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Broadway designer looks to musicals for Oscar-set inspiration

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NEW YORK -- The folks behind Hollywood's glitziest night have imported some help this year -- from Broadway.

Tony-winning designer Derek McLane, much sought-after for his use of unlikely materials in sublime patterns, has been tapped to put together the set for the 85th Academy Awards telecast.

"This is the first time I've ever designed any kind of awards show and certainly this is the biggest viewership of anything I've ever done," he said by phone from inside the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, producers of the Oscars, asked McLane if he'd lend his expertise after impressing them with his work on How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with Daniel Radcliffe, a show they also produced.

"One of the things they said about the Oscars is that they really hoped that I would design something that looked completely unique and completely new and did not look like any other Oscar show they'd ever seen," McLane said.

McLane's other credits include the recent revival of The Heiress with Jessica Chastain, the current Nice Work If You Can Get It with Matthew Broderick, the last revivals of Gore Vidal's The Best Man and Follies, and the Tony-winning revival of Anything Goes.

"We think he's one of the most inventive designers there is and we wanted to give him an opportunity to really strut his stuff," said Meron. "I don't think there's any better place than the Oscar stage."

One of McLane's biggest triumphs was the set for 33 Variations, a play about a terminally ill musicologist that starred Jane Fonda. The show earned McLane a Tony for one of his trademarks: the use of ordinary objects clustered in stunning ways. The set had thousands of small cardboard boxes and hundreds of pages of sheet music, all lit sublimely.

"I like the ability to create that kind of magic out of the ordinary," he said.

For the Oscars, McLane was tasked with honouring the grandeur and splendour of the event but also injecting a bit of his wit, too.

This year, the Oscars are paying tribute to the music of the movies -- scores, songs and musicals -- so McLane went backward. "I really looked to the golden age of movie musicals in this country, which is the 1930s and '40s," he said.

While much of the Oscar set is still under wraps, an image of McLane's proscenium has been released. It features more than a thousand -- 1,051, to be precise -- replica Oscar statuettes, each a little larger than the real award. Each is nestled in its own cubbyhole and can be lit separately or in sections as needed. The show curtain is inspired by Busby Berkeley movie musicals.

While McLane wouldn't reveal any more, he did mention taking inspiration from his own apartment, where on one wall he has installed 35 industrial lamps all facing the same direction and up against an antique mirror.

"I like the fact that when you look at each one of these individual lamps, they just look like a sort of ordinary, industrial lamp that is, quite frankly, the last thing in the world that you would think of as warm. And yet, together as a pattern, they create something that I think is magical and beautiful."

McLane has had to adjust to the size of the 3,400-seat Dolby Theatre -- much larger than the biggest Broadway theatre -- and the need for his set to be both pleasing from far away and in TV close-ups. He and a team in November tested how the set would look by making partial replicas and training video cameras on them.

He said he's been enjoying his L.A. visit but he promises his head won't be turned by Hollywood. The day after the telecast, McLane is due back in New York to work on his set for the upcoming play Breakfast at Tiffany's.

"I'd love to be able to do more of this," he says, "but I feel like Broadway's my home and I wouldn't leave it for the world."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 G6

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