When I sat down early this week with Derek McLane, nominated for his sets for both the 2016 Academy Awards and NBC’s presentation of The Wiz Live!, I took out my camera to shoot some candids as we conversed. McLane suggested we switch places, explaining that the overstuffed bookshelves behind me would be much more interesting than the blank wall behind him.
There may be no better illustration of the difference between a writer and a set designer than this.
McLane is among today’s most sought-after designers — on both coasts and for spaces as intimate as off-Broadway’s handkerchief-size Classic Stage Company and as vast as Long Island’s cavernous Grumman Studios, the one-time airplane hangars where the first three contemporary live NBC musicals were produced. He already has one Emmy (for the 2014 Oscars) and a Tony (for 2009’s Jane Fonda-starring 33 Variations).
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I tend, as a writer must, to focus on the subject at hand, which is why the perfectly shot portraits that accompany my stories often are rendered comical by the tree that appears to be growing out of the interviewee’s head or the smudged electrical socket next to said subject’s ear. McLane on the other hand, had, as a set designer must, the whole picture in mind.
McLane and producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan confirmed that their association with NBC will continue with the December 7 telecast of Hairspray Live! After three annual holiday-season shows (The Sound of Music, Peter Pan and The Wiz) presented from Grumman, the team is moving West to the Universal back lot for the musical about a Baltimore girl who just wants to dance on The Corny Collins Show with her friends, some of whom happen to be African-American.
A student of the enormously influential designer Ming Cho Lee, McLane came of age in the late 1970’s, when stagecraft, whether for Broadway or Hollywood, was being transformed by technology with the advent of computerized programming of everything from lighting to scenic changes. That transition is evident in much of what McLane says as he speaks about his work.
After teaming with Meron and Zadan on the previous Academy Awards telecasts, this year’s paired McLane with producers David Hill and Reginald Hudlin. “One of the challenges of the Oscars is figuring out a way to create a sense of doing Hollywood glamour that doesn’t feel completely clichéd and pretentious,” McLane said. “Producers tend to talk about what they want the show to be like, and my job is to distill that and figure out how to tell that story. I wanted to do something a little more contemporary, and I love the decorative design of the 1970s. I was inspired by those starburst clocks, and a giant crystal wall of radiating crystals, which also felt very 1970s. And a lot of big LED screens, they were massive and could play different configurations.
“Also, I was fascinated by ‘70s glam,” he continued. “Probably because that’s when I came of age, and also because so many of my favorite movies came from that period. The goal was to make it feel like a continuation of the scenery. What was most successful was when it was difficult to tell what was physical scenery and what was sort of virtual.”
‘We wanted to dramatize it without seeming insensitive,’ McLane says of the Oscars segment featuring the song from a documentary about sexual assault. ‘Lady Gaga was interested in having some of the survivors there. For me that was about finding a simple, powerful and elegant way to reveal them.’
One of the biggest challenges was also one of the latest to arrive: The choice of Lady Gaga to sing “Til It Happens To You,” the nominated song from The Hunting Season, a documentary about the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses. It also proved to be the evening’s most memorable segment.
“Because of the subject matter, that was a very tricky thing to figure out,” McLane recalled. “You could just say she’s just going to sing at the piano and there won’t be any production elements. But we wanted to dramatize it without seeming insensitive. She was interested in having some of the survivors there. For me that was about finding a simple, powerful and elegant way to reveal them. And in a way, what the movie was about was bringing those people out of the darkness and into the light, telling their stories and not being ashamed of them. The very simple idea was that it was performed in black and we were opening a window of light to reveal these survivors. I thought that was pretty effective. But arriving at that probably didn’t happen until two weeks before the show.”
With The Wiz Live!, McLane says that the team led by director Kenny Leon departed significantly from the two previous NBC telecasts.
“It was really designed and laid out like a Broadway show, with a stage and automated scenery that came on and off the stage,” he said. “It was much more performance-oriented, much less real.” Again however, new technology played a key role. “We had a big LED screen
at the back, which came out of a practical consideration, It could have been drops as on Broadway, but since there is no fly space at Grumman, I began to realize there was a lot we could do with the screen — we could animate some of those transitions. So from the forest to the poppy fields, not only did the scenery move, but the LED helped to make that transition.”
Last season, Fox also got into the live Broadway musical game with its telecast of Grease Live!. It was shown with a live audience on sets that alternated between in- and out-of-doors, both major departures from the NBC telecasts.
“I applaud what they did,” McLane says. “It was a whole new experiment, which I thought was great. Parts of Grease worked fantastically. And it’s great to be in dialogue with other people who are doing this. They were quite frank about the fact that they had studied the three musicals that we had done.”
Hairspray Live! will hew closer to the Grease model, courtesy of a switch to the West Coast.
“It’s completely different from what we did before,” McLane noted. “The idea of doing some of it outdoors was something we had talked about with Sound Of Music, but at Grumman there was no outdoors. Now NBC is almost finished building studios that are right next to the Universal back lot. So some of the sets will be out on the street there and some will be in the studio next door. We’ll be able to go in and out of buildings.”
McLane’s current Broadway shows include Beautiful, The Carole King Musical and two highly anticipated upcoming revivals: Arthur Miller’s drama The Price, with Tony Shalhoub, John Turturro and Jessica Hecht, and the musical Sweet Charity, starring Sutton Foster. Whether designing for stage or TV, the process begins with an image, which sometimes comes in a flash of inspiration, other times with sweat equity.
“One of the things that Ming Cho Lee stressed when I was in graduate school was the importance of drawing” McLane said. “You need to draw all day long. You need to be able to draw something on a piece of paper and slide it across the table and have a director understand it. You also need to be able to do it as a way of developing your ideas.
“Sometimes you have a great idea, but when you don’t you just have to get started,” he continued. “You can’t sit around and wait, because there’s gonna be a deadline. So you just draw the facts from the script: A living room with a window. OK, I’ll draw that. And you think, ‘Well, that’s the most prosaic piece of shit I’ve ever seen, maybe I can make it better.’ And I hate it because you feel hopeless and untalented during those first couple of scrawls, but usually by the fifth or sixth time you’ve drawn it, you’ve actually begun to turn it into something. That’s the process I have to go through when I don’t have an inspiration.”
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