It’s one of the most extraordinary design challenges ever: The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, will present this summer productions of six musicals by Stephen Sondheim. The plan is to run three shows in repertory at a time. In May and June, there will be Company, Sweeney Todd, and Sunday in the Park With George. Following in July and August will be A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, and Passion. Designing all six of these productions is Derek McLane.
The following is the first installment of a series in which McLane talks to Entertainment Design about the development of this complex and demanding assignment. This month covers the story so far.
Having been chosen for the assignment, McLane attended a get-together at Sondheim’s townhouse with representatives of the Kennedy Center and the productions’s directors: Eric Schaeffer, the series’ artistic director, Christopher Ashley, Mark Brokaw, and Sean Mathias.
McLane: "The purpose of the meeting was just to talk about how we’d approach the design of the project. Sondheim said something about how they should all have an individual look. Right off the bat, I raised the issue of doing a festival stage, because I was pretty sure that wasn’t what anybody wanted. At first, they hedged on the idea of full productions. The truth of the matter is, I don’t think anybody knows exactly what this is going to be like, because nobody has ever done it before. They would love to have full-scale productions, if they could afford it—but it's a non-profit theatre. I’m sure the casts are reduced slightly, but they’re still big and the orchestra is very big.
"The project is the brainchild of Michael Kaiser [the new head of Kennedy Center, previously known for rescuing Britain’s Royal Opera House from chaos and insolvency]. This is a big deal for him—he has a lot riding on it. Still, I saw an article about this in the paper and [frequent Sondheim collaborator] James Lapine was quoted as saying, `It will be really interesting to see if they can pull this off.’"
"I was hired through Eric Schaeffer, with whom I’ve worked before. [Laughing] And they probably asked every other designer in New York who said no and I was stupid enough to say yes. I’ve worked with all the directors before, and I have a good relationship with all of them.
"I have anxiety about this project almost every night. The hardest one, I have to say, is Sunday in the Park with George. Tony Straiges did such an exquisite job of it on Broadway. I’ve often said, they should just rent his set for this production. I read about the original production and I don’t think it was finished when they workshopped it at Playwrights Horizons. But I believe they had a set as they continued the writing, and it was so strong that it really became a part of the writing of the show. I’ve finally come up with my own idea for it, but like on Broadway, we’re still putting the painting [George Seurat’s "Sunday Afternoon on Le Grand Jatte"] onstage."
"After that first meeting, I really didn’t work on it all summer because I didn’t think I was going to do it. The money they offered me was so low that it wasn’t really doable. I wasn’t even negotiating with them—I thought, I just can’t do it. I mean, I never thought it would be a big moneymaker—it is a non-profit theatre—because projects like this are inevitably under-budgeted. But the money they offered me was so impossibly low. I called Eric Schaeffer and said, `I’m not trying to get you involved in negotiations, but I can’t do the show.' It took a long time, which made think it wasn’t happening—or that they were getting somebody else. It’s all because they have no road map for this."
"We didn’t get a deal until—actually, it was September 11 that we had a sit-down meeting. It was kind of bizarre; it was about an hour after the planes hit the World Trade Center, and I thought, how can we have this meeting? Then I thought, we just have to have this meeting, just to get this over with. Afterwards, I was supposed to fly to Chicago and start teching The Visit [a new musical, based on Durrenmat’s play, at the Goodman Theatre—click here to read the February 2002 ED story online]. Needless to say, I did not go. I drove to Chicago, finally, to work on The Visit. It was unbelievable, but we made the first preview. Load-in was delayed and we started teching a bit late, but it was really important to the writers [Terrence McNally, John Kander, and Fred Ebb] that we just do it, in whatever shape it was in—and so we did, and it was thrilling.
"As soon as The Visit was done, I started having meetings with directors about the Sondheim shows. But then I had to tech The Women [on Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre]. And that project was another bear [a two–act play with nearly a dozen different locations]."
Meeting with directors as they were available, and working around his other projects, Mclane spent the autumn months working on his designs.
