Set Designer Derek McLane Takes Playbill Inside the Worlds of The Heiress, Last Five Years, Tiffany's and More

By Michael Gioia
16 Apr 2013

McLane's design for The Last Five Years

The Off-Broadway revival of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, housed at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, proves to be timeless — with the assistance of McLane's chic and contemporary set design — although its characters live in 1990s New York City.

"We kept it in the 90s without trying to make too fine a point of that," admitted McLane. "I really wanted it to feel fresh and as much like a new piece as we could. There were a couple of interesting challenges about that design. One of them was featuring musicians on stage, which is something that Jason and I talked about doing very early on. He made a very strong argument for that, which I thought was very compelling. The piece is sung through almost entirely, and, except for one scene, it is one person on stage at a time. It is so much about them singing the music that he felt like seeing the musicians would be a beautiful part of that picture, and I totally agreed."

McLane, who displaces the orchestra in various spots against the back wall of the theatre — creating a musical backdrop for the characters of struggling actress Cathy Hyatt (Betsy Wolfe) and on-the-rise Jewish novelist Jamie Wellerstein (Adam Kantor) — pointed out that, because of Brown's specific vision, the musicians were faced with memorizing the entirety of the 90-minute, intermissionless piece.

In front of the musicians, McLane placed floating window frames that dropped from the theatre's fly space above. Why windows? "The most obvious reason is [that] I was trying to create a cityscape — a New York cityscape. [Also, there is] something about glimps[ing] into other people's lives — you know that this is one of a million stories going on in the city…behind every one of those windows is potentially another relationship or another life."

In some scenes McLane accents the windows with various projections — snow during Christmastime, a pond in Central Park and a highway full of cars.

"[The projections in the windows] seemed like a way of introducing [the outside world] without it ruining the vocabulary of the rest of the piece — it was contained enough that they seemed like glimpses," said McLane. "You weren't seeing much digital imagery there because they're contained by the frames… Your mind sort of fills in the rest of it." In The Last Five Years, creator, composer and director Brown asks the audience to fill in multiple gaps, piecing together the beginning, middle and end of a couple's failed, yet beautiful, relationship.

Watch highlights from The Last Five Years: