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Designing Broadway Worlds

Date: May 23, 2011


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What you notice first in Derek McLane’s studio are not the scale models of his theatrical sets---he has designed almost two dozen Broadway shows since 1994---but an entire wall covered floor to ceiling with books.

"Every show is an excuse to buy a new book," he says.

McLane has been buying many books lately. He's currently represented on Broadway by Anything Goes, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, and Million Dollar Quartet, and the first three have all opened since January. He also designed two Off-Broadway show this season---one of those sets, for the New Group's revival of Marie and Bruce featured floor-to-ceiling bookcases---and the Kennedy Center's current production of Follies.

McLane, who is a mentor in TDF's Open Doors program, says all this activity is just a coincidence: "I’ve been talking with [director] Kathleen Marshall about Anything Goes for three years.  I have been involved in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo from the beginning [in California] several years ago." How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is how only current Broadway show that he began working on this season; it was the last to hire him, but the first to open.

To design the ship in Anything Goes, which earned McLane a Tony Award nomination for Best Scenic Design of a Musical, McLane consulted books on luxury ocean liners, on Hollywood in the 20s and 30s, and on Art Deco. He points to the cover of a book called Art Deco in North America by Eva Weber, which features a wooden China Cabinet.

"We used that design for the nightclub scene," he says, and then points out the model of that set.

Like any set, the model is transformed on stage with the addition of lighting and performers. Here is how McLane's work looks in production:

Lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski (also nominated for a Tony) was integral to the concept of the production: McLane notes that with the ship itself painted virtually all white, and white the default color of the sky, "we could create a cyclorama, lighting the whole sky and the whole ship to make a light field for the actors." Individual scenes are bathed in one primary color, typically red or white or blue.

For How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a musical about the cut-throat business world of 1960s Manhattan, McLane designed a honeycomb pattern reminiscent of 1960s skyscrapers. He was inspired by books on the architecture of I.M. Pei and Eero Saarinen. He also looked at a volume in one of his favorite series of books: All-American Ads 60's, a book full of advertisements from the 1960s. "It’s organized by products; it’s great for understanding the zeitgeist of the period. I used All-American Ads 50's for The Pajama Game and Grease."
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (for which he was nominated for both Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards) differs from McLane's other Broadway shows this season. Most importantly, it is a play, not a musical. The budgets for musicals are at least double (and often four times as much) as the budgets for plays, and "musicals tend to have a lot of scene changes," while plays, generally, do not.

There are eight different locations depicted in Bengal Tiger, a surreal drama about animals and humans wandering through the Iraq War, but none take up the entire stage. McLane simply created different playing areas.

His research included books on topiary: One of the characters is a topiary gardener, and bushes cut to resemble life-sized horses and giraffes and elephants are a prominent feature of the set.

Much of McLane's research for Bengal Tiger was done online, looking at Islamic art to discern general patterns.  The centerpiece of the set is an Islamic arch set into a wall made up of cut stone screens. When he was finished, he showed his creation to Muslims he knew to make sure nothing was offensive. He was careful not to include text from the Koran on the archway, which is what is written on archways in mosques. "I didn’t want it to be a mosque," he says.

Here too, lighting designer David Lander (a Tony nominee) was integral to the concept: There is great beauty and even splendid color in McLane's stone screens, but it is hard to see them through the dark lighting, just as the glories of Iraq are obscured by current events.
However they differ, all three of McLane's Broadway designs this season require a special floor on the stage to house all the mechanics involved in operating the sets. "There have been a lot of technological changes," he says, "But we still have to tell a story. That essential task has not changed."

Jonathan Mandell is a critic and journalist covering theatre for such publications as The Faster Times , Back Stage and American Theatre. He is on Twitter as @NewYorkTheater