Designing Broadway: How Derek McLane And Other Acclaimed Set Designers Create the Visual World of Theatre

Sometimes the set design is the best thing about a Broadway show. I thought that about “Moulin Rouge,” which won Derek McLane his second Tony Award for set design. Sometimes the sets are what distinguish Broadway from any other theater in America: It’s through the set that you can see the money they lavished on the show; “Moulin Rouge” comes to mind again. Sometimes the opposite is true: The sets are designed to keep costs down, or don’t register much at all – in which case, the set designer might tell you, the sets are doing their job, focusing the audience’s attention on the story.
There are specific examples of all of these – with a special focus on “Moulin Rouge” — in
Designing Broadway: How Derek McLane and Other Acclaimed Set Designers Create the Visual World of Theatre (Running Press, 254 pages.) Written by McLane with Eila Mell, the book considers the set designs of more than 90 productions.

Not all of the productions were on Broadway.  One was not even on  stage: The last of the four sections of the book offers an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at the 2021 online production of “Waiting for Godot,” starring John Leguizamo and Ethan Hawke, who were thousands of miles apart. (Hawke also writes the forward to the book.)

And, only about half of the productions in the book were designed by Derek McLane. He could easily have filled up all the pages with just his own work: Since 1994, he’s designed 45 shows on Broadway alone; and 120 Off Broadway since 1986. Yet dozens of McLane’s predecessors, peers and rivals get their sets — and their say — in “Designing Broadway.” (See below for a list.)

Some of Derek McLane’s Broadway designs (each of which get at least a page in “Designing Broadway”), clockwise from top left: MJ The Musical (Tony nominated), A Soldier’s Play (Tony nominated), Ragtime (Tony nominated), Bengal Tiger at The Baghdad Zoo, How to Succeed, and 33 Variations (for which McLane won his first Tony Award.) Click on each to see it enlarged.

“Designing Broadway” generally goes for breadth over depth, which is most evident in the first and shortest of its four sections,  “Part I: The Classics.” It features a dozen set designs, in productions from 1912 to the 1980s, that McLane studied as a student at the Yale School of Drama and that left him with “a lasting impression.” We are left with less of an impression: Each production gets only a single photograph or illustration, and a short paragraph. Here is the entire entry for Maria Björnson’s design of “The Phantom of the Opera,” beside a photograph that shows the chandelier above the darkened proscenium:
“Björnson’s Phantom is one of the most commercially successful designs ever – exquisitely executed lavishness. For many years, the skills Björnson showed off in this design felt like something beyond my reach.”

McLane’s set for the Fiasco Theater Company 2019 production of Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along”

The bulk of “Designing Broadway” is in “Part II: The Shows,” which provides on average a couple of pages on each show, with lush illustrations and commentary by the theater artists involved.

Sometimes the designers offer examples of how their sets concretely altered the show. John Lee Beatty insisted that his design for “Burn This” include a fire escape sturdy enough to walk on; the carpenters wanted to use painted wood to save money. Beatty felt vindicated when, In a spontaneous moment during rehearsals, John Malkovich walked out on the fire escape. “Someone said that it looked like he was about to commit suicide, and suddenly that moment became part of the play.” Often the challenges are budgetary, and the workarounds inventive: Tony Walton created a pair of staircases leading up to a balcony for a production of “The Front Page,” so that he could repurpose the set as the ship in his next production, “Anything Goes.”

The artists who weigh in on a particular show are often not just the set designer, but also the lighting designer or the costume designer; the director, producer, playwright, some of the actors, or even some celebrities connected in some way to the show (Carole King on “Beautiful,” John Waters on “Hairspray.”) Much of what they say has the feel of oral history. Few of the contributors who aren’t scenic designers have much of anything to say about the sets; they talk about other aspects of their show.

The productions are not organized chronologically or alphabetically, but grouped together under twenty-five different categories. These are sometimes straightforward (four shows are grouped under “Fiasco Theater Company,” which produced them; three shows are grouped under “Projections,” including “Network,” because they relied heavily on projected and electronic imagery.) But other categories feel abstract, abstruse or arbitrary. There is a group of four shows under “Transforming a Theater,” but the show that I believe most transformed its theater, “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” is grouped under the category “Surrealism,” which, McLane writes in the brief introduction to the category, “to my mind suggests the coexistence of impossibly incongruous elements.” (The category introductions are no more than two or three sentences.) We aren’t explicitly told what was incongruous about “The Great Comet” (Did he mean that it views 19th century Russia through a 21st century lens? That was clear int he costume design, but not so much in the sets.) But we are treated to a thoughtful, page-long essay by its set designer Mimi Lien, which not only describes the development of the set (and the show), but the philosophy behind it. “I strongly believe there’s a visceral experience of space,” she writes, giving the contrasting examples of how the “volume” of a cathedral versus an “enclosed” subway tunnel make us feel certain ways. ”I try to harness those properties of space for the dramatic potential. For The Great Comet, we wanted to capture the feeling that we were all in this space together, for better or for worse. That is done by creating an environment and event that happen all around your body.”
Given the eccentric way “Designing Broadway” is organized and the often random-seeming selection of details, the book is probably best appreciated not as a primer on set design but as a beautifully designed browser’s paradise — an opportunity to think visually about specific shows, especially those with which you are already familiar.

