Derek McLane, a Tony winner whose Broadway credits include “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Follies,” “I Am My Own Wife” and “33 Variations,” and whose sets have adorned virtually every major stage in Washington, did not have to ponder the pluses and minuses of the assignment.
“It took me one-and-a-half seconds to say yes,” McLane explained by telephone the other day from the auditorium of the Dolby Theatre (formerly the Kodak) in Los Angeles, as crews were finishing the “load-in” of the scenery for tonight’s 85th Academy Awards.
Since receiving the offer at the end of September, McLane has been immersed in the gargantuan task of creating a fresh and telegenic physical framework for the Oscar telecast, which is likely to run more than three hours and be seen by something like 1 billion people worldwide. The numbers, of course, stagger a theater guy like the 54-year-old McLane, whose designs tend to be viewed by, at most, 1,500 spectators at a time. In Washington, McLane has designed at the Kennedy Center (the Sondheim Celebration, “Ragtime,” “Follies”); Signature Theatre (“The Visit,” “The Boy Detective Fails”); Ford’s Theatre (“Meet John Doe”); Arena Stage (“33 Variations”) and Shakespeare Theatre Company (“As You Like It”). It was his “33 Variations” set, replicated on Broadway, that won him his Tony.
“The humbling thing is, more people will see the work I’ve done at the Oscars than all my work in the theater, or will ever do, combined,” he said, adding that he’s fully prepared for the digital slings, arrows and whatever else lights up social media or the day-after’s water-cooler talk. “I know sitting in the living room and critiquing the Oscars is an American sport and I’ve participated in it many times. People love the show — and they also love to criticize it.”
McLane has never designed an awards show before: it’s like driver’s ed in the fast lane.
“It’s a terrifying thrill,” he said, “but it’s a thrill.” He was hired by the Oscars’ producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, themselves experienced musical-theater hands from TV and Broadway, who were among the producers of the 2011 revival of “How to Succeed” that featured Daniel Radcliffe, John Larroquette and McLane’s candy-colored sets.
“Neil and Craig said something kind of remarkable in the beginning that was very, very liberating. They said they really admired my work and they cited several shows, in my estimation my more adventurous work like ‘33 Variations’ and ‘I Am My Own Wife,’ and said, ‘We would love it if this show didn’t look like any other Oscar show.’ ”
So in the fall, McLane sat down with the producers and watched tapes of “12 to 15” Oscar broadcasts, for the purpose of addressing some of the perennial challenges and developing what is known as the “ground plan”: “We were looking at scenery and looking at what was successful and what was less successful. We were also looking at how the shows flowed. There were seemingly mundane things, which had to do with how do you get people on stage faster. Some have to walk from like a mile away. We were trying to find places to take 45 seconds of air out of the show, so it would feel like it was moving faster.” That’s why, he continued, “We created little side stages for the presenters to be at, so they could be there really, really quickly.”