Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Emmy for Art Direction for the 2014 Oscars
Derek McLane, Production Designer
Joe Celli and Gloria Lamb, Art Directors

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Creating a 'Beautiful' World

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Creating a 'Beautiful' World

Check out my interview in Lighting Sound America & Projection Lighting and Staging News!

Inside Theatre
Creating a 'Beautiful' world

The lively musical Beautiful captures the musical essence of Carole King while chronicling the life events and artistic evolution that led up to her landmark solo album,Tapestry. “She’s an amazing songwriter,” declares the show’s scenic designer Derek McLane. “Most of us are familiar with Tapestry and with the stuff that she wrote for other people, but we don’t associate [all of] it with her and don’t necessarily know that she wrote it. What surprised me when I first read it was that she wrote ‘The Loco-Motion.’”
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan MarcusFast Transitions, 50 Scenes
Beautiful is part of the recent wave of biographical modern musicals, including Jersey Boys and Motown, that only feature songs during performances and allow the book scenes to play out without spontaneous singing distracting from the exposition. Jessie Mueller has garnered acclaim for her portrayal of King, not only matching her vocals but convincing people that she is playing any keyboard she touches. (Conductor Jason Howland is actually performing in the pit and synchs up fluidly with her through the use of video monitoring.) McLane’s striking scenic work incorporates smooth, fast-paced transitions to keep the show charging forward through approximately 50 scenes.
The musical has many quick scene changes through numerous locations, from living spaces to musical spaces, dressed with backdrops and a minimal amount of props to give just enough information to show what is there. But an important element that hangs over everything are the two omnipresent, multi-story structures with catwalks stocked with vintage-looking analog recording equipment, framed in front of a wall of the soundproofing material found at music studios everywhere. This upstage area represents the musical world in which King, her husband Gerry Goffin, and their friends and songwriting competitors Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil immersed themselves in.
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus“They’re staggered, so that first structure that moves and opens and closes and slides back and forth is two stories,” explains McLane, “and then behind it are some other levels that don’t line up with the downstage levels, so it creates an illusion of three or four stories back there. They’re not stacked one on top of the other, they’re stack behind each other. It’s just the downstage one that opens and closes.”
“It’s really meant as a three-dimensional cyc, as a way of creating the world in which this music was created,” continues McLane. “It’s not really meant to be a recording studio, it’s really meant to be the world of the Brill Building at 1650 Broadway, which is a combination of music studios, offices, recording studios, practice rooms and executive’s offices. They were all crammed next to each other, and all that was inspired by a line that Carole King has quite early in the show where she’s with her mom in Brooklyn and says, ‘Ma, it’s just like a factory but they make songs.’ The inspiration for the set was try to imagine and make up a version of that factory where they make songs, because it’s not a real factory, of course. That image really appealed to me.”
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan MarcusBrill Building Backdrop
A big challenge for the show was keeping the pace moving and not getting bogged down in the transitions, as there are many short scenes in the mix. Thus the Brill Building backdrop solved much of that problem by serving as a symbolic structure. Naturally, many set pieces and backdrops fly in and out to keep things moving — including light-up panels for some performance numbers including The Drifters, a swag curtain for the Shirelles number, a light bulb hanger for the song “On Broadway,” a fluorescent light fixture for the scene in Queens College, theater lights for the Carnegie Hall performance, windows for King’s suburban house, and a blackout drop for blocking off the upstage structure a couple of times — but also many things are tracked on and off.
“I tried to make a lot of things go sideways, because I thought it would be more interesting than watching things fly in and out,” says McLane. “I wanted as much lateral movement as possible, because I think it helps keep your eye on the actors as they’re moving from scene to scene. The sliding panels are a tapestry of fabrics that are based on [guitar] speaker grille cloth from the 1960s, so I combined a variety of those to make plaid panels. And then the upstage wall functions as a cyc behind the structure [behind which is] another tapestry or collage of sound proofing material. It’s lit orange but is actually a very light gray. It can be lit all different colors, but it’s different textures. We had all that made because [with] the real textures, the scale was too small and didn’t look like anything. All that stuff was made especially for the show, and all the textures are scaled up so that they have a little more presence.”
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan MarcusA Minimalistic Approach
