colored slides to create projected scenery. In 1947 the Museum of Modern Art exhibited these stage designs in the show Painting with Light (a phrase coined by Aronson to describe these collage like works). He used this technique for one of his first ballets, The Great American Goof(1940). Aronson would continue to design for ballets throughout his career. In 1943 Lisa Jalowetzbecame his professional assistant and two years later they would marry. She continued to assist him throughout his career.
1950-1951 brought greater recognition of Aronson's talents. That year he received the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards for Best Design for Season in the Sun (1950), The Country Girl (1950), and The Rose Tattoo (1951). Other notable productions during the 1950s include I Am a Camera (1951, based on Christopher Isherwood's book that would later inspire the musical Cabaret), The Crucible (1953), The Diary of Anne Frank (1955), and Bus Stop (1955).
If the 1950s was the decade of Aronson's association with earnest dramas, the 1960s brought him widespread acclaim as a designer for musical theater. His collaborations with Harold Prince, beginning with Fiddler on the Roof in 1964, progressing to Cabaret (1966, renowned for his use of a lightweight mylar mirror that reflected the audience back to themselves) and Zorba (1968) were resounding successes. Prince and Aronson continued to work together in the 1970s on Company (1970), Follies (1971), Great God Brown (1973) and Pacific Overtures (1976). The designs for Pacific Overtures, in particular, brought together Aronson's love of innovation through his use of color copies in the design process, and his lifelong fascination with traditional art forms like Japanese printing.
Aronson's final designs were for Baryshnikov's The Nutcracker (1976). By his death in 1980 Aronson had won eight Antoinette Perry (Tony) awards for Best Scenic Design. His designs were exhibited at the Library for the Performing Arts in 1981, as well as being exhibited at the Katonah Gallery in conjunction with The New York Times critic Frank Rich's book The Theatre Arts of Boris Aronson.
Content: The majority of the Aronson collection is set designs, followed by production materials and scripts. Professional Papers (Series I) and General Research (Series VII) contain materials not directly associated with specific productions. Most of the other series – Scripts, Programs, Clippings, Production Materials, Designs, Elevations & Blueprints, and Oversized Materials - are organized by production name. They illustrate Aronson's thought and work processes from beginning to end. Production Materials and Designs include Aronson's early work for the Jewish theater, a particularly interesting time in his career and unique to this collection. Amongst the designs for groundbreaking productions like The Diary of Anne Frank (1955) and Cabaret (1966), there is evidence of concepts that were eventually discarded like the Art Nouveau version of Follies (1970) and preliminary screens tried out in Company (1970). Production Materials boasts research materials for Orpheus Descending (1957) recommended to Aronson by Tennessee Williams himself. Lisa Aronson's notes throughout provide additional information, and she also had a hand in constructing Boris Aronson's scrapbooks. Aronson's writings (in Series I) allow Mr. Aronson to speak directly about his work, including his short book about Marc Chagall, a friend of Aronson's whose work inspired his designs for Fiddler on the Roof (1964). There is virtually no personal material in the collection.