"We had a meeting set up for early December to show Michael Kaiser and the technical people where we were. Right before the deadline, I realized I really wasn’t ready. But I also thought I should just do it anyway. Sometimes, postponing deadlines is not a good thing; sometimes, it’s good to have that fire under your butt. And sometimes, at the 11th hour, things occur to you. Also, I wanted to hear what they had to say. So I went down to Washington with three shows reasonably far along—Passion, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd. I had something for Sunday in the Park With George, but we ended up changing it all. I also had sketches for Company, which were completely changed. I really had nothing for Merrily We Roll Along—just a couple of ideas. Of the first three shows, only Night Music has changed—I had a different idea then about how to do trees onstage. But the way it’s set up, the way it moves, that hasn’t changed all that much.
"The meeting went well. Michael Kaiser was enthusiastic. It was useful getting their reaction to the scope of the project. They asked a few times whether or not we could afford it. I said, `I don’t really know.’ I’m terrible at budgets. But nobody panicked. Nobody said, `You’re insane.’ I’ve since heard that. They were all here last week. I overheard one of them saying `Derek is living in a dream world.’ [Laughs]. Then they realized that I heard it. When Sondheim saw the designs, he said, `Can you afford all this?’ When I told him that they thought I was living in a dream world, he said, `Well, that’s exactly where you should be.’
"You know, budgets are always a problem. But you can’t sit around and design the budget. You have to design the show—figure out what’s best for the show. Sometimes that means making things cost less, and sometimes it means the producing organization has to find more money because something is worth doing. For example, The Women was a combination of those two ideas. It definitely cost more than they thought it would, but it didn’t cost as much as it might have. And ironically, they made money on it.
"Anyway, this meeting really gave me the confidence to dive into it more thoroughly. By now, my schedule was relatively clear. I teched a couple of shows in mid-December—Hobson’s Choice at the Atlantic Theatre [in New York—click here to read David Barbour's interview with Hobson's Choice costume designer Laura Bauer] and Drowning Crow [at the Goodman], but neither required much time in the theatre. I designed Drowning Crow a year ago, but a strike at the Goodman postponed it. It didn’t require as much attention as it might have, because I had done so much work on it. But it was still a big show—it has four abstract, very out-there sets.
"I agreed to do Hobson’s Choice when I truly thought I wasn’t doing the Kennedy Center project. If I’d known the Kennedy Center would work out, I wouldn’t have done Hobson’s Choice. Also, when they changed the schedule for Drowning Crow, I might have said I wasn’t available. But I truly didn’t think I was going to do the Sondheim shows, so I agreed to do these other projects. Then there was Lone Star Love [a new musical based on The Merry Wives of Windsor] at the Great Lakes Theatre Festival. Originally it was supposed to happen a year ago. By the time it was set, the schedule had been changed so many times that I couldn’t do anything about it—because it was exactly the same time as The Women. I was really committed to The Women. So the choice was for me to withdraw from Lone Star Love altogether, which I proposed to the theatre. They said it didn’t make any sense, because the set was so designed—actually, construction on it had begun. So I sent my associate, Zhanna Gurvich, out to Cleveland and she supervised it. I literally never saw it until after it opened, which is sort of bizarre. It was a crazy fall.
"I was a little nervous about showing the designs to Sondheim. My biggest challenge was not to blank out on what happens in the shows—I didn’t want to be sitting there, looking at my notes at every moment. I was a little nervous about the set for Company, but he thought it was cool. He asked some very specific questions, and he had one or two little quibbles about things. Sometimes I persuaded him and sometimes I didn’t. But there was nothing fundamental that had to be changed. Also, the Kennedy Center has been very supportive. They were camped in this office last week. They always come up here. If I had to schlep all these models down to Washington, it would waste a lot of design time.
"When you ask Sondheim about this retrospective, he just talks about how unbelievably flattering it is. It is a crazy project. One of the technical guys talked about taking Lapine’s quote—`It will be interesting to see if they actually pull it off’—and having T-shirts made that say that."
Part II of Derek McLane's Sondheim Diaries will appear in April as an ED Online Exclusive.