Given the brief nature of many of the scenes — some are simultaneously occurring, while others are quick moments that melt into others — McLane maintained a sparse feeling to many of the locations. When asked about the most challenging set piece to design, he replies, “It was actually not any one particular piece, it was really how to create those offices and get from one to another very quickly. Another thing about those offices is that if you approach them realistically, they don’t look like anything. The place where Kirshner worked was very, very bland.”
The designer actually stripped things back onstage from the real life offices. “A lot of them did not have windows, and a lot of them just had sheetrock walls. So I got rid of the walls and tried to deliver just the essential things like a door, desk, and piano, whatever was essential for the scene, and just let the environment of the recording studios of the Brill Building surround it because, to me, that has more romance and more interest to it. It has more history and texture. I tried to put as much texture into this as I possibly could.”
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan MarcusA good example of this effective minimalism is the scene where King goes to the apartment of Marilyn Wald, a singer and amorous competitor, and finds her husband there. She simply walks up to a door at stage left that is nestled next to a small wall, which masks the actors so the audience does not know they are there until they open the door. “We never see the inside of the apartment,” notes McLane. “The important thing is that she knocks on the door and discovers Gerry there, then confronts him. That’s really all that is. It doesn’t need any more, and doesn’t want any more, because that scene is maybe 90 seconds long. Then we go right back to her in their house.”
McLane avoided the used of LED lights on Beautiful. During the song, “On Broadway,” a wall of colored light bulbs appears behind the performers. “They are actually colored light bulbs,” he stresses. “I tried to avoid LED. There are some LEDs that light things up in the set. But it doesn’t feel period when you just see an LED lamp, so you never see a raw, unadorned LED lamp in the show.”
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan MarcusPianos Share the Stage
Naturally, no musical about Carole King could be complete without an ever-present piano. Two of them are used in the show, along with a Korg keyboard for one club scene. The grand piano appears at the beginning of the show as well as at the end, when King plays Carnegie Hall. The smaller spinet piano is used everywhere else, including her apartment in Brooklyn and her house in New Jersey, her office in the Brill building, Barry and Cynthia’s adjacent office, and Donny Kirshner’s office. Early on, McLane realized that if he tried to bring in different pianos for different scenes, the show would have been slowed down and the transitions would not have worked. The simplest solution was to utilize the spinet, which works very well when the scene moves between Carole’s office and Barry and Cynthia’s next door. All the piano has to do is turn 180 degrees and act as the “wall” between the offices. The spinet is set on a track and has a motorized set-up that allows it to turn to various positions throughout the show.
“There’s one track that is dedicated to that turning piano,” says McLane. “There are two tracks just for bringing furniture on upstage from that, for example, Barry and Cynthia’s sofa. We also bring that recording booth in with the glass. Then, downstage of the piano, there is a track that brings things on, like the TV for Carole’s office or her apartment. Then there are a couple of tracks upstage — tracks for those doors and also tracks for the suburban house stuff, like the door and the window. Then the big two-story structure that opens and closes has tracks in it.”
With regards to the wing space at the Sondheim Theatre in New York, McLane says, “It’s tight, but it’s not bad. It’s not as tight as some Broadway theatres, and not as big as some others. There is some wing space, but it gets full quickly. Once they get off stage, a lot of the units have to be flown in the wings to make room for other units. If you go backstage and walk around in the wings, you’ll see a lot of stuff stored hanging in the air. It requires a huge amount of coordination [from the crew].” He estimates the stage depth at between 28 and 30 feet and the wing space on either side of the proscenium at 15 feet.
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan MarcusBeautiful Collaborators
McLane is very happy with how Beautiful turned out, and believes it was a great collaboration with director Marc Bruni, book writer Doug McGrath, and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, with whom he combined forces early on to tackle a complicated story. “I really had a great time working with all of them,” he declares. “I learned a lot about the recording business from that era and about Carole King’s life and her songs which I didn’t know before. I think it’s the first time where I’ve done a show with so many complex scene changes and figured out how to make them feel seamless. I’m really happy with how that turned out because I feel like the transitions are fun to watch and don’t slow the show down.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


WHAT I LOVE | DEREK MCLANE

A Scenic Designer’s West Village Home

Danny Ghitis for The New York Times
What I Love | Derek McLane: The Tony Award-winning set designer decorated his West Village apartment from scratch.


