If you’re wondering how many cornstalks are on the set of Shucked, 2023 Tony-nominated set designer Scott Pask believes it’s at least 270. In the landscape beyond the 2023 Best Musical nominee’s barn, there’s at least a hundred that have been hand-painted on canvas and backlit, though Pask believes that number of hand-painted corn might be even higher. Of the actual cornstalks upstage that are enhanced by the backdrop, Pask guesses about 70 are behind the barn. Downstage and on set pieces that move on and off the stage, he thinks there’s another 100 or so cornstalks to account for—including what the production fondly calls “the puppet corn,” which moves on its own through a complex set of internal mechanics and kicks off the journey of Shucked. As Pask says, “It is literally a character.”
Pask's work to bring Shucked’s Cobb County to life at the Nederlander Theatre has been recognized with a Tony nomination this season—and it’s not his only one this year. Of his four Broadway credits as a set designer this season, Pask has earned 2023 Tony nods for Shucked and Some Like It Hot. Both have also been nominated for Best Musical this season and continue to play open runs on the Main Stem.
Shucked is a "farm-to-fable" musical that follows the residents of a small, corn-obsessed community as they come together to save their failing crops. While Shucked is as country-feeling as can be, Pask’s other Tony nomination is for the Art Deco grandeur of Some Like It Hot. The leading Tony-nominated musical, with 13 nominations, is an adaptation of the 1959 film musical of the same name. Set in 1933 before the end of Prohibition, Some Like It Hot follows two jazz musicians in Chicago who go on the run after witnessing a mob hit. In disguise, they join an all-female band and discover new love—for themselves and others—along the way.
“The aesthetics could not be more different,” remarks Pask. Shucked feels cozy and intimate with a realistic rendering to the barn set (which never leaves the stage); Some Like It Hot is heavily stylized with what feels like a constant stream of moving unit set pieces. The barn and the train are two of the most memorable parts of each set. The barn creates the home of Shucked, welcoming the audience into the fable, and captures the musical’s investigation into small communities by keeping the show contained. Meanwhile, Some Like It Hot’s life-sized train earns awe from the audience as it pulls across the stage. And while that surprise is worth applauding, it’s how Pask managed and deconstructed such a large piece to fit the changing emotional intimacy of the story within it that is truly remarkable. Both are feats of creating real physical spaces that underline the stories that take place in them.
Pask began working on both Shucked and Some Like It Hot a couple of years before the pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, both shows had to alter their workshopping plans, which led Shucked to hold a reading at the Eugene O’Neill Center in Connecticut, which housed a red barn. “What that did was influence the course of the set from then forward, because the intimacy and the idea of community became much more enhanced,” he explains. “I wanted to make sure that the set reflected that. To me, few things are as communal as a barn raising.” While Pask says he has never personally attended a barn raising, he actually has now as he helped create the barn set of Shucked.
In developing the tilted look of the barn (because the show mentions a history of floods), Pask drew upon his training as an architect to accomplish its off-kilter look. “It was like, ‘What's the right degree of tilt where it's not so precarious looking to an audience that it gives you some sense of anxiety, but far enough where it's clear that it is not upright?’” he posits. Using models that showed what the barn would look like with a tilt between 0 and 12 (that’s one model for each degree), it was ultimately decided that the barn would be tilted 6 degrees. “That was a fun investigation to figure out the exact sort of ‘wonk’ factor of the barn.” It still needed to accommodate actor, so the task also included building a safe and stable set that only looked a bit off. "There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes engineering going on to make that leaning catwalk [on the second level of the barn], because it is quite literally defying gravity.”
Building the illusion was half of the challenge for Pask. The other half was finding the right way to capture the sense of warmth and intimacy. Pask did this a few ways, including pushing the barn more downstage. Bringing the barn, with its weathered timbers covered in an aged patina, closer to the audience was meant to evoke that feeling of community. Creating that feeling is also why Pask decided on a dilapidated look, with gaps between the walls so the audience can see the 100-some-odd corn in the background. “The gaps between all of those boards let us see the context in which that communal space sits,” he says. “The barn represents the heartland. I hope a lot of people find some recognition in it, because it does recognize these places have a lot of heart and soul.”
Similarly, Some Like It Hot takes its own trip through the heartland—but its journey is through a series of jazz clubs near the end of Prohibition and surrounded by Art Deco elegance. While the barn of Shucked never leaves the stage, Some Like It Hot’s set constantly transforms throughout the musical. “That multi-city journey traveling the country, from the underbelly of a Chicago speakeasy to land in the seaside of California, is such a transformation. And that transformation reflects the characters’ transformation,” Pask points out.
The multi-leveled set features the orchestra at the second level, which the performers can reach in part of the first act via staircases. As the scenes change setting from a Chicago speakeasy, to a train, to jazz clubs, to the Hotel del Coronado in California—and even a cantina in Mexico and a yacht—the depth of the stage continually changes. Backdrops rise up and drop down from the ceiling, along with chandeliers and various set elements like the shimmering curtains of the Hotel del Coronado (which shimmer from pieces of glass that have been glued to the hard material). Set pieces move in and out on the stage’s bottom level. The lighting changes and small platforms in the floor rise up and down to signal the different locations.
Again, Pask’s training as an architect came in handy. The set features elements of trompe-l’oeil, artistry that tricks the eye into believing an illusion of depth. The show curtain—which looks like a dimensional, folded metal plate—is all hand-painted on a flat canvas.
One of the set’s most involved and surprising changes happens when a train pulls onto the stage from its hiding spot underneath a platform upstage. It’s an impressive moment as the train, which enters from stage left, continues to pull across the entire space before opening up in various ways through the following scenes. “That whole sequence is so mind-boggling, and the choreography that’s going on backstage that the audience doesn’t see is wild,” Pask says. While this detail might seem obvious, it is worth pointing out that the train was built in proportion to a real train. It’s an accomplishment that he’s quite proud of.
The way the train deconstructs gives Pask real pleasure. The locomotive develops from its arrival on the platform as a whole train to opening up to reveal the inside of the train car, to moving and revealing the cramped and intimate space of the train’s bathroom. “I love it when Sugar [played by Adrianna Hicks] is singing ‘Darker Shade of Blue’ and then the bathroom parts and everything opens,” says Pask, referring to how the train breaks apart and fades away during the introspective song. It’s just one example of the ways he continually changes the play space and its proportions to engage with the characters. “I love using all our powers at that moment with techniques that, hopefully, people aren't really noticing. Just going ‘Oh my gosh, that's all floating together.” He shares, “That for me is stage magic, these articulate and thoughtful transitions to keep shifting the scale of space.”
Getting to bring both shows to Broadway after the pandemic put both on pause, Pask is thankful for how hard-working—and inspiring—the craftsmen were. “Sometimes I sat there and went, ‘It is a miracle that this got here on time.’ That is something that I think is just a triumph,” he shares. “That’s theatre people going, ‘We’ll make it happen. We have that deadline of first preview and we're going to get there.’ I love that that spirit was unaltered and unchanged by the last three years.”