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

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16 Apr 2013

Derek McLane
Derek McLane
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Tony Award-winning set designer Derek McLane's 30th Broadway production, Breakfast at Tiffany's, transports audiences into the smoky haze of 1940s New York City. McLane shared insight and photos from his recent projects with Playbill.com.

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As audiences entered the Walter Kerr Theatre this fall, they were invited to the grand and opulent home of Dr. Austin Sloper and his daughter Catherine in Broadway's The Heiress.

"My inspiration for The Heiress was that I wanted to tell a story about the wealth of the Sloper family, but also, at the same time, try to convey the sense of restraint that also exists in that family," said McLane about the recent Broadway revival that starred Oscar winner Jessica Chastain as the play's title character. "The house has to exude enough wealth and enough grandeur that Morris [played by Dan Steven] sort of immediately responds to it. It's not only a place he wants to be because it was nice, it's a place he aspires to live [in]… For me, that was a subtle balance — trying to achieve both of those things at the same time."

Augustus Goetz and Ruth Goetz's 1947 drama sets the Sloper family in 1850s Washington Square, New York City. The action takes place at the Doctor's (David Strathairn) home, an object of desire for Morris Townsend, the middle-class young man who courts Catherine, the heiress.



"I did a lot of research looking at houses of that period, both in photographs and going around Washington Square. I went to Merchant's House, which is near Washington Square," said McLane. "It was useful in terms of seeing the layout of the architecture, but, in fact, I ended up adding a lot more detail than were in those real houses."

A set rendering for Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Details at the Sloper home included walls made of lace ("We had the lace milled in Scotland, by a mill in Scotland," added McLane.), period furniture and a majestic staircase — a character, in itself, in Broadway's The Heiress — that protruded into the center of the stage.

"The combination of red and black seems very wealthy. That's just kind of a powerful, classical combination," added McLane on his choice of color.

About the famous staircase, he said, "I don't know that very many people are aware of this: That staircase moved very, very slowly in the last scene — so slow that it was imperceptible, but it came forward into the room before Catherine Sloper ascended the staircase. It moved about four or five feet during that last scene… When [director] Moisés Kaufman and I were studying the model, we were looking at where to place the staircase during the last scene so that it was fully in view for every single seat in the audience and that it felt as important as we wanted it to feel."

As the play ends, Catherine famously exits by ascending the staircase. "There couldn't be anything that was left too plain," said McLane of the Broadway revival.

McLane talks about the set of The Heiress:

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