BWW Exclusive Interview: Tony Winning Set Designer Derek McLane Talks OSCARS, NBC's Sound of Music & 'BEAUTIFUL'
Tony Award-winning set designer Derek McLane has been chosen once again to design the sets for the 2014 Oscars, airing live this Sunday, March 2nd on ABC. Over the past year, the award-winner designed the sets for Broadway's Beautiful: The Carole King Musical as well as NBC's innovative live broadcast of The Sound of Music.
Today, McLane spoke exclusively with BWW from Los Angeles where he is finalizing details for Sunday night's highly-anticipated telecast!
Last year's Oscars were such a huge success, does that put Extra pressure on you as you return for Year 2?
Absolutely! A lot of pressure, because people are saying, 'You know you have to outdo yourself this year.' The truth is, I think I would be feeling a lot of pressure no matter what because it's such a widely viewed show and it's a giant arena and I know there are a lot of expectations for the show so yes, absolutely, I feel a lot of pressure. But I enjoy that. I can honestly say that that is part of the thrill of doing something like this.
I know that you are limited to what you can reveal about this year's sets, but since it has been announced that the show is going to pay tribute to the 75th Anniversary of The Wizard of Oz as well as heroes of film, I was wondering if those themes will be incorporated into your designs?
Not in any kind of literal way. The design is certainly inspired by some of those things but I don't expect that audiences will necessarily see the link between that, it will be much more abstract than that.
One of the highlights of the night will surely be Idina Menzel's performance of 'Let It Go' from Disney's Frozen. Without revealing details, was designing the set for that number an exciting challenge for you?
Well it was and I'm really excited for everyone to see it. That's definitely one of the special moments of the show and for me as a designer.
Going back to last year's Oscars, I heard that Barbra Streisand was quite pleased with the set you designed for her tribute performance of 'The Way We Were.'
Yes, she was very, very enthusiastic about the set after she saw it and I heard that from a number of people, including some of her friends who were also around for the show. And for a short time, she was interested in taking the set on tour with her to Europe. At the end of the day, it didn't work out because the set was not made to be tourable, but for me, that was obviously an enormous thrill and I got to chat with her briefly about it at the Governor's Ball. I was really honored and flattered that she was so appreciative. I had never met her before and have always been such a fan, she's such an icon, so that was truly thrilling.
You've had a very busy year since I spoke with you last February. One of your projects was designing the sets for NBC's live broadcast of The Sound of Music. What was it like to watch the show live? Were you just a bundle of nerves that something would go wrong, or were you able to relax and enjoy it?
It was interesting because I watched it from the control truck, rather than being out on the studio floor. And there was really nothing I could do at that point. Being in the control truck you could at least speak loudly if you wanted, you could speak to the other people in the truck because we weren't going to disturb anyone, we were physically isolated. And I would say there was great nervousness for the first and second scenes and of course we were all apprehensive about how the thing would be perceived artistically, whether people would enjoy it or not.
But once we got to the first commercial there were some applause and high-fiving in the control truck and everyone was like, 'Okay, these guys are pros, they did it, they did it like they did in rehearsals', and we suddenly felt like whatever possible disasters might occur during this experiment, and it was an experiment at that point, nobody had done a live studio version of a musical in something like fifty years, so there were a lot of unknowns for everybody, once we got to that first commercial, I think everybody just breathed a sigh of relief. When we got to the second commercial and things were still going well, we were finally able to just sit and watch it, and that's just what we did.
But we didn't get the same experience that the television watchers did because there was a lot going on in the truck. There was the director calling cameras, there was the assistant director calling upcoming cues, there was the sound people calling out sound direction, script supervisors counting out timings, there was a lot of physical activity going on so it wasn't until the next day when I went home and watched it on my DVR by myself in my apartment that I got a better sense of what it actually looked like.
And could really appreciate it all.
Yes - absolutely!
Did the fact that it was going to be broadcast live have an effect on your set design?
Enormous effect, yes, it had an effect on absolutely every part of the show, especially the set design, but also sound and costumes. You know the whole layout of the studio, which was quite big, was all geared around how best to make it flow from scene to scene efficiently because it was live and because when we started on it, we didn't actually know exactly when the commercial blocks were going to be. We did of course, once we got to the final weeks, but I couldn't rely on commercial breaks in order to get us from set to set, I had to design it as if we were going to possibly go straight through.
