Eugene Lee

By: Jared Bowen

Eugene in the studio by Ron Manville edit
Eugene Lee in the studio. Photo: Ron Manville.

His technical title may be scenic designer, but the more appropriate and suitably godly title for Eugene Lee might be Creator of Worlds. Because for more than 40 years, the Providence, RI-based designer has been creating some of the most indelible looks for stage and screen. From Wicked to Saturday Night Live to The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the look is all Lee. “It’s all been great,” is the decidedly minimalist summation of a man whose astonishing career has been anything but. He’d much rather discuss the endless ideas that have consumed him over the years and still do. “I’m not good at not being busy,” he says by telephone from his Providence studio—a space virtually filled to the rafters with decades of designs, models and collections of things.

Asked what he’s working on and Lee, age 78, answers that it’s been a less busy year. But then, he lists an array of projects that would probably bury most mortals in an avalanche of anxiety. For starters, there’s his main gig as SNL’s production designer and as the longtime design guru for Providence-based theater company Trinity Rep. Then there are the set designs for a host of upcoming shows: the touring production of the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell musical Bright Star; Oklahoma! at the Glimmerglass Festival; The Designated Mourner for his longtime friends Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, and others. “Doing nothing is not fun,” Lee says plainly.

Forty-one years ago, Lee was living on a boat and gaining a foothold in theater when Lorne Michaels came calling. Having seen Lee’s Tony-winning sets for Candide, the young up-and-coming producer wanted him to design for his new NBC sketch show. Lee wasn’t exactly a novice, having already earned two degrees in theater studies (a third, an MFA at the Yale School of Drama, would come shortly thereafter). But he suddenly found himself getting a rocky start at SNL. “NBC was pissed off that A, this show was being produced by a Canadian and B, it was being designed by this hippie from Rhode Island.” The SNL offices were on the 17th floor, but Lee and his small team were banished to work with the rest of the network’s design department 10 floors below. “We used to play little jokes,” he recalls as they worked well into the night when everyone else had gone home. “It was an open office plan and we would rearrange all the little name plaques. We thought it was funny, but they didn’t like it.” His design aesthetic didn’t endear him either.

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The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, episode 647, on March 27, 2017. l. to r. Actress Scarlett Johansson is interviewed by host Jimmy Fallon. Photo: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC.
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Saturday Night Live, season 41, episode 9, on December 19, 2015. l. to r. John Kasich (Colin Jost), Carly Fiorina (Cecily Strong), Sen. Marco Rubio (Pete Davidson), Dr. Ben Carson (Jay Pharoah), Donald Trump (Darrell Hammond). © 2015/Dana Edelson/NBC. Both images feature Lee’s sets.

Until SNL, most variety shows had the mark of simplicity. Think of the streamlined design of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In or The Ed Sullivan Show. But when SNL debuted in 1975, the designer took his cues from the gritty New York City of the time. Lee responded to its grime and graffiti. To create the show’s main set, largely inspired by Grand Central Station, he hauled in loads of real brick and other materials. “It was a little difficult back then,” he remembers. “We didn’t fit into the scheme of things.” But Lee has long toiled in the unconventional. When he created the design for the Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd four years later, he scoured Rhode Island and filled the set with artifacts he discovered in crumbling foundries. The work earned him the second of his three Tonys.

Lee says he’s long held to one philosophy: “Less is more, except for more is better.” Pressed to elaborate, his answer is as candid as they come. “If you want to win the Tony, you have to do more,” he explains. “If you want to make art, it has to be less.” Indeed, he won his third Tony for Wicked, a musical molded by more. Lee says his design process always starts with the script. As he read through Wicked and the original novel by Gregory Maguire, the Clock of the Time Dragon—a construction pivotal to the story—struck him. The show features a massive, smoke-breathing dragon above the stage and gears, cogs and clock faces intricately embedded in its set pieces. “I always think it’s nice to have a big idea and make it simpler,” Lee says.

When SNL is in production, he spends the latter part of every week in virtual round-the-clock production mode. “We always try to give [the production team] whatever they want,” he says. “We never say no.” He describes the requests for a recent series of sketches featuring Melissa McCarthy as White House spokesman Sean Spicer. “They asked, ‘can you make a podium Melissa McCarthy will carry?’ We will try. ‘Can you make a motorized podium?’ Okay, but sounds dangerous!” (Lee’s team built the podium using a Segway.) “Not everything has worked out to my satisfaction, but it’s been fun doing Saturday Night,” he says.

Lee has no intention of slowing down. He’s currently at work designing a stage project for Pier 55, a massive floating park funded by media mogul Barry Diller and planned for Manhattan’s West Side. Since there’s no script to work from, he wrote his own. “It’s the story of a little piece of Manhattan that came loose and floated out into the middle of the Hudson a long time ago…It’s like Easter Island,” he says. His other projects are more personal. He’s designing an 800-square-foot home on a parcel of land in Maine given to him by Michaels. It features a library to house the Harvard Classics, a 51-volume set of classic literature he recently purchased. “My parents always said if you could read the Harvard Classics from the front to the back, that’s a good education,” he remembers. “So I’ll be testing that.” And recently he agreed to a rather unusual request from Andre Gregory: to design his coffin. “I have to do it,” Lee says. “We’re doing Designated Mourner, so it’s a good time to do a coffin.”

Retirement seems out of the question—especially from his work on SNL. Lorne Michaels simply won’t allow it. As for the rest of his work, Lee says he’ll know when to step away. “When people stop calling me, it’s over. Isn’t that how it works?” It is. But then again, Eugene Lee has always been the one in charge of how the curtain comes down.

Jared Bowen is host of the weekly television series, Open Studio with Jared Bowen and WGBH’s Emmy Award–winning executive arts editor.

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