One example is David Korins on his design for Hamilton. He explains how much the set was inspired by metaphor, e.g. “This unfinished foundation with scaffolding around it is meant to represent our brand-new, unfinished country.” Korins is one of the scenic designers that argue the relative lack of attention to his set is actually a good thing for the show: “Broadway blockbusters are typically grounded in massive visuals (The Lion King, Wicked). With Hamilton, the visual pyrotechnics is the choreography…My job was to create a space that would allow anyone of any age to focus on the narrative, the words, the cadence and the performance…”

This gave me pause. What is Korins saying, that the design of “The Lion King” doesn’t allow for a focus on the narrative? Also: What does it say that McLane includes neither “The Lion King” nor “Wicked,” both of which won Tony Awards for Best Scenic Design?
I guess it says this is Derek McLane’s book, for all its collaborative spirit and McLane’s apparent modesty. He selected other shows and designers that have influenced his own work (or are at least in conversation with it.) If you look carefully at the book jacket, all six of the shows pictured were designed by McLane. Clockwise from top left: Moulin Rouge; Gigi; Sweet Charity; Anything Goes; Nice Work If You Can Get It; Beautiful: The Carol King Musical. (“Sweet Charity” is not even mentioned inside the book.)

Part III is entirely given over to “Moulin Rouge” – sixteen pages, plus a glorious four-page fold-out that shows what the set looks like when you enter the theater, with commentary/oral history from ten people involved with the show.

“Moulin Rouge is the biggest and most complex design I have done, which doesn’t in itself make it good,” McLane writes. “But I feel the show deserves a special section here as a case study…”
(But it is good, Derek, the best thing about the show.)

We learn why Derek McLane was hired for the job, from producer Carmen Pavlovic, who says she was impressed that he was well-traveled, including having spent time in Paris, and as a child living in India; also, in looking at his portfolio, “I felt like I could feel the wood and the light… a kind of warmth” — they were looking for the set to feel “handmade.” From director Alex Timbers: “I knew that the theater should be transformed so the audience felt as if they were entering the Moulin Rouge. I’d never worked with Derek before, but I knew he was the one person who could make it feel premium and beautiful and exotic, international, sexy, hip and period but contemporary…” (The promotional tone of this particular sentence suggests one potential drawback of an oral history format.)
We learn the aim of the production was to reproduce the energy of the movie that it was adapting, to make the audience feel like they were in the show rather than watching it
One way they tried to reproduce this energy was with 9,000 light bulbs, which they lit up in one area of the set and suddenly shut that down and lit up another, which gave the feel of the rapid crosscuts of the movie.
We learn that McLane was given the “rare budget resources for execution that allowed me to show off some of the things I’ve learned over my decades of working”

Costume designer Catherine Zuber explains how she shares a studio with McLane, which made it easier to see which fabrics and colors (of the costumes and the sets) worked well together.
Lighting designer Justin Townsend says: “There were times that I saw delicate looks of horror on Derek’s face when I would make a proposal. But he was right, because I was still catching up to the world he and [director] Alex [Timbers] has been making.” Actor Danny Burstein says: “I’ve never had a set be so inspiring before.” Actor Aaron Tveit: “Great set design makes an actor’s job easier. You don’t have to work so hard to suspend disbelief…Derek was able to put the audience and the actors in the Moulin Rouge immediately upon entering the theater. That helps so much with the storytelling.”

As with most of the rest of the book, the people involved in “Moulin Rouge” don’t only talk about the set design. But that seems apt. Just as the set of “Moulin Rouge” spills out into the audience, so theater in its many aspects spills out into “Designing Broadway.”

The other scenic designers whose work (and often whose words) are included in Part II of “Designing Broadway,” listed alphabetically (which the book doesn’t.) I put an asterisk besides those productions that McLane pairs with his own design for a different production of the same show.

John Arnone (The Who’s Tommy), John Lee Beatty (Burn This*), Beowulf Boritt (Bernhardt/Hamlet, Act One), Robert Brill (Cabaret), Bunny Christie (Company*), Marina Draghici (Fela!), David Gallo (Jitney!), Rachel Hauck (Hadestown), Riccardo Hernández (Mother Courage and Her Children), Simon Kenny (Sweeney Todd), David Korins (Hamilton, Chinglish), Mimi Lien (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812), Santo Loquasto (Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus), Christopher Oram (Wolf Hall Parts One & Two, Hughie) Scott Pask (The Book of Mormon), Quay Brothers (The Chairs), Clint Ramos (Slave Play), David Rockwell (Hairspray), Jan Versweyveld (Network), Tony Walton (Anything Goes*), Robin Wagner (Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, On the Twentieth Century, Dreamgirls) Anthony Ward (My Fair Lady), Mark Wendland (Next to Normal), Klara Zieglerova (Jersey Boys), David Zinn (Torch Song, Spongebob Squarepants)

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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