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There is nothing remotely funny about Derek McLane’s West Village apartment. Still, the first time Mr. McLane’s three children walked into his elegant living room, they burst out laughing.
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Hey, what’s the joke, Dad wanted to know.
“And they said, ‘it looks like one of your sets,’ ” recalled Mr. McLane, 55, a scenic designer whose résumé includes the Broadway shows “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “I Am My Own Wife” as well as “The Heiress,” “Anything Goes,” “Gore Vidal’s the Best Man,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Follies.”
“It looks like one of your sets” was also the reaction of a number of Mr. McLane’s director friends to the large assemblage of vintage industrial lamps arranged in compartments around the fireplace and to the vintage typewriters lined up on a counter in the kitchen.
“I have a real fascination with repeating objects,” Mr. McLane said.
When he and his wife split up two and a half years ago and Mr. McLane moved out of the family’s Gramercy Park apartment, he looked at dozens of rentals, all with one thing in common: they were depressing. Stumbling on the brownstone, he was immediately captivated by the high ceilings, the well-laid-out kitchen, the beautifully proportioned rooms and the tall elegant windows overlooking the street.
The bookshelves that flanked the living room fireplace? Actually, those he could have done without.
“I didn’t have any books with me, and I’m not particularly fond of books as a main design feature in a living room unless you happen to have an extraordinarily beautiful collection of gorgeous-looking books,” said Mr. McLane, who’s up for an Emmy — the broadcast is Sept. 22 — thanks to his set design for this year’s Oscars ceremony. Suffice it to say lots of repeating objects were involved.
“I thought, ‘you know what? Forget it. I’m not going to put any books up. Why don’t I do something from some sets I designed that I really like?’ ” A major inspiration was “33 Variations,” a play that unfolds in the Beethoven archives in Bonn. Mr. McLane conjured a Tony Award-winning mise-en-scène that featured masses of cardboard boxes in varying shades of gray.
“They were in very neat little stacks — it was Germany, after all,” he said with a laugh. “Then we put a tiny lamp under each grouping and were able to light them in different ways. I looked at the shelves in my living room and thought I would love it if I could make them a light source, too.
“I had a couple of kind of cool old task lamps, factory lamps that they put on sewing machines and architecture tables,” Mr. McLane said. “Some were just office lamps, but they all had goosenecks or articulated arms. And I found a bunch more on eBay to sort of fill in the collection.”
He took out most of the shelving, fashioned discrete chambers backed with antiqued mirrors, then arranged the lamps within, all facing the same direction. “They’re on a dimmer switch,” he added, “so they can be lit at this incredibly low level and they provide this warm kind of romantic glow.”
The change in his domestic circumstances, and the move downtown with barely a stick of furniture have forced Mr. McLane into a role he’s never played before: designer of his own space. No proscenium involved and no curtain, unless you want to count the white gauze ones that frame the trio of windows in the living room and pool around the oak floor.
“Twenty years ago, I was concerned with other things — my young children,” he said. “I thought ‘now I’m going to create a set for my new life.’ ”
But offstage as well as on, certain facts require facing, chief among them the sketchbook has to make nice with the checkbook. “The work that I did on the apartment was minimal because I didn’t want to waste money doing structural things, even repainting,” said Mr. McLane, who originally signed a two-year lease, then a two-year extension. “I geared the stuff that I did toward things that were portable or dismantle-able.”
So he has wallpaper that would fit nicely into a production of “Gaslight” and can be easily peeled away, no need for a paint touch-up. The portable category includes a pair of wingback chairs. Mr. McLane bought the frames at a furniture store and had them covered in gray and vibrant pink damask.
“They were so deep and so giant, but I loved the ridiculous size of the wing,” he said. “Rather than get smaller chairs, I had the guy who upholstered them cut them down and splice them back together.”
The modestly priced (a pedestal table from Ethan Allen) comfortably shares quarters with items that were costly but irresistible (a steel coffee table with laser cutouts). The industrial (a 19th-century factory cart) nicely coexists with the refined — a white orchid. Mr. McLane’s present (represented by a quartet of framed posters for the rock group Jane’s Addiction, a gift from his girlfriend) meets his past halfway (a wooden carved head of Ganesh that Mr. McLane picked up on a trip to India more than three decades ago).
“After I bought it, I didn’t have enough money left to pay the departure tax and get to the airport, so I took to the streets of Old Delhi to sell my clothes,” he recalled. “I made enough to pay the tax and to buy a drink on the plane.”
Mr. McLane, who was born in London and grew up in Evanston, Ill., designed his first set for a production of “Guys and Dolls” during his sophomore year at Harvard. “At that point I became completely obsessed,” said Mr. McLane, who received an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama, then moved to New York, where he at first worked as an assistant to established scenic designers. This season he’ll be doing the set design for “Beautiful,” a Broadway bio of the singer-songwriter Carole King, and a live television production of “The Sound of Music.”
Bringing his work home has been a pleasure. “I feel like my apartment is really connected to my design aesthetic,” Mr. McLane said. “What I’m proud about is that I’ve put together a bunch of disparate objects, a lot of them suggesting the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th. I think the combination feels modern, but also warm and romantic. And I think it’s as richly textured as I’m able to do in a rental.”