So even though the sets, for the most part, appeared fairly realistic, there had to be enormous accommodations for the cameras. And we didn't have cameras that were dedicated to each set. We had a certain number of cameras for the whole show and between scenes we had to move the cameras from one set to another, so laying out space for that to happen was also a consideration. And then of course figuring out, how are these people going to get from this scene on this set to wherever they're going to change costumes for their next scene and figuring out all of that. Figuring out how all the props for a scene would be changed while another scene was going on live and how to do that quietly enough so that they wouldn't be heard.
So much to take into consideration! For me, one of the most spectacular and unexpected set changes was the scene where Maria decides to flee the Von Trapp villa and return to the Abbey.
Well thank you, that was really one of my favorites as well and that was another thing, when [director] Rob Ashford and I conceived of that, it seemed like something of a gamble, but after seeing the end result, I think it really paid off. I've heard from a lot of people that they enjoyed that, so I appreciate you saying that you enjoyed it as well.
Would you be interested in designing the sets for NBC's next live musical endeavor, 'Peter Pan'?
I would love to do it. I know they are just putting things together right now.
And of course, that would involve figuring out how to make people fly on live television, which I'm sure creates its own set of unique challenges.
Of course it would yes. And it's a completely different kind of piece than Sound of Music. Whatever happens with that piece, it will definitely be something completely different.
Turning to your latest Broadway project, 'Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,' we can definitely see your signature style of using repeating objects and patterns in your set design - they were just spectacular.
Well thank you. One of the things that was interesting about designing those was that when you looked at the research and the photos of those actual historic places in the story, a lot of it is quite mundane, quite ordinary looking. So one of my challenges on that show was to figure out how to make those ordinary utilitarian rooms feel poetic, feel like something more than just a cubicle or just a box, or just some equipment. And the way I went about doing that was to try to go for broke on all of those things, take some of those everyday materials, which were not necessarily by themselves considered all that beautiful, and try to Turn them into a tapestry, try to Turn them into a pattern.
Same with those sliding panels which had different shades of fabric on them - that was all inspired by the speaker cloth used on the old hifis. So I was looking for opportunities to create interesting textures and patterns out of sort of everyday materials that would have been used in those locations.
The show also needed a lot of transitions, and that's the other thing, it really needed to get from space to space as quickly as possible. One of the things which struck me when I first read it was that there were a lot of pianos in the show, you know a piano in every office of The Brill Building. And then it dawned on me that I didn't actually need to have a piano in every different office because that would take forever to bring out all those different pianos. So what I ended up doing was having the one piano that slid back and forth and basically turned, and by turning that piano, that was one of things that ended up defining the different offices in that set. And I think people get it when you're changing offices that way, but it also keeps the show moving very quickly and keeps it from getting bogged down in the transitions and changes.
And then you also had to figure out how to transition to the more glitzier sets for the musical performances.
Right. Well the show traverses from the kind of gritty music factory that is the Brill Building, where they created and wrote the music, to the performance numbers, many of which were on television shows from that era, like American Bandstand and those kind of things. So you need to go back and forth very quickly in the show from those performances to the offices and the studios where they're writing the music. So I was looking for something that would give that kind of quick showbiz punch when we went into those numbers, and then be able to have them disappear right away and go back into the offices.
And from the audience, it really looked seamless. Well I am very much looking forward to Sunday's show and wish you the best of luck.
Well thank you. I am really excited and of course I'm nervous, but I'm honored to have been asked back to do it again!
About Derek McLane:
Over his career, McLane has designed sets for numerous Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, several of which have been nominated for Tony Awards. He received four nominations and won Best Scenic Design of a Play in 2009 for his work on 33 Variations. McLane's other Broadway credits include The Heiress, Nice Work If You Can Get It,Gore Vidal's The Best Man, Follies, Anything Goes, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Grease and I Am My Own Wife.
McLane's television credits include NBC's Sound of Music Live and the 2013 Academy Awards. He was nominated for a 2013 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction for Variety or Nonfiction programming for his work on the 85th Oscars.
His other Broadway credits include Breakfast at Tiffany's, Million Dollar Quartet; Ragtime; 33 Variations; I Am My Own Wife; Man and Boy; The Pajama Game; Lestat; The Women; The Threepenny Opera; Present Laughter; Holiday; Marie and Bruce; A Lie of the Mind; Ruined; Becky Shaw; Rafta, Rafta...; The Voysey Inheritance; Intimate Apparel; Hurlyburly; Modern Orthodox; Aunt Dan and Lemon.
Awards include 1997 and 2004 Obie Awards; 2004, 2005, 2007 Lucille Lortel Awards; 2009 Hewes Award; 2009 Tony Award; 2011 Drama Desk Award.
For more visit: http://derekmclane.org
Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Gloria Lamb