Eugene Lee, award-winning Broadway, 'SNL' set designer, dies

Eugene Lee, the six-time Emmy Award-winning production designer for “Saturday Night Live” who won three Tony Awards for his Broadway sets, including the complicated, greenified Emerald City of “Wicked,” has died

Mark Kennedy
Thursday 09 February 2023 15:41 GMT
Obit Eugene Lee
Obit Eugene Lee (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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Eugene Lee, the six-time Emmy Award-winning production designer for "Saturday Night Live" who won three Tony Awards for his Broadway sets, including the complicated, greenified Emerald City of “Wicked,” has died. He was 83.

Lee died Tuesday in Providence, Rhode Island, said Trinity Repertory Company, where he had been a resident artist since 1967 and designed sets for more than 100 productions.

“Eugene Lee was a once-in-a-generation theater artist, one of the greatest minds to ever answer the question ‘What is theater?’” artistic director Curt Columbus said in a statement.

His numerous Broadway productions include the original Stephen Sondheim musicals “Sweeney Todd” in 1979 and “Merrily We Roll Along” in 1981, “Seussical” in 2001, the “Show Boat” revival of 1994-1997 and, more recently, “Amazing Grace” and “Bright Star.”

His work for the Broadway stage varied from building a seedy Chinese restaurant for David Mamet's “Glengarry Glen Ross” to spare, interlocking wood frames for “The Other Place.” His most imaginative work can be seen today in “Wicked,” complete with a smoke-breathing dragon, a giant fantasy clock and a bubble-blowing pendulum that carries a witch.

Lee designed the big clock, based on a mention in the Gregory Maguire novel, and defined his vision by creating a series of moving panels of gears and cog wheels that became the central image for the set. Cued to the music and lighting by computers, the panels and the wheels seem in constant motion during transitions from one song and scene to the next, rolling and sliding along the floor in grooves disguised by clouds of smoke. The clock image envelops all the characters in the Oz story.

During a set visit in 2004, Lee smiled often when he talked about this project.

“Where else can you build a dragon?” he asked.

Lee was the production designer on “Saturday Night Live” from the show’s premiere until his death. He also led the production design for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and the 2000 television movie “On Golden Pond,” among others. For his work in TV production design, Lee was nominated for 18 Emmys, winning six.

“His contribution to the arts and our culture, at both a local and national level, is massive and he will forever be remembered as one of the giants of the field," said Lee's longtime co-designer and assistant Patrick Lynch at Trinity.

Lee is survived by his wife, Brooke, and their two sons.

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