Inset Pic- The book cover. Featured pic- Ming   Cho Lee receiving his Tony Lifetime Achievement Award.
Inset Pic- The book cover. Featured pic- Ming Cho Lee receiving his Tony Lifetime Achievement Award.

This is a lavish, fascinating, glorious ‘coffee table ‘’ book that celebrates the life and artistry of one of the most important American designers of the 20th century, Ming Cho Lee.The book has won the The 2014 TLA Book Awards’ George Freedley Memorial Award and deservedly so.

Sometimes nicknamed the ‘Dean of American stage design ‘, Lee developed his reputation via 300 productions of theatre, opera and dance at venues across the country, and is credited for reshaping the aesthetics of American scenic design.

Since 1969, Lee has taught at the Yale School of Drama, where he is currently co-chair of the Design Department. Now in his eighties, Lee was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1998, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2002.

The over 500 images for the book, which is based on hundreds of hours of interviews, were chosen personally by Lee from thousands of photos, drawing, sketches, renderings and models, all carefully catalogued by Betsy, Lee’s wife and lifelong archivist.

Lee’s awards include a Tony Award for best scenic design of a play, an Outer Critics Circle Award, three Drama Desk Awards, a special Tony Award for lifetime achievement and the National Medal of the Arts .

Lee, whose father was a Yale University graduate, moved to the United States in 1949 and attended Occidental College. However, it was his mother that encouraged his love of the arts. He first worked on Broadway as a second assistant set designer to Jo Mielziner on The Most Happy Fella in 1956.

Lee’s first Broadway play credited as scenic designer was The Moon Besieged in 1962; he went on to design the sets for over 20 Broadway shows, including For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, The Glass Menagerie, King Lear, Mother Courage and The Shadow Box.

He has won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design, a Helen Hayes Award, and in 1983 he received a Tony Award for Best Scenic Design for the icy play K2.

Lee has also designed sets for the Opera, (including the Met and the Royal Opera at Covent Garden), Ballet, (including the Martha Graham Company, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Elliott Field in the US and the Cloudgate Dance Theatre in Taiwan) and regional theatres such as Arena Stage, the Mark Taper Forum, and the Guthrie Theatre.

Of particular note are his designs for the 1973 production of Boris Godunov for the Metropolitan Opera, and Electra, a 1964 Public Theater production at the Delacorte Theatre.

Australian opera devotees might be interested to learn that Lee designed some productions starring Dame Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti as well as others featuring Placido Domingo. Lee designed over 30 productions for Joseph Papp at The Public Theatre, including the original Off-Broadway production of the musical Hair.

From 1962 to 1973, Lee was the principal designer for what is today the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park program at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. One of his final designs before officially retiring in 2005 was for a national tour of the musical Annie.

Lee is perhaps the only person in Broadway history to have a Tony nomination for a show that opened and closed the same night. It was for Billy, a 1969 musical based on Billy Budd, and the set was as remarkable as the show unfortunately wasn’t. Lee might have set a record of another sort: three of his seven musicals closed on opening night, the other two being Here’s Where I Belong and La Strada. All three within just under two years.

As a designer, Lee drew upon his training in Chinese watercolour, the aesthetics of his two major mentors, Jo Mielziner and Boris Aronson, and the post-war developments in German design (especially Brecht) to develop a new approach to stage design that radically changed American stage design.

Breaking new ground, Lee blended existing motifs in startling new ways and continued to explore new ideas throughout his entire career. Aronson examines how Lee changed style over his career – Lee first introduced a sculptural style with a sparse, soaring verticality that until then had been largely unknown in American theatre. The painterly image was replaced with a decidedly modern and industrial scenic vocabulary that emphasized stage-as-stage and particularly, at first, a scaffolding look that became almost a trademark effect.

The book is divided into sixteen chapters, with a preface by Aronson, is arranged chronologically, and looks at most of the important productions Lee designed in a particular year. It is an analysis of and conversation with Lee.

Stunning photos of his designs are beautifully positioned to show how the designs sometimes changed and what the end product was compared to the original doodled idea.

Candid commentary by Lee on many of his designs is also included providing fascinating insight into various difficulties with some of the productions, and his thoughts on various productions and collaborations.

Aronson attempts to show where Ming Cho Lee is positioned in the history of American theatre design in relation to his predecessors and mentors and also future generations – his many students.

Mention is also made of the famous Ming’s Clambake an annual event that grew and grew for two decades until it became overwhelming and was sadly discontinued in 2009.

The final chapter is a selection of some of Lee’s stunning watercolour paintings from 1950 to 2007.There is also an excellent time line with a list of each production Lee designed for that year and a comprehensive index .

Aronson also talks about the importance of Lee’s work in the cultural landscape. “And his influence goes beyond set design,” Dr. Aronson said. “Costume and lighting designers, playwrights, directors, architects, artists have taken his classes. His aesthetic and ideology have seeped into the very fabric of American theatre.”

A visual and intellectual feast, this fascinating book will interest anyone involved in the performing arts and should be in the libraries of our leading arts institutions.

Product Identifiers
ISBN-10 1559364610
ISBN-13 9781559364614

Key Details
Author Arnold Aronson
Number Of Pages 336 pages
Format Hardcover
Publication Date 2014-12-09
Language English
Publisher Theatre Communications Group, Incorporated

Additional Details
Copyright Date 2014
Illustrated Yes

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