The Broadway production of Sweeney Todd featured an intricate and symbolic set designed by the famed Eugene Lee. A graduate of Robert Brustein’s Yale School of Drama, and the winner of three Tony awards (for musicals Candide, Sweeney Todd, and Wicked), Lee is a legendary and revered figure in the world of theater. Besides countless musicals and small stage productions, Lee also designs the set for NBC’s Saturday Night Live, including the sketch “Coneheads”. Known for his unique, admired technique of changing spaces and using the stage to its full potential, he has made a huge name for himself over the course of his rich and theatrical life.
Lee’s set for Sweeney Todd casts a sinister, mysterious shadow over the audience, giving the impression of death and darkness from the moment the curtains are opened. The materials are mostly wood and metal, involving a great deal of scaffolding and bare balconies, free of glitz or decoration. In fact, the set was largely built out of scraps that Lee found in an old New England foundry. “We used real found things for Sweeney Todd,” said Lee in an interview. “I prefer to build out of real things. There is some kind of humanity to it, some kind of history to the planks.” This use of found materials made the whole set cost only around $500,000 to make (compare that to a $14 million investment for Wicked). Besides the obvious aura surrounding the set, there is also some inner symbolism in the background. When lit a certain way, the background appears to be made of bars, imprisoning the characters in their own cycle of revenge and wrongdoings.

Eugene Lee was born in 1939 in Beloit, Wisconsin, to parents who were already very involved in theater. His father being an actor and his mother taking a backstage role in the community, Lee was destined from birth to be a great name in theater. He attended Beloit Memorial High School and two different universities where he received his Bachelor degrees in Fine Arts; he also received an MFA from Yale Drama School and amassed three honorary PhDs. Lee was first seen by the public eye when he designed the set for Slave Ship and Candide at the Chelsea Theater Center in Brooklyn, Massachusetts. In 1967, only 28 years old, Lee became the resident designer at Trinity Reparatory Company, a regional theater in Providence, Rhode Island.
Lee has always been known for changing the very layout of the theaters he works with, moving walls, exits, and technical stations to create a suitable and entirely unique new space. “Nothing makes me happier than an impossible space and an impossible project,” said Lee in an interview. His comment was followed by Robert Brustein, founder of the Yale Theatre, who described him as having “the remarkable capacity to create an illusion of vast reaches out of circumscribed space”. Lee’s old-fashioned and no-frills approach to set design is one of the things he most prides himself in. Accompanied on most days by only a pencil and sketch pad, Lee draws up such spectacles as the psychedelic, frightening wizard’s head in Wicked, or the intricate maze of scaffolding and machinery in Sweeney Todd. "Anyone can learn about set design in 10 minutes' reading and five years' traveling around Europe,” Lee claims, demonstrating the carefree and fun attitude he has toward theater.

Besides his major, award-winning musicals, Lee designed the sets for //Alice in Wonderland//, //The Normal Heart//, //Agnes of God//, //Ragtime//, //Uncle Vanya//, //Ruby Sunrise//, //Bounce//, and //A Number//. He contributed in the films //Coppola//’s //Hammett//, Huston’s //Mr. North// and Malle’s //Vanya on 42nd Street//. Most recently Lee designed the set for //The Pirate Queen//, and he is currently designing the set for The Train Driver in the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. He lives with his wife Brooke and his two sons in Providence, where he teaches at Brown University and continues to work for Trinity Rep. as set designer.

Eugene Lee
Wicked Set Design

Lee At Work
Mauritius Set Design

Eva Czapski
Emma Horn