Friday, March 14, 2014

One-on-One Conversation at Opera America/The National Opera Center



Join me and Sean Mathias at Opera America/The National Opera Center for a free conversation about our careers. We will be discussing the relationship between director and designer, our approaches to projects, and our creative processes.

Monday, March 24, 6:30pm – 8:00pm
Opera America/The National Opera Center
330 Seventh Avenue
New York, NY 10001

About the participants:

Sean Mathias has received global acclaim from Northern Ireland to New Zealand, from the West End to Broadway. He has earned an Edinburgh Fringe First Award, a Prix de la Jeunesse at the Cannes Film Festival, a London Critics’ Circle Award, and an Evening Standard Award, as well as nominations for Olivier and Tony Awards. He was artistic director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2009–10 where he staged Waiting for Godot starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, and the debut production of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.


Derek McLane's Scenic Design credits include: Broadway:  Beautiful, The Heiress, Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Best Man, Follies, Anything Goes, How to Succeed in Business…, Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo…., Million Dollar Quartet, Ragtime, 33 Variations (Tony Award, Best Scenic Design), Grease, Little Women,  The Pajama Game, I Am My Own Wife, The Women, Present Laughter. Off-Bway: Ruined, Lie of the Mind, Marie and Bruce, Starry Messenger, The Voysey Inheritance, Two Trains Running, Macbeth (Shakespeare in the Park), Hurlyburly, Abigail's Party, Aunt Dan and Lemon. Recently designed the 2013 and 2014 Oscars, as well as NBC’s Sound of Music, Live.  Opera and theatre designs in London, Paris, Dublin, Glasgow, Moscow, Krakow, Sydney, and Warsaw. AWARDS: Winner of 1997, 2004 OBIE Awards, 2004, 2005, 2007 Lucille Lortel Awards; 2009 Tony Award, 2011 Drama Desk Award, 2013 Emmy Nomination. He is member of the board of directors of the New Group and a mentor with TDF’s Open Doors program.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Interview with Broadway World



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!


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Creating a 'Beautiful' World

Check out my interview in Lighting Sound America & Projection Lighting and Staging News!

