Eugene Lee won a Tony Award for Best Set Design for Wicked. Below, he and Edward Piece, his associate set designer, share their thoughts on designing the unique set that makes Wicked so special.
What were some of your difficulties at the beginning in designing the set?
Eugene Lee: The script for Wicked is like a movie script – it jumps around a lot. I determined the problem was one of realism: how do you get from one scene to another? So I put my director’s hat on, and we put together a full model and I tried to answer questions my way. There were directions in the script that said things like ‘Kitchen from the past appears.’ How does that happen? I thought, how about a pageant wagon? There’s a lot of that in the novel, of people pushing things around the community. And then there was the Clock of the Time Dragon [featured in the novel]. I had always wanted the dragon over the arch, because it was clock-like and kind of mechanical. We did the whole show, the way it was written, and tried to answer all the questions.
With this show, I began with a half-inch scale model of the set. It was a gigantic model. There was no drafting to it, just the model. We just built it. Sometimes it’s better to just do the model and get to the drafting later.
Edward, how would you describe your choices for the style of the set?
Edward Pierce: We opted to create an environment inspired by the inner workings of a clock. The shapes, textures, colors, and functional aspects of clock gears and mechanisms contributed to a permanent environmental structure, which defines the stage space.
Eugene, how did director Joe Mantello react when he saw the giant model you had originally created of the set?
Eugene Lee: He was a little surprised by its size, I think. He stared at it and said, ‘Wow, I don’t quite see it that way, but I really like it.’ He told me how to fix it all; I give him full credit for fixing my mistakes.
Did you base any of your designs on the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz?
EL: No, I didn’t. It is in your consciousness whether you see it or not.
What were some of the materials you used in the construction of the set?
EP: We were interested in natural, realistic materials, not the newest industrial-strength polymers. The wood we chose has proven to be the perfect material and continues to improve with age and distress. The show deck, which is constructed of natural maple, is equipped with seven automated tracks, all lined with steel for visual interest. To stay consistent with our concept of clock mechanisms, many of the automated deck units are designed to reveal the mechanics that operated them.
It sounds like a very heavy set.
EP: Ask the stagehands!
It also sounds like a complicated set.
EL: We are both architects and engineers.
EP: And sometimes, mechanics.
Wicked plays the Aronoff Center September 13 – October 15, 2017 as a special engagement to the Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati season presented by TriHealth.