Eugene Lee, Set Designer for Broadway and ‘S.N.L.,’ Dies at 83
For decades it was possible for Saturday night theatergoers in New York to get a double dose of Eugene Lee’s work, though it’s likely that few would have realized they were doing so. They might have taken in “Sweeney Todd,” “Ragtime,” “Wicked” or other Broadway shows whose striking sets were designed by Mr. Lee, then could arrive home in time to tune into “Saturday Night Live” — a show for which he served as production designer when it began in 1975, and on which he was still working this season.
Mr. Lee, an inventive and remarkably prolific set designer who was also known for his decades with Trinity Repertory Company, a respected regional theater in Providence, R.I., died on Monday in Providence. He was 83.
His family announced the death, after a short illness that was not specified.
Mr. Lee won or shared three Tony Awards for his Broadway sets — for “Candide” in 1974, “Sweeney Todd” in 1979 and “Wicked” in 2003 — and six Emmy Awards for “Saturday Night Live,” most recently in 2021.
In theater, he was known for imaginative designs imbued with authenticity.
“Eugene loved real objects, objects with history,” Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, who worked with Mr. Lee at Trinity Rep and elsewhere, said by email, “but he’d use them in utterly nonrealistic ways onstage.”
He was known for reconfiguring entire theaters, as he did for “Candide,” the musical based on Voltaire, which was staged at the 180-seat Chelsea Theater Center in Brooklyn in 1973 before moving to the much larger Broadway Theater in Midtown Manhattan the next year. Mr. Lee, working with his partner at the time, Franne Lee, and the director Harold Prince, turned the Chelsea into “a ramped and runwayed circus midway,” The New York Times wrote, “surrounded by booths and mini-stages that could be changed, in a twinkling, from a corpse-littered battlefield to a vizier’s seraglio.”
“The audience sat up, down and all around,” The Times said, “on stools, benches and ballpark-style ‘bleachers,’ between the ramps or along the runways or anywhere they wouldn’t be in the actors’ way.”
Preserving that staging when the show transferred to Broadway took some effort, which included removing numerous seats, and for the first few performances some theatergoers asked for refunds because of problems with sight lines and other issues. But eventually the bugs were worked out.
The show ran for almost two years and won five Tonys, including one for Mr. Lee and Franne Lee for scenic design. (Their relationship lasted for most of the 1970s but they were nevermarried, Patrick Lynch, Mr. Lee’s assistant and fellow designer, said by phone.)
Five years later, for the Stephen Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd” (which, like “Candide,” had a book by Hugh Wheeler and was directed by Mr. Prince), Mr. Lee brought pieces of an old iron foundry from Rhode Island and turned the Uris Theater into a stylized Industrial Age scene out of Victorian London.
“The stagehands at the theater still remember how heavy the set was,” Mr. Lee told The Boston Globe in 2007. “You had to knock away bricks to support it. You can still see the scars all these years later.”
The designs won him a second Tony Award, and a third came with “Wicked.” For that show, whose set featured an imposing dragon and a time motif, Mr. Lee drew inspiration in part from smashing apart old clocks in his Providence workshop and fiddling with the innards.
Mr. Lee had more than two dozen Broadway credits, including “Agnes of God” (1982), “Show Boat” (1994), “Ragtime” (1998), “Glengarry Glen Ross” (2012) and, most recently, “Bright Star” (2016). While working on those projects and others, he oversaw the sets for “Saturday Night Live,” including creating the basic stage look that has remained largely unchanged since the show began in 1975.
Lorne Michaels, the show’s creator and executive producer, said in a phone interview that when he began formulating “S.N.L.,” he had recently seen “Candide” and was impressed with the look the Lees had created.
“In those days, television was always on the floor,” he said — filmed on one level, with a polished sort of look — but Mr. Lee, still working with Franne Lee, had a different idea.
“He said, ‘Well, I think we should probably build stages,” Mr. Michaels said. “And that meant we’d build a balcony, basically turn the studio into a theater.”
