This past summer, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, presented six musicals by Stephen Sondheim, in an unprecedented retrospective. The festival was divided in two, with three shows running in repertory at a time. Company, Sweeney Todd, and Sunday in the Park With George were staged in May and June, while Passion, Merrily We Roll Along, and A Little Night Music ran in July and August. All six productions featured scenery by Derek McLane. With a little help from editorial director David Barbour, here is his designer's diary, in which McLane discusses his process on this complex, difficult project.
Having been chosen for the assignment, McLane attended a get-together at Sondheim's townhouse with representatives of the Kennedy Center and the production's directors: Eric Schaeffer, the series' artistic director, Christopher Ashley, Mark Brokaw, and Sean Mathias.
McLane: “The meeting was to talk about how we'd approach the design. Sondheim said each should have an individual look. I raised the issue of doing a festival stage, because I was pretty sure they didn't want that. 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. I have anxiety about this project almost every night.”
“After that first meeting, I 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 do-able. I wasn't even negotiating with them — the money they offered me was so impossibly low. It took a long time, which made me think it wasn't happening — or that they were getting somebody else. It's all because they have no road map for this.”
“On September 11, we had a sit-down meeting to hash out a deal, about an hour after the planes hit the World Trade Center. It was bizarre. I thought, how can we have this meeting? Then I thought, we have to, just to get it over with. We got right to the point and finished in about seven minutes. Later that morning, I was supposed to fly to Chicago and start teching The Visit [a new musical, based on Durrenmat's play, at the Goodman Theatre]. 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, and it was thrilling. As soon as The Visit was done, I started having meetings with directors about the Sondheim shows.
“We had a meeting to show [Kennedy Center head] Michael Kaiser and the technical people where we were. I wasn't ready, but I did it anyway. Sometimes, postponing deadlines is not a good thing; it's good to have that fire under your butt. Sometimes, at the 11th hour, things occur to you. The meeting went well, Kaiser was enthusiastic. They asked whether or not we could afford it and I said, ‘I don't really know.’ I'm terrible at budgets. But nobody panicked.”
“I was nervous about showing the designs to Sondheim. I didn't want to be sitting there, looking at my notes at every moment. I was nervous about the set for Company, but he thought it was cool. He asked some very specific questions, and he had one or two quibbles about things, but nothing fundamental was changed. He said, ‘Can you afford all this?’ Actually, last week, they were here from the Kennedy Center. I overhead one of them saying, ‘Derek is living in a dream world.’ I told that to Sondheim, and he said, ‘That's exactly where you should be.’”
“Sweeney Todd is enormous, but simple; there are very few moving parts. The ground plan functions very much as it did originally on Broadway. The materials are more hardcore industrial, however. On Broadway, it was all wood; this is made almost entirely of metal. The idea is to make it seem really dangerous. The space is very, very deep. There will be a translucent drop placed all the way upstage. Sweeney Todd will make his entrance down a long ramp. The set is influenced by a book called Blast Furnaces, by Bernd and Hilla Becher — a book that is nothing but pictures of blast furnaces from Germany.
Company set photo: Margot I. Schulman
“Company is designed from Bobby's point of view, which is a state of complete panic over the marriage question. It's as if he's looking off the side of a building, looking down — upstage we see a blur of moving traffic, with taillights and headlights; that image will be a projection.
“In the design for Sunday in the Park With George, we never leave George's studio. At first, 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 the dustcloths get whisked away. That reveals the first version of the park: these studies of the painting, bits of the painting that he's working out. They track off during the play, and are replaced by a larger, more realized piece of the painting [“Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatté”]. The entire set becomes the painting. In the second act, we have a serious amount of video and projections. During the number ‘Putting It Together,’ we have multiple images of George on the video screens. The Chromalume [George's second-act modern art piece] has always been disappointing, so we'll have the cast onstage, staring at it out in the audience. The modern version of the park is the original space, but with these severe, arty, high-contrast, black-and-white photographs of brick buildings flying in. Then we go back to the original park for the end of the show.
“Merrily We Roll Along begins 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. 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.
“The set for Passion is simple as well. 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 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.
“In the first act of A Little Night Music [set in 19th — century Sweden], before we go the country, there are these portals. They're translucent and they have 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. 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.
“The bid session was early February. Bids went out to nine shops — one in DC and the rest in New York. It was a fantasy that one shop could do all six shows. It would have made life easy. The bids ranged from a low of $1.7 million to a little over $3 million. It was supposed to cost $1.2 million. We got it down to about $1.4 — I think. I'm not sure, honestly. It definitely required some creative adjustments.”
“Sweeney Todd was built by Unlimited Scenery in DC. Passion and Company were built by Scenic Technologies, which did all of the automation as well. Adirondack Scenic got Merrily, Night Music, and Sunday in the Park.
