Interview with Michael Yeargen, Set Designer of The King and I
Posted on 07/14/2018
Two worlds collide in this “breathtaking and exquisite” musical, based on the 2015 Tony Award®-winning Lincoln Center Theater production. Michael Yeargen, set designer of The King and I, joins us to discuss the amount of research that goes into creating the world of a show and what it's like creating a new take on an old classic. Join us for 3 performances of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I December 14-15.
Read the transcribed interview below
with Bert, Kelly, and Hanna from All Access and special guest Michael Yeargen.
Bert: Still to come on this week’s edition of All Access with State Theatre New Jersey, a recap of all the shows that are part of the brand new Broadway season, so stick around for that. Kelly, Hanna, you two are going to handle this next segment, we have a very special guest who’s joining us
Kelly: We do. We today on the show have set designer of The King and I which will be coming to State Theatre on December 14th and 15th. That is Michael Yeargen, welcome Michael.
Michael: Thank you very much. It’s nice to be here.
Kelly: So Michael tell us all about you. How did you land in this world of set design?
Michael: Oh my god. How much time do you have? I actually have been interested in set design since I was a child in Dallas, Texas. I saw a lot of opera and I grew up knowing that it was what I wanted to do. One thing led to another and here I am. It has been a lifelong passion of mine.
Hanna: Well, there you go. You knew what you wanted, you went for it and now it’s happening.
Michael: It’s a real privilege and a real blessing to be able to do what you wanted to do all your life. It’s thrilling.
Hanna: Just in case people aren’t aware, can you explain to us what exactly does a set designer do in the grand scheme of putting a show together.
Michael: Well, it’s very interesting a lot of people think that it is just a technical job and you just draft up a design. If it says it’s a bedroom, you draw up a bedroom and put it on the stage and that’s what you do. That’s not at all what we do. We work with the director from the beginning and the set should almost be like another character in the play. For example in The King and I, it’s all set in, if you really get into it and read the novel it’s based on, it’s all set in the palace of the King of Siam. Who at that time had this incredible, it was a wall city it was almost a prison. That becomes a huge factor of Anna wanting a house for her and her son that she’s been promised when she comes to teach there. So one of the main images of our set is actually this wall across the back, its very forbidding and not the usual just kind of a lot of gold and decorations that a lot of the sets of The King and I seem to have. It is also about a woman who is from the west who is coming to the east for the first time so in the beginning we really wanted to emphasize the fact that she is on some sort of a water vessel that is coming with all of her worldly belongings into this world of Asian mystery and exoticism. So that’s kind of what we do, we make models, we work with the director, we evolve what the set is going to be, and then we supervise its constructing and painting in the shop, and then we actually do the technical rehearsals in the theater when everything kind of comes together. So that’s kind of what we do.
Kelly: And when you were putting together your thoughts and ideas for The King and I what is your process? Do you really just immerse yourself in the story? Do you listen to the music? Like what really is the beginning of when your next job is this set? What is your first step in the process?
Michael: Well, these are kind of unique projects because we all grew up with The King and I. I mean I remember as a child seeing the movie with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr and just being blown away by the exoticism of it and the look of it and the color and the story of it and the amazing songs. So we’ve been blessed Bart and all of us on the team to work on these amazing shows by Rodgers and Hammerstein kind of starting with South Pacific and The King and I and now we’ve just done My Fair Lady. You already have imprinted in your brain of what that piece is. It was really interesting to go back and read her book and all that you can find about her and discover what the real world was. It wasn’t such a pretty, pretty would of gold and it was actually a terrifying place for her. If you look at the film that actually really started it all which was Anna and the King of Siam with Rex Harrison playing the king and Irene Dunne playing Anna, it’s a very harsh, different kind of a world. We tried to bring a little bit of that into it without losing the very special quality that this musical has.
Hanna: So working on these shows that have been around and people have seen so many incarnations of it, do you ever feel like you need to have any loyalty to what you know that people will recognize in the show itself?
