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Ming Cho Lee, Groundbreaking Scenic Designer, Dies at 90

Lee won a Tony in the 1980s for the play K2.

Ming Cho Lee
(© David Gordon)

Groundbreaking scenic designer Ming Cho Lee has died. Born October 3, 1930, in Shanghai, Lee died on October 24, just three weeks after turning 90.

Long regarded as the dean of the American scenic design community, Lee's five decades of work on both national and international stages shaped a generation of designers. He came to the United States in 1949 to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles to study art, eventually switching his major and receiving a BA in theater in 1953. His first design was a student production of Robert McEnroe's The Silver Whistle in 1952.

At the recommendation of lighting designer Eddie Kook, Lee began an apprenticeship in 1954 with designer Jo Mielziner. He assisted Mielziner on multiple Broadway productions in the 1950s and 1960s, including Happy Hunting, Look Homeward, Angel, The World of Suzie Wong, Whoop-Up, and The Best Man. He also worked for designer Boris Aronson.

In 1962, Lee was hired by Joseph Papp to become the resident scenic designer for the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater. He designed 40 productions there and spent 11 summer seasons designing for the newly opened Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Over the course of his career, he designed multiple productions for New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, as well as countless shows at prominent regional theaters including Arena Stage, the Mark Taper Forum, Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Guthrie, and the Actors Theatre of Louisville. He also designed dance productions for the Joffrey Ballet, Martha Graham, and Alvin Ailey.

Despite winning a Tony for the short-lived drama K2 in 1983, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2013, Lee's Broadway career was filled with less-successful productions, ranging from La Strada to Little Murders. His biggest Broadway hits were the Tony-winning musical Two Gentlemen of Verona and for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, both of which originated at the Public and had multiyear runs. His decades of off-Broadway credits range from Hair to Annie Warbucks.

Lee's work broke new ground, approaching productions with minimalism and austerity. He pioneered the usage of nontraditional materials including scaffolding, pipe, steps, and platforms, exploring how vertical levels and exposed theatricality could be used to tell a story. In K2, a play in which two climbers are stranded on a mountain, he designed an astounding, 55-foot wall of ice using Styrofoam that rose from beneath the stage to up into the fly space. It is still talked about to this day.

But Lee is perhaps best known for his decades as a teacher. He spent more than 40 years at the Yale School of Drama, and was co-chair of the design department. His students and protégés include John Lee Beatty, Michael Yeargan, Derek McLane, and Clint Ramos. Lee is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts, the the highest national award given in the field, and holds a spot in the American Theatre Hall of Fame. He married his wife, Betsy, in the late 1950s, and she long served as his archivist.

Lee's work is immortalized in Arnold Aronson's illustrated monograph, Ming Cho Lee: A Life in Design.

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