East Sider

Builder of Dreams

At 80 years old, Eugene Lee looks back on a legendary career in set design

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A few years ago, during the writer’s strike, Eugene Lee had some spare time, so he decided to write the story of his life. There’s a lot to tell: Eugene has designed sets for decades. He designed the original set for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked – and won Tony Awards for each.

If you’re not a Broadway fan, you’ll still recognize his work: Eugene designed Jimmy Fallon’s desk for The Tonight Show. He designed the set for Late Night with Seth Meyers. He’s served as production designer for Saturday Night Live since the show’s first season. When you watch the “Weekend Update” segment, everything you see – except for Michael Che and Colin Jost – was first drafted in Eugene’s head.

Yet, Eugene doesn’t live in New York. He commutes regularly from his home in the East Side, where he lives with his wife Brooke. The Lees live in a historic house previously owned by the Lippitt family. “Things work,” says Eugene, with characteristic understatement. “The dumbwaiters work. All the things you can’t do now because of fire laws. The Victorians knew how to build houses.”

The Lees have lived on the East Side for 20 years. “I always say, you can’t leave the house without running into somebody,” Eugene quips. Together, the couple has left an indelible mark on Providence’s cultural life: Brooke works as an artist and is involved with WaterFire.

Eugene has served as resident set designer for Trinity Repertory for half a century. This month on October 18, the Lees will be honored at the annual FireBall event, WaterFire’s biggest fundraiser and one of the great parties of the year.

“It seems like my wife and I are getting some kind of award,” Eugene says. “I don’t think I deserve any awards. I just hope I can help make some money for WaterFire.” He’s known for this kind of modesty: Eugene holds three honorary PhDs and was inducted into the New York Theatre Hall of Fame in 2006.

For the moment, Eugene’s book is a 200-page manuscript full of recollections, photos, and backstage anecdotes. A potential publisher ended up dropping the ball, but Eugene is still hopeful that an editor will take interest. He plans to print some proofs and distribute them to FireBall attendees. Beyond that, his schedule is full of TV and theater projects. Early next year, he will help with Trinity’s production of Sweeney Todd – the show he helped create on Broadway in 1979.

How does he press on, at an age that most people have retired? Eugene chuckles, remembering some advice from director Harold Prince. “If you just keep working, you don’t have time to die.”