Corrections or additions?
This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the December 6,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
For this `Carol,’ a Dark Look: Ming Cho Lee
At one point in one’s life one should do a `A
Carol,’" says eminent set designer Ming Cho Lee. Evidently Lee
has arrived at this precise point in his long and distinguished
Lee’s artistic vision — one that has brought him accolades for
almost half a century — will frame McCarter Theater’s brand new
production of Charles Dickens’ classic story, celebrating the 20th
year that the perennial favorite has been presented in Princeton.
Performances are continuing at McCarter to Thursday, December 24
Lee is frank about how challenging he finds this production of "A
"There’s a lot of story to tell, and there are so many things
in the play that are magic driven," he says. "I felt very
strongly from the beginning that `A Christmas Carol’ is not a very
pretty show. The journey that Scrooge takes in order to become a more
humane human being presents him as a product of his time. The
Revolution is shown at its worst — with the exploitation of
and people starving. It’s a very dark period. I wanted the darkness
of this time to be reflected in my designs." He’s willing to admit
that his conception may, indeed, be darker than other productions.
Lee says there’s a saying in contemporary theater that "a good
set designer is sometimes the best dramaturg." It is the
not the actors, he explaines, who initially meet with the director
to decide the show’s approach.
"We ask ourselves: What is the point of view? Is it contemporary
or set in another period? What statement do we want to make? And what
is the payoff of the show?"
When I asked what exactly he wants his sets to convey to the audience
when the curtain rises, I didn’t expect the answer I received: "I
want my sets to look good." Elaborating further, Lee explains
that conveying the spirit of the piece is primary, and reducing the
design from being totally decorative to express the essence of the
piece helps to make a total world in which all the events take place.
At 70 years of age, Lee remains active as both designer and teacher.
Born in Shanghai, the New York resident won the coveted Tony Award
for his awesome set for "K2," and served from 1962 to 1973
as the principal designer for the New York Shakespeare Festival. He
teaches at Yale where he has been professor design and co-chairman
of the design department at the Yale School of Drama since 1970.
Although he says he loves designing for Broadway (shows
that include the Tony-nominated, but lasting only one night
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona," "The Shadow Box," and
another legendary one-nighter, "La Strada"), Lee has received
most accolades for his settings for the Metropolitan Opera, San
Opera, and New York City Opera. These, as well as for his designs
for the dance companies of Jose Limon, Martha Graham, Gerald Arpino,
and Alvin Ailey, have made Lee "quite possibly the most
designer in the United States."
"I believe that your work is informed by your life experience,
and your life experiences are informed by your work," says Lee,
conceptualizing life as a circle. He talks about how different a
he would be if he were not a teacher. "Teaching sharpens my work,
keeps me on my toes. Teaching forces me to be aware of what’s going
on and what’s in other designer’s minds. But, if I didn’t design
I would be less of a teacher."
Having earned the title "Dean of Designers," Lee isn’t above
expressing his concerns regarding the production during a lively phone
"It’s a very difficult show to design," says Lee. "There
is a lot of magic that I am required to deal with, and I hate it."
After years of seeing other productions, he say he was never really
frightened by Scrooge. "I saw this horrible production at Madison
Square Garden that is all about people flying and musical numbers.
This is not doing Dickens justice," he says. Yet he concedes that
there are, indeed, a lot of ghosts that need to appear and disappear.
You can be sure that Lee’s disdain for the usual stage magic has
him to create magical elements that we haven’t seen or dreamt of
Lee also expresses concern over whether this big production is
McCarter’s resources. Considering his wide experience designing for
opera, it is hardly surprising to hear him say, "I hate designing
a huge production that could bankrupt a theater." He then candidly
adds, "They are having a hard time getting it done."
Like all anxiety-plagued artists, he worries about the shortage of
available labor, and the time remaining before opening night. A little
cautious about all the things left to do in a short time, Lee thinks
that audiences will probably see a more complete production next year.
"Every theater that attempts to do `A Christmas Carol’ discovers
how huge a show it really is," he says. In the case of the
stage, he explains that the backstage space is okay, but really not
big enough to service the large proscenium opening.
"If you are doing a show that has modest technical demands, it’s
a good stage," he says. "But by the time you are doing `A
Christmas Carol,’ you have a little problem fitting everything into
the space. But we are doing it."
