The cranking cogs and dragon clock of Wicked, the original London streets of Sweeney Todd, the bandstand of Saturday Night Live—each one a creation by legendary scenic designer Eugene Lee.
With over 70 Broadway design credits to his name—including iconic inventions for Ragtime and Seussical and Bright Star—and three Tony Awards (for 1974’s Candide, 1979’s Sweeney Todd, and 2004’s Wicked)—plus 13 Emmy nominations for his work in television, Lee is an old-school fixture in the business.
“I’ve always been excited by [theatre and sets],” Lee tells Playbill. “I never wanted to do anything else.” Lee grew up in Beloit, Wisconsin, the son of an engineer and a registered nurse. “But my father acted and my mother worked on props and when I got to high school, it was a brand new high school and it had two terrific theatres.” After latching on to theatre as a teen, Lee attended the University of Wisconsin for a year. Though they didn’t have an official design program, he took a class that led to him designing a set for a university production. “Then I saw Helen Hayes on a program talking about Carnegie Tech, so I jumped in my Volkswagen—which my grandmother had given me as a graduation present—and I drove to Pittsburgh and walked in the front door and said ‘Hi, I’m Eugene and I want to go here.’”
“I stayed one year, which seemed to be the most I could stay any place. I left and I knew about the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. So I drove to Chicago. And they took me and I joined the union in Chicago and did a few shows in Chicago, mostly in the opera house.” Ever the wanderer, Lee soon inched his way closer to New York.
“By that time I learned most of people working went to the Yale Drama School. So I jumped in my car again and drove to New Haven,” he says nonchalantly. Lee has been with Saturday Night Live since its very first episode in 1975 and has continued to design the show alongside a constant influx of projects.
“It’s very rare I’m not working on four or five things at once,” he says. “Last week [SNL] walked into the design office, it was late Friday and they said we need 11 more sets and we just looked at each other. We say, ‘Bring it on.’”
Here, Lee lets us in on the secrets of his iconic designs—how things changed before Broadway, stories from load-ins, and more—with annotated sketches and renderings from Bright Star, Candide, Sweeney Todd, Wicked, and, of course, Saturday Night Live.
Opened: March 24, 2016
Opened: October 30, 2003
Opened: March 1, 1979
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE
First show: October 11, 1975
Opened: March 10, 1974