“It looked like the city,” Mr. Michaels added of the look Mr. Lee created. “Something about it rang true.”
Over the decades — taking a break only when Mr. Michaels did for five years in the 1980s — Mr. Lee would travel from his home in Providence to oversee the show’s design each week, whether it included a living room, a fake Oval Office or a special setting for the musical guest.
In his work on “S.N.L.” Mr. Lee encountered many up-and-coming comedians, and he helped some of them branch out, working on the Broadway shows of Gilda Radner (“Live From New York,” 1979), Colin Quinn (“An Irish Wake,” 1998) and Will Ferrell (“You’re Welcome, America,” 2009). He also became production designer for “The Tonight Show” when Jimmy Fallon took it over in 2014.
“When we were discussing the ‘Tonight Show’ set, he just had such a clear vision on the look and the stage and the curtain and the color of the wood,” Mr. Fallon said by email. “Every inch of it had meaning.”
Whoever was in the “S.N.L.” cast in a given year, Mr. Michaels said, owed a debt to Mr. Lee.
“He built this place for us to play in and do the show,” he said, “and it feels whole when we’re in it.”
Eugene Edward Lee was born on March 9, 1939, in Beloit, Wis. His father, also named Eugene, was an engineer, and his mother, Elizabeth (Gates) Lee, was a pediatric nurse.
His academic history was a patchwork.
“I don’t think I have a degree from any place,” he told American Theater magazine in 1984. “Maybe I have a degree from Yale; I can’t remember.”
He started out studying at the University of Wisconsin.
“Then I saw Helen Hayes talking on television about Carnegie Tech and the stage,” he told The Times in 2000, referring to what is now Carnegie Mellon University. “So I got in my Volkswagen, which my grandmother had given me, and I arrived at the front door and said, ‘I’m here.’”
He had a similarly casual approach to the Yale School of Drama, where he arrived in 1966 and studied for a time, although he did not finish his degree. (Some two decades later, the school granted him a master’s degree — “a real degree, not even an honorary one,” he told Yale Alumni Magazine in 2017.)
With or without degrees, by the second half of the 1960s he was getting plenty of design work, including at Trinity Rep, where Adrian Hall, the founding artistic director, brought him in as resident designer. (Mr. Hall died on Feb. 4 in Van, Texas.) When Mr. Hall added the job of artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center in 1983, Mr. Lee worked with him there as well.
Wherever he was working, Mr. Lee favored the genuine over the artificial.
“Once you start painting, it has a painted look,” he told American Theater. “What please me are real textures used in the way nature left them. There’s nothing like a real piece of rusted tin — really rusted — put up on the stage. I don’t care how heavy it is, how dirty it is.”
Mr. Eustis recalled one production — “Hope of the Heart” in 1990 — on which Mr. Lee’s enthusiasm for the realistic had to be reigned in.
“Eugene could be risky, even reckless,” he said. “When I first worked with him at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, he insisted that the actors should use live ammunition (mercifully, only BBs) in the course of the show. We had to do a full-scale test, with a dozen of us wearing goggles, to prove to him that BBs would fly all over the auditorium and blind the audience if we used them. Reluctantly, he agreed to abandon the idea.”
Mr. Lee married Brooke Lutz in 1981. She survives him, along with his twin brother, Thomas; a son from his relationship with Franne Lee, Willie; a son from his marriage, Ted; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Lee was known as a man of few words, and a man who loved the water. Mr. Eustis recalled that Mr. Lee took him out on Narragansett Bay on his sailboat when they were working on Trinity’s production of “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in 1995.
“We spent a couple hours on the water, talking but not referring to the play, and then he said, ‘It would be too bad if they actually left the stage when they say they are leaving,’” Mr. Eustis recalled. “That was our whole conversation. He delivered one of the most brilliant and beautiful designs I’d ever seen.”
Iris Fanger, reviewing the production in The Boston Herald, described that set as a series of rooms “that seem to stretch back into eternity.”