"There is the London street, the exterior and interior of the
counting house, the exterior of Scrooge’s house, his bedroom, a school
yard, a grave yard, Bob Cratchit’s place, Mr. Fezziwig’s place,"
much of it punctuated with the comings and goings of ghosts. His
and descriptions are punctuated with a laugh, as he realizes anew
the enormity of the production. "That’s a lot. That’s a
Lee says working with director Michael Unger has proved a good fit.
"He comes to the show with a lot of history and knows it really
well. There are things that I knew he would not give up because they
worked in the past production." Lee is pleased that both Unger
and David Thompson, the adapter of this latest version, endorsed his
darker conception. He presented four different models for the set
design, and the trio made the choice together.
"A setting doesn’t necessarily come from someone having one great
vision," says Lee, "but needs to evolve and be
Whether to go for an expressionistic or a realistic edge is a choice
that Lee says depends on how the designer reacts to a play. In this
case, "there are a lot of strange angles that call for a tinge
of expressionism. Although, in this story, you are never quite sure
whether we are dealing with reality or a figment of the imagination,
there is definitely the need for the supernatural."
"Although my color palette for the show is pretty much black and
white — like a photograph — my instinct is for the less
the less cumbersome. But given the requirements of so many scenes,
with lots of magic, it was important to have a more fully realized
It was Eugene Lee’s (no relation) setting for
Todd," that Lee says gave him his inspiration for the images of
London’s 19th century financial district that he is using to frame
his "Christmas Carol." Ming Cho Lee is also famous for
the artistic use of pipe scaffolding in such shows as "The Two
Gentlemen of Verona" on Broadway and "Peer Gynt" for the
New York Shakespeare Festival. "I look at other designers’ work
that I admire and say how can I use it. I’m a shameless stealer,"
he admits. Other working designers whom he admires include Richard
Hudson of "The Lion King" and Bob Crowley of
The new McCarter production brings together a host of creative talent.
Costume design is by Jess Goldstein, Lee’s former student at Yale
who now teaches costume design there. You could call this a family
affair with Stephen Strawbridge, also a former student and now
with Lee of the design department at Yale, doing the lighting design.
The biggest challenge for Lee in "A Christmas Carol" was
a production that he sees as "too big."
"There must be a simpler more streamlined way to do it, but I
have not discovered it," says Lee, admittedly perplexed by whether
the show should be principally magic-driven or more reflective of
the times. Voicing his strong feelings about all those "ye olde
shoppey" productions there are out there that drive him crazy,"
he admits, "I’ll only stop worrying about it after I see it on
The new production features Broadway veteran John Christopher Jones
as Ebenezer Scrooge, leading the cast that includes Robert Ari, as
Mr. Fezziwig; Kim Brockington, as The Ghost of Christmas Present;
Caren Browning, as Mrs. Cratchit; Angel Desai, as Fan; Mark Niebuhr,
as Jacob Marley; Judy Reyes, as Lily and Belle; Simon Brooking, as
Bob Cratchit; Jayne Houdyshell, as Mrs. Fezziwig; Mikel Sarah Lambert,
as Mrs. Dilber; James Ludwig, as Fred; and Sean McNall, as Young
The highlight of every McCarter production of "A Christmas
are the 12 area children who fill the stage in a variety of roles.
When I ask Lee why we don’t see more of his work on Broadway, his
answer is humorously blunt: "If producers don’t call you, you
don’t do the work." Lee is also candid. "For whatever reason,
I do my least good work on Broadway. Perhaps it is because I am not
fond of working under that kind of pressure."
"You can do terrific work in Minneapolis, Louisville, Los Angeles,
and Washington, yet on Broadway, you end up putting all your effort
into something that can close on opening night."
"That is not why I got into the business," says Lee, who is
somewhat astonished how many of his opera designs go on and on, like
those for "Boris Godunov," which the New York City Opera has
been using for the past 26 years.
"As I grow older I have fewer preconceptions about theater
I’m a little exhausted. I’d like to stop designing for about a year.
But you know, if someone calls me to do a Broadway show, I think I’d
— Simon Saltzman
Place, 609-258-2787. The new production of the Dickens’ classic runs
to December 24. $28 to $40.
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