NEW YORK (AP) — Set designer Derek McLane’s transition from working on Broadway to the Oscars hit a bit of a bump on his first day.
McLane had showed up for work at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles in 2013 when the show’s TV director called him over to complain. “The backs of the scenery is all not finished,” he was told. “‘What am I going to shoot here?'”
That was when McLane got a reminder of one big differences between Broadway and the TV telecasts — cameras go everywhere, so everything needs to look good. “On Broadway, we never finish the back of the scenery,” he said. “I just hadn’t thought of it.”
McLane really hasn’t put a wrong foot since, becoming the go-to guy responsible for making the last three NBC live musicals and the last four Oscar telecast look great. His next challenge is “Hairspray Live! ” on Wednesday.
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He is a Broadway fixture — a Tony Award-winner who crafted the scenery for such recent shows as “Beautiful,” ”China Doll” and a lot of sturdy doors for “Noises Off” — who found his skills translated to live TV. In addition to the Oscars, he’s designed the sets for “The Wiz Live!,” ”Peter Pan Live!” and “The Sound of Music Live!”
“It’s very different in some ways, but in other ways, it’s really not,” he said during a tour of his midtown Manhattan studio. “We’re still telling stories and all of these stories happen to be based on Broadway shows.”
Playwright and director Moises Kaufman is a fan, having watched McLane create a stunning set of boxes upon boxes for “33 Variations,” so lovely that it won him a Tony. “I believe in him tremendously. I think he’s one of the great artists in America. I really do,” said Kaufman.
For “Hairspray Live!” McLane is transforming nondescript fake store fronts in Universal’s backlot in Hollywood into 1960s-era Baltimore. Adding to the pressure is that 40 percent of the show will be filmed outside. “It’s definitely risky. But it’s also so much more, I think, exciting,” he said.
The show is based on a John Waters film that concerns the full-figured Tracy Turnblad whose fondest wish is to appear on a local television dance program and champion racial integration. The cast includes Harvey Fierstein, Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande.
McLane is building a record store, a jail, a TV studio, a high school gym, and a house for the Turnblads, among others. He’s putting real cars from the era on the streets and little nods to the musical’s roots (Look for the store signs for “Waters Plumbing” and “Divine Pet Food.”)
The Yale School of Drama graduate consulted historic photos of the period and went down to walk around Baltimore, soaking in the flavor. “The sense of that period is important to the show, for sure,” he said.
McLane was first tapped for live TV when he was doing the scenic design for the 2011 Broadway revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” starring Daniel Radcliffe. Two of the lead producers were Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who also were doing the Oscars in 2013. They asked him aboard for that and then asked him again when they revived NBC’s love of live musicals.
He crafted an elegant set for “The Sound of Music Live!” — though when he looks back he thinks his bedroom for Maria was too small — as well as a Neverland for Peter Pan that took inspiration from the rock formations off the coast of Vietnam. His “The Wiz Live!” was heavy with technology and fantasy.
McLane said he hopes to be able to continue straddling the words of theater and TV, as well as creating worlds onstage for off-Broadway shows and national tours. He doesn’t matter so much if it’s millions of people or a few hundred.
“There isn’t necessarily a correlation between something being big and good,” he said. “There’s nothing more satisfying ultimately than working on something that you think is actually really fun.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits