To create theater, it is said, all you really need is “two planks and a passion.”
While that is true, it negates the creative art of scenic design. That three-dimensional, architectural, historical and occasionally fanciful journey is explored in a gorgeous coffee-table book, Designing Broadway, subtitled How Derek McLane and Other Acclaimed Set Designers Create the Visual World of Theatre.
Two-time Tony Award winner McLane was first approached about writing a book that would collect and celebrate his nearly 40-year career designing some 165 productions on and off-Broadway. Certainly he generated enough material for a book, but instead McLane chose to include the work of other designers, who either inspired him, gave his creations context or illustrated one of the many theatrical themes in which the book is grouped.
So while about half of the productions covered are designed by McLane, he (and his co-author Eila Mell) include the work and the oral history descriptions of such stellar Broadway designers as Robin Wagner, Eugene Lee, Boris Aronson, Ming Cho Lee and Tony Walton, to name just a few.
Cho Lee puts what they do succinctly when he says, “We are the people who make pictures from words.” The performances that resided on these sets are, by the nature of theater, ephemeral, but with books like this one the scenic designs live on. And if you happen to have seen some of the shows depicted here, these visuals have a way of recalling the viewing experiences from years ago.
Born in London, the 64-year-old McLane did not move to New York until the late 1980s, so he concedes that his first-hand knowledge of theater history is spotty at best. Of the four parts into which the book is divided, Part I – The Classics, is the weakest. It contains an arbitrarily chosen nine productions, with a mere single paragraph for each and not very illuminating at that.
But the book hits its stride with Part II – The Shows, which takes up the vast majority of Designing Broadway’s 254 pages. Many of McLane’s Broadway assignments have been revivals of plays that had memorable original productions.
While he is an avid researcher, he avoids looking into the scenic solution of the earlier designer until he is well into his own conceptual approach. Indeed, when he was designing a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company for the Kennedy Center, he became frozen in awe of Aronson’s design for the original Broadway show.
Shown Aronson’s model, McLane recalls its brilliance sending him into a depression. “I went home feeling that what I was doing was so stupid compared to that,” that he started again from scratch, eventually coming up with a vertiginous view from atop a skyscraper, looking down on the streets of New York. Even depression can spur creativity.
Not all audience members at that Company revival were familiar with the Aronson design, of course, while the vast majority of theatergoers who were drawn to last year’s musical adaptation of Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical film, Almost Famous, knew the source material well. The challenge here was, as McLane puts it, to evoke the movie enough while creating a wholly different stage experience. According to most reviews, the design was successful but the show was not.
A similar challenge, with a much happier ending, was presented by Moulin Rouge. From the start, director Alex Timbers emphasized to McLane that the show needed to be an immersive experience, as the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film had been. Unlike so many of his designs that were dictated by budgetary restrictions, McLane had none on Moulin Rouge, which became his largest, most complex design yet and brought him his second Tony Award (after 2009’s 33 Variations).
Moulin Rouge gets its own part of the book, a detailed description of the evolution of the show and its design. For the out-of-town tryout at Boston’s Colonial Theatre, its continuing Broadway run at the Hirschfeld Theatre and subsequent runs around the world, McLane turned each playhouse into the iconic Parisian nightclub. The audience was surrounded by red from the moment they entered, a triumph of sensory overload.
The book concludes with a section that may point to the future of Broadway. As it was immersed – there’s that word again – in the COVID-19 pandemic, McLane became involved with a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, completely on Zoom.
With the cast members – Ethan Hawke, Jon Leguizamo and members of off-Broadway’s New Group – rehearsing and performing in their own apartments, connected only electronically, the medium became a large part of the message, the estrangement of Vladimir and Estragon.
Each cast member’s space was draped with black velour, a sort of non-set designed by McLane. Ultimately, it was a new version of planks and passion.
DESIGNING BROADWAY: How Derek McLane and Other Acclaimed Set Designers Create the Visual World of Theatre, by Derek McLane and Eila Mell, Running Press, 254 pages. $45.