A pop-up exhibition titled Brick By Brick, Putting It Together: The Broadway Set Miniatures of Henry Lee was unveiled at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center on 17 September 2021. Showcasing Lee’s intricate, miniature reimaginings of set designs using Lego, it features the iconic musicals of legendary director Hal Prince. Limelight spoke with Henry Lee on the eve of the opening.
Multi-hyphenate actor/singer Henry Lee began reimagining the set designs of Broadway musicals last year, after his own shows were cancelled due to the global pandemic. However, Lee’s models are not just an exercise in surviving lockdown. They represent countless hours of research and the gathering of first-hand anecdotes from performers and creatives who worked on these productions.
The result is a celebration of the work of legendary director Hal Prince and the production designers with whom he collaborated. They include Eugene Lee on Sweeney Todd, Maria Björnson on The Phantom of the Opera, Tazeena Firth and Timothy O’Brien on Evita, and his long-time collaborator Boris Aronson, represented here by Company, A Little Night Music and Follies.
“Lego Broadway Sets is my love letter to the American musical,” says Lee. “My goal was to convey the atmosphere of these shows through their most iconic set pieces.”
Why Lego and not scissors and paper, or traditional model-making media like balsa?
Lee laughs, “When I was a kid my sister was obsessed with Lego, so I stole some of hers and started making theatrical scenes. I’ve loved using it ever since. It’s limitless, accessible, and turned out to be a great channel for creative output when none of us really had one. After I made my first couple of models and posted them on social media, my professors at Western Michigan University and the curator at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts messaged me to say there could be something more in it.”
Lee’s six set models are now being displayed alongside archival materials relating to each production from the Library’s own archives and the exhibition has been curated by Doug Reside, the Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Curator of the Billy Rose Theatre Division. Photographs from this unparalleled collection and video footage from the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT) illustrate how the sets came to life on stage, along with pieces of scenery from Evita and Sweeney Todd, as seen in 2017’s Prince of Broadway – the last show Hal Prince created.
Announcing the exhibition, Doug Reside said “I loved watching Henry’s set designs become an online sensation early in the pandemic, not only for their playful take on Broadway sets, but because inspiring creativity is part of the Library for the Performing Arts’ mission, and Henry’s sets are so creative. It is an absolute pleasure to display his works here at the Library alongside the materials that inspired him, and a delightful opportunity to welcome visitors back into our space.”
For Henry Lee and visitors alike, a special highlight of the exhibition is a selection of original set models by six-time Tony winner Boris Aronson for three of his collaborations with Hal Prince, including the 1973 premiere of A Little Night Music. After lying in pieces for more than 30 years, it has finally been rebuilt by the team at the New York Public Library. Another model is for the original Broadway production of Follies. According to Hal Prince, the production was inspired by a photo of Gloria Swanson standing in the ruins of a dilapidated theatre, and Henry Lee has included a nod to this in his recreation of Aronson’s design.
“There’s an Easter egg in my model,” Lee laughs. “They used a different backdrop in the original design, but I’ve hung part of that original photo with Gloria in mine.”
Also featured are Aronson’s Broadway and touring models for Company. Exhibited alongside Lee’s Lego models, they are on view together for the first time ever. While tackling the set design for Company, Henry Lee admits he developed a far deeper understanding of how Aronson supported what composer Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince were trying to achieve.
“I’d always been fascinated by how modern and angular it looked,” he says, “but I never realised that, in addition to the urban projections Boris Aronson used, there was also a lot of organic stuff like tree branches, and the lighting was dappled as if filtered through leaves. There’s something really special about that juxtaposition and how it relates to the story – the organic quality of humans explored within the construct of a rigid urban setting. The projections I’ve used for my Company model were the same ones Boris Aronson used.”
Aronson’s design for Company was heavily influenced by the constructivist movement, which is hardly surprising given he was mentored by Alexandra Exter, the avant-garde painter and chief designer at Alexander Tairov’s Kamerny (Chamber) Theatre in Moscow. Aronson embraced the theories of both Tairov and the other great iconoclastic director of the day, Vsevolod Meyerhold.