Inside Theatre
Creating a 'Beautiful' world

The lively musical Beautiful captures the musical essence of Carole King while chronicling the life events and artistic evolution that led up to her landmark solo album,Tapestry. “She’s an amazing songwriter,” declares the show’s scenic designer Derek McLane. “Most of us are familiar with Tapestry and with the stuff that she wrote for other people, but we don’t associate [all of] it with her and don’t necessarily know that she wrote it. What surprised me when I first read it was that she wrote ‘The Loco-Motion.’”
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan MarcusFast Transitions, 50 Scenes
Beautiful is part of the recent wave of biographical modern musicals, including Jersey Boys and Motown, that only feature songs during performances and allow the book scenes to play out without spontaneous singing distracting from the exposition. Jessie Mueller has garnered acclaim for her portrayal of King, not only matching her vocals but convincing people that she is playing any keyboard she touches. (Conductor Jason Howland is actually performing in the pit and synchs up fluidly with her through the use of video monitoring.) McLane’s striking scenic work incorporates smooth, fast-paced transitions to keep the show charging forward through approximately 50 scenes.
The musical has many quick scene changes through numerous locations, from living spaces to musical spaces, dressed with backdrops and a minimal amount of props to give just enough information to show what is there. But an important element that hangs over everything are the two omnipresent, multi-story structures with catwalks stocked with vintage-looking analog recording equipment, framed in front of a wall of the soundproofing material found at music studios everywhere. This upstage area represents the musical world in which King, her husband Gerry Goffin, and their friends and songwriting competitors Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil immersed themselves in.
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus“They’re staggered, so that first structure that moves and opens and closes and slides back and forth is two stories,” explains McLane, “and then behind it are some other levels that don’t line up with the downstage levels, so it creates an illusion of three or four stories back there. They’re not stacked one on top of the other, they’re stack behind each other. It’s just the downstage one that opens and closes.”
“It’s really meant as a three-dimensional cyc, as a way of creating the world in which this music was created,” continues McLane. “It’s not really meant to be a recording studio, it’s really meant to be the world of the Brill Building at 1650 Broadway, which is a combination of music studios, offices, recording studios, practice rooms and executive’s offices. They were all crammed next to each other, and all that was inspired by a line that Carole King has quite early in the show where she’s with her mom in Brooklyn and says, ‘Ma, it’s just like a factory but they make songs.’ The inspiration for the set was try to imagine and make up a version of that factory where they make songs, because it’s not a real factory, of course. That image really appealed to me.”
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan MarcusBrill Building Backdrop
A big challenge for the show was keeping the pace moving and not getting bogged down in the transitions, as there are many short scenes in the mix. Thus the Brill Building backdrop solved much of that problem by serving as a symbolic structure. Naturally, many set pieces and backdrops fly in and out to keep things moving — including light-up panels for some performance numbers including The Drifters, a swag curtain for the Shirelles number, a light bulb hanger for the song “On Broadway,” a fluorescent light fixture for the scene in Queens College, theater lights for the Carnegie Hall performance, windows for King’s suburban house, and a blackout drop for blocking off the upstage structure a couple of times — but also many things are tracked on and off.
“I tried to make a lot of things go sideways, because I thought it would be more interesting than watching things fly in and out,” says McLane. “I wanted as much lateral movement as possible, because I think it helps keep your eye on the actors as they’re moving from scene to scene. The sliding panels are a tapestry of fabrics that are based on [guitar] speaker grille cloth from the 1960s, so I combined a variety of those to make plaid panels. And then the upstage wall functions as a cyc behind the structure [behind which is] another tapestry or collage of sound proofing material. It’s lit orange but is actually a very light gray. It can be lit all different colors, but it’s different textures. We had all that made because [with] the real textures, the scale was too small and didn’t look like anything. All that stuff was made especially for the show, and all the textures are scaled up so that they have a little more presence.”
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan MarcusA Minimalistic Approach
