Home Musical play Tony Walton, award-winning set designer who was married to Julie Andrews, dies at 87

Tony Walton, award-winning set designer who was married to Julie Andrews, dies at 87


Mr. Walton was born in England and spent most of his career in the United States and became a theater mainstay, with more than 50 Broadway credits to his name. He established his reputation in 1962 with his simple, almost abstract sets for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, one of Stephen Sondheim’s first musicals, directed by George Abbott. Mr. Walton designed a more realistic setting for the 1966 film adaptation of “A Funny Thing Happened,” which, like the original Broadway production, starred Zero Mostel.

Another of Mr Walton’s early triumphs was “Mary Poppins”, a 1964 musical starring Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Although Mr. Walton’s title was simply “design consultant”, he was widely credited with developing the distinctive Edwardian look for the film’s costumes and sets and received the first of five Oscar nominations.

“There’s a definite attempt to augment reality,” Mr. Walton told The New York Times in 1991, explaining his approach to “Mary Poppins,” “to fantasize about it and try to make it all about fun.” .

He won the Oscar for artistic direction for “All That Jazz” (1979), director Bob Fosse’s alternately dark and brilliant self-portrait. Over the years, Mr. Walton has worked on films directed by Sidney Lumet (“Murder on the Orient Express”, “Equus”, “The Wiz”, “Deathtrap”), François Truffaut (“Fahrenheit 451”), Mike Nichols (“Heartburn”), Ken Russell (“The Girlfriend”) and Paul Newman (“The Glass Menagerie”).

But “I really am a theater animal,” Mr. Walton said, and his work has touched virtually the gamut of theatrical presentations, from revivals to hit dramas, comedies and musicals. He created the stage designs for the original Fosse productions “Pippin” (1972) and “Chicago” (1975), winning a Tony for the former.

He also received Tony Awards for a 1986 revival of John Guare’s dark comedy “The House of Blue Leaves” and for a 1992 version of “Guys and Dolls,” for which director Jerry Zaks told Mr. Walton: “I want to see you let loose with the brush, to let it rip.

He prepared by reading the stories of Damon Runyon, which formed the basis of Frank Loesser’s musical comedy about gamblers, gangsters and reforming members of the Salvation Army. The result was a colorful visual fantasy, with bold angles and a surreal sense of inhabiting another world – in this case, an eerily seductive sewer.

Mr. Walton won an Emmy Award for a 1985 television production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of Salesman,” starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich.

His creations were in such demand that at one point in the early 1990s, Mr. Walton had six plays running simultaneously on Broadway – three musicals and three dramas. He had also designed a production of “Peter and the Wolf” then performed by the American Ballet Theatre.

He approached a new script, he said in a 2008 interview with Playbill, “like it was a radio show and [would] don’t allow me to have a rush of imagery… I try to imagine what I see as slowly being revealed by a pool of light… Usually, of course, that’s the best way to tell the story.

His design palette was so varied that there was no particular “Walton style”. New York Times drama critic Frank Rich described the low-key setting of the 1989 Broadway musical “Grand Hotel,” which earned Mr. Walton another Tony nomination:

“Mr. Walton sets the mood for nearly every public and private room in a grand hotel in Weimar Berlin simply by relying on three chandeliers, a proscenium broadband platform, several dozen high-backed chairs right, a skeletal revolving door and four ghostly, translucent pillars in whose evocative period bric-a-brac float like the cultural detritus in a Joseph Cornell box.The ever-changing configurations of these simple fixtures are all that is necessary to move the action from bar to bedroom to lobby and back again.The public eye fills in what Mr. Walton leaves out.

Anthony John Walton was born on October 24, 1934 in Walton-on-Thames, England. Her father was an orthopedic surgeon and her mother was a housewife.

At first, Mr. Walton thought he would take medicine, but he struggled with science and was uneasy at the sight of blood. He became interested in acting after his parents returned from a London playhouse late at night and taught their children a new dance they had seen on stage, the Lambeth Walk.

Once, when called upon to recite a Latin poem at school, Mr. Walton instead launched into a vaudeville skit he had learned, later noting: “I was expelled from this class.

He staged plays and operas with puppets and tried acting, but “was hopelessly embarrassed in front of paying audiences”. He studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, part of University College London, where he found his niche in design and began his relationship with Andrews.

Mr Walton was serving in the Royal Air Force in Canada in 1956 when Andrews starred on Broadway in ‘My Fair Lady’. He often visited her in New York, attended other plays, and settled in Manhattan after her military discharge. They married in 1959, divorced nine years later but remained close friends.

In a statement, Andrews called Mr. Walton “my dearest and oldest friend. He taught me to see the world with new eyes and his talent was simply monumental.

Mr. Walton was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1991, and his set designs have occasionally been exhibited in museums. He has illustrated more than a dozen children’s books which Andrews wrote with their daughter, Walton Hamilton.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Walton’s survivors include his second wife, writer Genevieve “Gen” LeRoy; one daughter-in-law, Bridget LeRoy; two sisters; a brother; and five grandchildren.

After concentrating on design, Mr. Walton turned later in his career to directing, directing productions of works by Noel Coward, George Bernard and Oscar Wilde at theaters in New York, from Connecticut, Florida and California.

“I start every project as if I had never done one before,” Mr. Walton said in 1991. Each new play or film, he added, is “a dive into something unexplored.”