In a 2018 interview, Hal Prince told Limelight that he too had been heavily influenced by Meyerhold and his visit to Moscow’s Taganka Theatre in 1966. The Taganka theatre had been founded by Meyerhold’s disciple, Yuri Lyubimov. It was only fitting that Prince should join forces with Aronson in bringing the Russian avant-garde to Broadway and, in doing so, revolutionise western theatre as we know it.
Although Aronson had previously designed sets for Hal Prince’s employer and mentor, George Abbott, their first close collaboration would be Fiddler on the Roof. In designing the sets for this musical, Aronson drew inspiration from the paintings of shtetl life by his friend Marc Chagall, about whom he had written a book in 1923. Although Fiddler on the Roof was produced by Hal Prince, it was directed by Jerome Robbins and does not form part of this exhibition, which only features productions directed by Prince.
“The six shelf-size Lego models displayed in Brick by Brick: Putting It Together make up The Harold Prince Collection,” Henry Lee explains. “It’s a loving tribute piece to this monumental theatrical pioneer and legend, and to these six productions I’ve loved for a very long time.”
Has working on these models given Lee any deeper insight into understanding Hal Prince’s approach to staging?
“According to Hal, a musical can’t just be heard; it must be seen,” Lee answers. “Sometimes, when you’re in the theatre, you can’t necessarily grasp a sense of the whole. Knowing these shows as well as I did and downsizing them in this way has allowed me to do just that, and to appreciate their scale.”
Lee continues paradoxically, “They’re big and yet so small. For example, the set for Sweeney Todd on Broadway only happened once, because it salvaged real elements from an old iron foundry and they had to demolish the back of the theatre to get it in. As I was building the model and seeing it come together, I realised that while it seems so complex and huge, at the same time it’s just beams.”
“Hal was all about the black box. In the film A Director’s Life he said, ‘You only have to put a little thing on stage and the rest is up to the audience’s imagination.’ That’s so true. When you see one of his shows it still feels like they’re built on a grand scale, but in recreating them through Lego they seem so bare and minimalist. There’s nothing there.”
“Mark Ryan, the first Magaldi in the original London production of Evita, told me that Hal had said it was the company that brings a set to life,” Lee says. “You can see it in Follies too. It’s so multidimensional and there’s a depth that’s really haunting. There’s something liminal about it, as though it isn’t set quite in one place or another.”
Prince was a master at ensuring the audience saw exactly what he and his designers intended them to see through the proscenium, and he was a champion of its role as a threshold between the audience and the space beyond. This is perhaps never more clearly seen than in the golden proscenium for The Phantom of the Opera, with its orgiastic, pagan scene heralding the fall and sublimation of an aptly named Christine in the Phantom’s profane underworld; or the murals painted in the style of David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera to adorn not only the front curtain of Evita, but the walls of the auditorium as well.
For many visitors to the exhibition, the proscenium of Evita will come as something of a surprise.
“Even if you’re familiar with the show, you probably won’t know about the murals if you didn’t see the original production in the late 70s and early 80s,” Lee explains. “There are only a couple of photos of it floating around, including fragments of it in the Lincoln Centre Library archives. However, there are no records of the whole thing.”
Lee owes as much to documentation in the library archives, as he does to personal accounts from people who worked on Hal Prince’s original productions. As Lee is quick to point out, their contributions aren’t limited to the production designs, but have also yielded valuable insights into Prince’s directorial approach.
“If it weren’t for them, I would never have learnt that every company member in Evita was assigned a person in those murals to bring to life.”
Lee hopes that visitors to the exhibition will come to appreciate how conceptual and abstract Hal Prince’s productions were.
“None of the Lego models portray a specific scene,” he says, “rather they are a composite of the whole visual aesthetic. Obviously, you can’t include details when they’re so small, but they capture the essence of each production. They may not be overly detailed, but they still have the same effect and that really speaks to the original vision of the creative teams on these shows.”
Brick By Brick, Putting It Together: The Broadway Set Miniatures of Henry Lee is on display at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center until 11 December.