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Superstar set designer worked his magic for popular stage musical; the tour version of 'Wicked' shows at Keller Auditorium the next three weeks

COURTESY: JOAN MARCUS - The 'Wicked' friendship and then rivalry of Glinda (above, left) and Elphaba takes place on a set designed years ago by Eugene Lee, who, notably, has worked on 'Saturday Night Live' since its inception. 'Wicked' tells the story of Land of Oz before, and after, Dorothy arrives.The popular musical "Wicked" returned to Portland this week on its 10th anniversary tour, playing at the Keller Auditorium, and it's been 16 years since the debut of this stage story of the Land of Oz and the two witches before Dorothy's arrival.

It's only the second biggest Broadway hit of all time, as far as ticket sales go, behind only "The Lion King."

It's a big deal, and from the "Did you know?" department, it's one of the creative works of one of the most notable production and scenic designers. Eugene Lee has worked on "Saturday Night Live" since its inception in 1975, put together backdrops for "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" and "Late Show With Seth Meyers," among countless other works. He has more than 70 Broadway credits on his resumé, including "Sweeney Todd," "Candide," "Ragtime" and "Seussical."

Lee, 80 and living and working in Providence, R.I., remembers helping to bring the idea of "Wicked" to the Gershwin Theatre stage in 2003, through working with Director Joe Mantello. It's a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman. It's based on the Gregory Maguire novel "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," which had served as a retelling of L. Frank Baum's 1900 book "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" and the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz."

"Wicked" creators sent Lee and assistants a script and some music, and Lee admits "it sounded like cats screaming." But "we looked at it, and, 'Wow, this is really exciting,' and the script seemed impossible to produce and they were already behind. We sat down here and just did it. We just had fun doing it."

Lee's crew built a mock set, showed it to Mantello, and they received the go-ahead to create the stage set. "When we put 'Wicked' into the (Gershwin) theater, I think 'Oklahoma' was still there and we stole some of their corn," says Lee, who confesses to taking well to "big ideas" and going from there.

COURTESY PHOTO - EUGENE LEEAnd the Land of Oz set was straight-forward, mostly because it came right from the description in Maguire's book.

About two-thirds of the set remains the same as 16 years ago.

"The road company puts on a very good show; they keep (sets) in good shape," Lee adds.

The award-winning Broadway show tells of a girl with emerald-green skin — smart, fiery, misunderstood, and possessing extraordinary talent — who befriends a popular bubbly blonde, until the world decides to call one "good" (Glinda) and the other one "wicked" (Elphaba). It continues through July 28 at the Keller. Tickets start at $49, and are available at www.BroadwayInPortland.com.

It's usually very popular in Portland, to where few (if any) seats remain for shows.

Lee, who's currently working on a "Sweeney Todd" set for the New York City wing of the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture, says the success of "Wicked" does not surprise him.

"We worked on it. It was a fun project," he says."Most people got it wrong. It opened to mixed reviews. (Critics) said in New York, 'Well, it'll probably run two, three years.' Well, 'You got it wrong, how about 16 years?' It's a very straight show."

Patrick Lynch worked on the "Wicked" set with Lee.

"He approaches them all the same way, which is wild," Lynch says. "What is the big idea, the kind that will support all locations — the tiny regional production or big Broadway musical? It was based on the novel, and the novel begins with a clock for the time dragon, so that became the big idea (for the set)."

There are cranks for flying monkeys, charts for the schoolroom and curtains for the palace. Act 1 has 20 different locations, Lynch says.

It was a challenging project for Lee, Lynch adds, and it's the designer's most creative work along with "Sweeney Todd."

"But it's really rich with inspiration, because of the fantasy element, it's not bound for the lowest common denominators," he says.

Lee is still going strong with "Saturday Night Live," teaming with Leo Yoshimura for set production for 44 years.

Lee says, "I love the producer, he's been very nice to me," referencing Lorne Michaels.

"We have a lot of new people, and I'm the oldest guy there," Lee says. "It's just like with 'Wicked.' They have all new people with 'Wicked,' but we try to keep it the same."

It doesn't take much creativity to do a talk-show set, but Lee recalls emphasizing brick in Meyers' set and New York cityscape and an "elegant" look on Fallon's.

"I spent a fortune of Comcast's money doing it," he says.


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