“Because Unlimited Scenery is in DC, I made many visits for Sweeney Todd. The design didn't change much — a few dimensional pieces became flat. Having it built in DC allowed us to keep most of the design. Scenic Technologies did a nice job building Company. It was designed with a full rake, while Sunday has a half rake. We combined them so that, now Company does not come as far downstage. Every show had cuts, but they weren't draconian.
“The construction of the sets was fairly straightforward; the most difficult part was supervising the painting. You have painters you haven't worked with before — it's a little tricky, figuring each other out the first time. Some of the painting was done by Joe Forbes; I've worked with him many times.
“Load-in [for the first three shows] started two weeks before Sweeney's opening on May 10. We had one week to load in and five days to tech, with two days of previews. They installed a lift in the floor, pulled out part of the Eisenhower stage floor, put in the deck, and loaded in three shows. The actors were onstage on Tuesday; we teched on Tuesday and half of Wednesday, because the rest was a sitzprobe. Then we had a dress on Thursday with an opening on Friday. Sweeney Todd is a mother of a show; Company was simple by comparison. On the other hand, you can do a cruder job with Sweeney — it will accept a crude aesthetic. Company needs a lot more refinement.
“On Thursday, we attempted an orchestra dress for Sweeney. We started after 9pm and ended around midnight, which is pretty late to keep an orchestra. We had to stop nine times. On Friday, we had something close to a non-stop run-through. Friday night went off without a hitch. That felt like a miracle. Everybody was so emotional and excited. Many stagehands said it was the hardest week ever in the Eisenhower, but they were so gratified. It was a big thrill for everybody.
“The tech for Company was smoother. Company is hard to light, because the set has that ceiling. It's been a challenge for Howell [Binkley]. Also, there are those projections, and it's been a challenge to get the punch we want. Michael Clark did a great job with the projections. Mercifully, after Company, we had a week free of tech.”
“The second load-in took a week and went fine. Again, the hard part was the lack of tech time. We got onstage with the actors on Tuesday, had a preview on Friday, and opened on Saturday. You throw an orchestra into that schedule, a sitzprobe and an orchestra dress, and you have only two full tech days before that. Sondheim was fascinated by it — a number of times, he asked why, if it took weeks to tech a Broadway musical, how we could do it in this amount of time? I tried to explain. He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I understand, but you guys do it and you really can't tell the difference.’ He was really quite serious about that.
“Merrily was always the simplest design, but it has a lot of pieces — wagons, mostly, and flown-in pieces, too. There were very few changes to the design, not that we wanted to make any, but it would have tough anyway, because stuff got built so far in advance. Passion was one of the best productions. It surprised me. Eric did a fantastic job with it. It's really well cast: Judy Kuhn, Michael Cerveris, Rebecca Luker. It has a feeling of vitality about it — it's almost like a suspense story. It's very immediate, although it still does make people laugh at times. We were worried about that, but it doesn't seem to mitigate the effect.
“Every now and then we've had a problem with scenery fitting in the space. The hard part is making a quick decision about how to solve it. I definitely made a couple of small mistakes, not in the design but in discovering, two days later, that I should have kept it the way I designed it. In Night Music, the mansion, which comes on at the end of the act, was moved downstage 2' to accommodate lighting instruments, but it really wanted to be where it was designed to be. By the time we discovered that, there was no time to move it back. In Merrily, the courthouse was placed at the top of a step unit. It was wiggling too much and Sondheim was worried the steps would affect the song; on the day of the first preview, we dropped the unit 3' and did the run-through. We solved the problem — it didn't wiggle anymore. Then Sondheim asked if we could put it back. But it didn't look right anymore. But unfortunately we were out of time. That's the danger of that schedule. If we had a few more days, we would have waited to see how it played out, to let the actors get used to it, and we wouldn't have mucked up its look.
“The crew was fantastic. They were scared at the beginning, because we had such a tight schedule but by the end, they were so into it. They'd ask Sondheim questions, like why did he write a scene a certain way. And he'd talk about it with them.”
“Overall, I think the sets for Sweeney Todd, Company, and Passion worked really well. But now that it's over, I really miss it. It was an amazing experience, so intense. It felt like a summer stock schedule, but on such an enormous scale. Plus we knew that everybody we knew would come down and see the shows. If you were there on a weekend, half the audience was from New York. Passion was, I think, a great surprise — for me and for a lot of people. But all of them were great — even if you don't love every one of them, they're such amazing pieces.
Additional Sondheim Festival personnel included Tom Morse, sound designer; Howell Binkley, lighting designer; costume designers Catherine Zuber (Company), Anne Kennedy (Sunday in the Park With George, Passion), David C. Woolard (Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along), and Michael Krass (A Little Night Music).