Wagner died in his sleep on Monday in New York City, publicist Matt Polk told The Hollywood Reporter after receiving confirmation from Wagner’s daughter Christie Wagner Lee.
His Broadway play and musical design credits between 1961 and 2012 included the original productions of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Angels in America, Victoria/Victoria, The Producers, The Boy From Oz, A Chorus Line, 42nd Street and Dreamgirls. Wagner also designed Crazy For You and Chess for London’s West End.
Rather than a stage designer with a painterly style, Wagner was a pioneer of mobile, automated sets on Broadway with productions like On the Twentieth Century and Dreamgirls. Because of his innovations, the large-scale use of technology to smoothly move and shift scenery on stages became the standard in live theater.
Wagner won three Tony Awards for best set design over his career — for On the Twentieth Century in 1978, City of Angels in 1990 and The Producers in 2001 — and received a total of 10 Tony nominations throughout his career for such productions as Jelly’s Last Jam, Mack & Mabel, Young Frankestein and the first revival production of Kiss Me, Kate.
Born on August 31, 1933, in San Francisco, Wagner graduated from Balboa High School and by accident fell into set design after attending art school for two years at the Palace of Fine Arts, which eventually became the California School of Fine Arts.
“I got into it simply because I loved theatre. When I started out — I was 20 years old — I hadn’t studied anything about theatre. Then suddenly I began going and fell in love with it. I wanted to figure out some way I could be around it. So I started running a light board at a place called the Theatre Arts Colony in San Francisco, where I was born,” Wagner told Playbill in 2007.
He got his Broadway break on Big Fish, Little Fish, which opened at the ANTA Theater in New York City on March 15, 1961. After working on 17 off-Broadway plays, his breakthrough set design on the Great White Way came with the original production of Hair.
Wagner went on to oversee design on landmark 1970s Broadway productions of Lenny, Jesus Christ Superstar and A Chorus Line, the latter of which featured a set famed for just a white line on the floor and a mirrored back wall.
“Because it’s so simple. That was the result of two years’ work, of Michael Bennett and I trying to distill things. We started with big ideas for visualizing scenes, and as we went through the show’s workshop period, they got smaller and smaller. Finally, we realized we could do the whole show with nothing but a line. That was the real beginning. And then we knew we needed a black box, which represents theatre, and that we needed the mirrors, because they represent the dance studio,” Wagner explained to Playbill.
He also earned a long list of other accolades, including Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Maharam Awards. And Wagner designed for a host of regional theater productions, along with ballet, opera and rock performances, including for a 1975 Rolling Stones tour.
Wagner served as a trustee of the Joseph Papp Public Theater and became a member of the Theater Hall of Fame in 2001.
He is survived by his partner, Susan Kowal, and children Kurt Wagner, Leslie Wagner and Christie Wagner Lee. He was previously married to Joyce Wagner and producer Paula Wagner.