It was one of those calls that can set aflutter the heart of the toughest showbiz veteran, even one accustomed to the wearying whims of the most demanding of Broadway directors and producers.
“How would you like to design the Oscars?” asked the voice on the line’s other end.
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.”
Of course, the visual artist in McLane wanted to meet the expectations of Zadan and Meron, and the show’s director Don Mischer, for a new Oscar look. After flying to Los Angeles from his New York base and curling up in the Dolby orchestra seats, he went into his usual process, drawing hundreds of pages of doodles. The ceremony’s theme this year is music and the movies, which is to play out over the course of the evening’s 12 distinct segments, or acts.
“That is a theme I kind of riffed on in the designs, and in images that were potentially beautiful and appropriate for the show and still honored the grandeur and glamour of the event,” McLane said, adding that he tried not to be “on the nose about it. You won’t see musical notes or treble clefs on the stage.”
If the designs are as arresting as the one he was allowed to share — a rendering of what’s called “the closedown, sort of like our show curtain” — there will be dazzle tonight. Inspired in part by the Busby Berkeley film extravaganzas of the 1930s, the image is an arch with hundreds of Oscar statuettes dangling inside it like the charms of a bracelet. (A total of 1,051 Oscars painted silver rather than gold, to better reflect the lighting design, populate the set.)
The glittering effect gets its illumination from a multitude of clear, incandescent bulbs suspended on aluminum rods: The nominated stars will themselves be stargazers.
McLane says the hiatus from the theater has been fun, but it is a short one. Immediately after the Oscars, he heads back to New York for the start of preview performances of his latest Broadway design job, playwright Richard Greenberg’s new stage adaptation of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
For that assignment, the sets have to speak directly to the author’s intentions. At the Oscars, he gets to worry more about whether he has fashioned his version of a red-carpet breath-stopper.
“At the end of the day, a lot of the images were chosen because we thought they were beautiful,” he said. “That is different from designing a play. You rarely have something on a stage that’s just pretty.”
The Oscars, 8:30 p.m., ABC