The Tony-winning set designer Eugene Lee is the man responsible for the indelible look of Broadway productions Oz and Wicked, as well as the television sets for Saturday Night Live and the new home for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. For decades, Lee has imagined the worlds that our favorite theater and television personalities inhabit, all from the bastion of creativity that is his Providence, RI home studio.
In Lee's Georgian-style house are numerous drawers filing away decades of his designs, as well as binders for new projects and the self-made boxes holding the old ones. Models, memorabilia and memories are piled high around Lee.
Recently, my WGBH Radio colleague Bob Seay joined me on a visit to Providence to see Lee at his home and studio. For Bob it was a reunion, since they worked together in theater decades ago. For me, it was a whirlwind tour with the restless, self-deprecating and infectiously entertaining design master. I asked just how many boxes were stuffed into his house.
"Hundreds, hundreds. I don’t know why I’m saving them. They’ll probably—someone will toss them all out eventually,” Lee answered.
Inside his elaborately decorated home filled with collections of all kinds, Lee reminisces. His big break was creating the enduring design for Saturday Night Live, derived from his love of New York’s grimier side.
“New York at the time was really not in good shape. Subway cars were graffitied over, Radio City Music Hall was empty. Forty second street was filled with movie theaters and porn theaters. I kind of liked that myself. That Disney stuff doesn’t work with me. We used real materials, real brick. I like real things,” Lee said.
Lee used that same New York grit in his 1979 design of Sweeney Todd, which won Lee the second of his three Tony awards.
“Oh, we took a lot of Sweeney Todd pieces from here. In fact most of Sweeney Todd came from, you know, crumbling foundries around the state. Of course, these real items, goes without saying, are really heavy. My favorite stagehands remind me of this from time to time,” Lee said.
Lee explained that his design sensibility rises from the script itself. In Wicked, for which Lee won his third Tony, he says he was inspired by the book’s clock motif.
“I started looking at gears and stuff. It’s like a real item and they turn at different speeds," Lee told us. "We took a few clocks and did bad things to them. They say I tossed it down the stairs, but I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know but whatever I did, I did really bad things to the clocks. They never worked again. And then we took the gears and hot glued them into the model initially to just to see how we liked them and I don’t know, we liked them and we kept them.”
To his own chagrin, Lee says his home also sets the stage.
“If you go to the kitchen, if you start turning over dishes down in the bottom of the pile some place, you see a little red dot or something, a little sticker. It kind of means it got on a set… I always say I never loan anything and then I instantly break my own rule,” he said.
At 75, Lee is busier than ever, with three musicals and five plays in the works, not to mention his on-going television projects and relationship with Trinity Repertory Company in Providence.
"I’m going to Los Angeles tomorrow to deal with this little pilot of Maya Rudolph, a little primetime pilot. I went out a few weeks ago and found a studio I liked at Universal. I picked it because it has a huge swimming pool there. It has a cover on it. It hasn’t been opened in 25 years, and they said we can’t open it, we’re very scared of it. You know they’re very scared of basements in Los Angeles,” Lee told us.
Those who know Lee's work don't want to give him up. When Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels took the helm of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, he turned once again to Lee.
“I asked [Michaels] what he wanted at the time and he said is should be elegant. I thought that was nice, elegance is nice. Jimmy always wears a nice suit and tie, I mean he’s a good looking kid. I like him. In the case of Jimmy’s set we tried to make it very elegant, and we tried to make the proportions very elegant,” Lee said.
Lorne Michaels won't let Lee retire. Noting that SNL’s announcer is close to 100 and its lighting designer is 90, Lee quipped, “I’m just a baby." He said it’s better to be busy, and that he tends to say 'yes' to work more often than 'no.'
Ever the optimist, Lee doesn't fear being overly committed. "I try to make it work out, usually it works out somehow," he said.