The Story So Far: In what is surely one of the most extraordinary design challenges in years, scenic designer Derek McLane will design six Stephen Sondheim musicals to run in repertory this summer at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The repertory is divided into two parts: Sweeney Todd, Company, and Sunday in the Park With George, followed by Passion, Merrily We Roll Along, and A Little Night Music.
This is the second in a series of articles that traces McLane’s work, from the initial assignment to opening night. In the first installment, he discussed the early meetings with Sondheim and the directors (Christopher Ashley, Sean Mathias, Eric Schaeffer, and Mark Brokaw), his own complicated schedule, and how the events of September 11 threw the entire project off course. In this installment, taped in February, he discusses his design concepts for the productions.
models by Derek McLane
McLane: Although it’s enormous, it’s quite simple. There are very few moving parts. The ground plan functions very much the way it did originally on Broadway. The materials are more hardcore industrial, however. On Broadway, it was all wood, while this is made almost entirely of metal. The idea is to make it seem really dangerous. The moving cube unit turns one way to become Sweeney’s barbershop, then it turns and becomes the bake house. The space is very, very deep. There will be a translucent drop placed all the way upstage. Sweeney Todd will make his entrance down that long ramp. The set is influenced by a book called Blast Furnaces, by Bernd and Hilla Bercher—a book which is nothing but pictures of blast furnaces from Germany—it’s all based on that. Chris Ashley is directing. Costumes are by David Woolard. Howell Binkley is lighting all six productions. Incidentally, Sweeney Todd was the first show I saw on Broadway.
set models by Derek McLane
McLane:The set is designed from Bobby’s point of view, which is complete panic and nausea over the marriage question. It’s as if he’s looking off the side of a building, looking down—what we’ll see all the way upstage is a blur of moving traffic, with tail lights and headlights; that image will be a projection—I don’t know who’s doing them yet. Also, that rear view changes, at times, to, among other things, a reverse perspective, looking up at the sky, and a variety of much more abstract images. There are platforms that roll out, and we’ll have the odd sofa and other furniture pieces—actors will probably move them around.
Sean Mathias, the director, had been talking about doing the show with big white flowers—it was a period idea, a very simple, abstract thing. I was experimenting with that idea, then I went to the Billy Rose Collection and saw the Boris Aronson model [of the Broadway original]. It’s a great model; it kind of depressed me, it was so good. I couldn’t sleep that night; then I said, wait a minute, I know what to do. I did a doodle of this idea, and showed it to Sean. He said, "Of course, that’s what we have to do."
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
McLane: In this design, we never really leave George’s studio. The first thing you see, it’s covered with a white dustcloth in the back; the easels are covered with dustcloths, too. During the first chords of the opening, when Seurat speaks about composition and design, all these dustcloths get whisked off magically. That reveals the first version of the park: these studies of the painting—they’re all bits of the painting that he’s working out. These track off, during the play, and are replaced by a larger, more realized, piece of the painting ["Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte"]. They track in, so the whole set becomes the painting. The portals are made up of blank white canvases. The floor is meant to be a slightly abstracted version of his studio floor. In the scenes where Seurat is actually painting, we fly in a scrim version of the painting; he’s on a ladder, working, and Dot is sitting at a vanity downstage—that’s almost identical to what they did on Broadway.
In the second act, we’re going to have a serious amount of video and projections almost at the speed of an MTV video. During the number "Putting It Together," we’ll have multiple images of George on the video screens. We are using the original Broadway costumes. The Chromalume [George’s second-act modern art piece] will be unseen, in the audience. As a piece of scenery onstage, the Chromalume has always been disappointing so we’ll have the cast onstage, staring at it out in the audience. When we get to the modern version of the park, it’s this original space again, but it will have these severe, arty, high-contrast, black-and-white photographs of brick buildings flying in, like trees. Then we go back to the original park for the end of the show.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
set model by Derek McLane
We begin the show in California, with a graphic drop, plus a white piano and a bar. [At the top of the show, the lead character, Franklin Shepard, is a film producer]. From there, we go to New York, and the first scene in New York is a collage of Times Square and other buildings. There’s an apartment on Central Park, with a piece of furniture or two, and a photographic drop—all the scenes are very, very simple. The courthouse [for the end of the first act, when Franklin is getting a divorce] has a little circus trick built into it, where the entire cast comes out of this little door unit. The second act is more of the same—there’s a brownstone unit that spins around to become a greenhouse, then goes back to the brownstone. There’s a glitter curtain for the cabaret scene. It’s all very simple and very spare until the very last scene; when this rooftop unit tracks down for the last scene, and a sea of other rooftops slide on, with a big New York City sky, and for the first and only time in the show, we have a big, fully realized set.
models by Derek McLane
McLane: This is simple as well, with very few moving parts. It’s a distressed, white, shuttered room. [The location is a remote military outpost in Italy, in the middle of the 19th century]. The shutters can go up and down, in different configurations. There’s a landscape drop behind them, and various pieces of furniture come onstage—some of them come up from below the floor. The train compartment comes up on the lift. For the very last scene, the entire back wall flies out and it looks like we’re on the edge of the world. This is Sondheim’s favorite design.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
set model by Derek McLane
McLane:[Based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of the Summer Night, the setting is late 19th–century Sweden]. In the first act, before we go the country, there are these portals. They’re translucent and they have these Magritte-style birch trunks on them. Various pieces come on- and offstage—bedrooms, sitting rooms. At the end of the first act, when we go to the country, the portals fly out, and the country house appears, surrounded by a forest of enormous leaves. The house’s windows light up, and it has a human-size door [even though it is a half-height unit]. In the second act, the house changes positions a number of times, sometimes going all the way offstage. Desiree’s bedroom is a large canopied bed. There are a couple more units—garden architecture—that come downstage in different combinations, as we move to scene to scene. For the banquet scene, a really huge chandelier comes in, all the way down to the floor, with tables and chairs set up in front of it. My favorite part of this design is the giant photographic leaves.