Given the brief nature of many of the scenes — some are simultaneously occurring, while others are quick moments that melt into others — McLane maintained a sparse feeling to many of the locations. When asked about the most challenging set piece to design, he replies, “It was actually not any one particular piece, it was really how to create those offices and get from one to another very quickly. Another thing about those offices is that if you approach them realistically, they don’t look like anything. The place where Kirshner worked was very, very bland.”
The designer actually stripped things back onstage from the real life offices. “A lot of them did not have windows, and a lot of them just had sheetrock walls. So I got rid of the walls and tried to deliver just the essential things like a door, desk, and piano, whatever was essential for the scene, and just let the environment of the recording studios of the Brill Building surround it because, to me, that has more romance and more interest to it. It has more history and texture. I tried to put as much texture into this as I possibly could.”
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan MarcusA good example of this effective minimalism is the scene where King goes to the apartment of Marilyn Wald, a singer and amorous competitor, and finds her husband there. She simply walks up to a door at stage left that is nestled next to a small wall, which masks the actors so the audience does not know they are there until they open the door. “We never see the inside of the apartment,” notes McLane. “The important thing is that she knocks on the door and discovers Gerry there, then confronts him. That’s really all that is. It doesn’t need any more, and doesn’t want any more, because that scene is maybe 90 seconds long. Then we go right back to her in their house.”
McLane avoided the used of LED lights on Beautiful. During the song, “On Broadway,” a wall of colored light bulbs appears behind the performers. “They are actually colored light bulbs,” he stresses. “I tried to avoid LED. There are some LEDs that light things up in the set. But it doesn’t feel period when you just see an LED lamp, so you never see a raw, unadorned LED lamp in the show.”
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan MarcusPianos Share the Stage
Naturally, no musical about Carole King could be complete without an ever-present piano. Two of them are used in the show, along with a Korg keyboard for one club scene. The grand piano appears at the beginning of the show as well as at the end, when King plays Carnegie Hall. The smaller spinet piano is used everywhere else, including her apartment in Brooklyn and her house in New Jersey, her office in the Brill building, Barry and Cynthia’s adjacent office, and Donny Kirshner’s office. Early on, McLane realized that if he tried to bring in different pianos for different scenes, the show would have been slowed down and the transitions would not have worked. The simplest solution was to utilize the spinet, which works very well when the scene moves between Carole’s office and Barry and Cynthia’s next door. All the piano has to do is turn 180 degrees and act as the “wall” between the offices. The spinet is set on a track and has a motorized set-up that allows it to turn to various positions throughout the show.
“There’s one track that is dedicated to that turning piano,” says McLane. “There are two tracks just for bringing furniture on upstage from that, for example, Barry and Cynthia’s sofa. We also bring that recording booth in with the glass. Then, downstage of the piano, there is a track that brings things on, like the TV for Carole’s office or her apartment. Then there are a couple of tracks upstage — tracks for those doors and also tracks for the suburban house stuff, like the door and the window. Then the big two-story structure that opens and closes has tracks in it.”
With regards to the wing space at the Sondheim Theatre in New York, McLane says, “It’s tight, but it’s not bad. It’s not as tight as some Broadway theatres, and not as big as some others. There is some wing space, but it gets full quickly. Once they get off stage, a lot of the units have to be flown in the wings to make room for other units. If you go backstage and walk around in the wings, you’ll see a lot of stuff stored hanging in the air. It requires a huge amount of coordination [from the crew].” He estimates the stage depth at between 28 and 30 feet and the wing space on either side of the proscenium at 15 feet.
'Beautiful' on Broadway. Photo by Joan MarcusBeautiful Collaborators
McLane is very happy with how Beautiful turned out, and believes it was a great collaboration with director Marc Bruni, book writer Doug McGrath, and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, with whom he combined forces early on to tackle a complicated story. “I really had a great time working with all of them,” he declares. “I learned a lot about the recording business from that era and about Carole King’s life and her songs which I didn’t know before. I think it’s the first time where I’ve done a show with so many complex scene changes and figured out how to make them feel seamless. I’m really happy with how that turned out because I feel like the transitions are fun to watch and don’t slow the show down.”