Michael: I think that the show is so good in itself, the writing is so incredible that if you have good people and you try to give it, it’s not like you’re trying to put it on the moon or anything. You’re trying to really let people know what that world was really like. An what would also, if you really put it in the royal palace of Siam, if you’ve seen pictures of it or been there, it’s like an explosion in a tile factory, there is so much color, so much pattern, so much visual that you have to weed through to even try to find someone in that world. So when we really looked at some of the actual period photographs of the palace from 1862 and the real king, it was actually much more subdue. He had actually spent a lot of his time as a monk before he became king. He became the king very late in his life. We discovered that there were these beautiful monasteries that had a kind of wood treatment with gold impressed on it. That scene combined with the wall seemed to give us more of a sense of what his world was all about. Also we combined it with the kind of wonderful exoticism because of the small house of Uncle Thomas ballet in the second part. Images from Asian theater, there’s a gold curtain, it’s very lush and very rich, they kind of contrast with the wooden columns. It all creates this world that’s gonna actually be in the tour that were doing now. We’re actually emphasizing the fact that so many of the elements are pushed around by the people in the palace that it becomes piece of Asian theater that’s telling this story.
Hanna: Well, clearly you have done quite a bit of research into the time period and what it actually would’ve been like. So what at point do you generally become involved in a show how much research do you actually do before you set pen to paper?
Michael: A lot. It’s the part that I kind of enjoy doing the most. You try to find, if you are doing a piece for today, you try to find an inner truth to it. You try to find something that it is not exactly what people expect but they think my gosh I never realize this about these people. I never realized that the world that she was in was so terrifying. There’s just things you try to bring out in it without losing the emphatics of the real piece.
Kelly: You know Michael what I love about this show is it really truly a classic. It is one of the shows that has been around for so long and it continues to build new fans and bring old fans back time and time again. What would you say is the appeal? Why is The King and I something that people just always come back to?
Michael: Well if you took the music away you wouldn’t have a show, you would have a play. I have a feeling it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting and rich as its gorgeous score that it has. When you hear it played live with a real orchestra and the dynamics of a wonderful cast that’s what makes it. I mean I remember when we heard the orchestra for the first time in the theater. The orchestration is so exotic and has so much interesting music you just get sucked into it. And you forget if you haven’t really seen it or don’t know it that well that a lot of these songs are from this show, “Hello Young Lovers,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed,” “Whistle A Happy Tune”. They all just come out of the blue and you go oh my god I knew that was from this. I just come from London where we just opened the London Company of it and the audiences. I have never seen audience’s reactions like we saw there. The houses were completely sold out and the people were just rhapsodic over it. So I think it’s the music, I think it’s the genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein who really almost better than anyone else could marry a script and music so beautifully together.
Hanna: So going back to the Broadway design, I was lucky enough to get to see the show at Lincoln Center, and that ship. That ship. I was sitting in the audience and I happened to be sitting more towards the side but the show opens and it’s a thrust stage so it’s out into the audience. There’s this massive ship that just comes out basically over the audience. It is so breathtaking and impressive. But if you are taking a show on tour you don’t know what all the houses are going to look like, how they are gonna fit. How do you adapt for that?
Michael: Lincoln Center is a very very special place. It is a theater that has a proscenium that’s a size of the Metropolitan Opera and yet this very intimate area down stage which is where most of the show happens. So when you design for that theater you have to design for that immense space and at the same time deal with the intimacy. When the show went on the tour for the first time we did a much small ship and I don’t know. It wasn’t quite as successful I didn’t feel like because it didn’t have the scale that we had at Lincoln Center. So were trying a new idea this time which I don’t want to really talk about because we want it to be a surprise.
Hanna: That’s okay. We like surprises.
Michael: I think it will be a pleasant surprise.
Kelly: We like it, we like it. Michael, when you’re preparing for the tour and you have to put all these things together, what kind of size team? I know obviously this is a team effort all around in every area, but how many people are in general with putting together this show? And your team alone, how many people do you have?
Michael: Well, I mean I can only really talk about my team. There’s vast numbers of people. Really our team, I had my associate Nicki Cozuxki, who is from Japan and has been a student of mine. We have been working together for almost 20 years. She was very involved in the origination, all the ideas, and the model making of the first production of it. As we moved onto other things, she stayed with the tour, the first tour; she had done all the work and the organizing the tour that’s in London right now. She really has it in her blood. She is the main person and then she hires a whole group of assistants and associates and then there’s a shop that builds the shows. The painting of the show is very complicated. The gold curtain alone is a China silk curtain that’s red but it’s covered in gold leaf that’s kind of cracked away and kind of creates some distraction which only one or two shops could really do. So it’s a matter of kind of taking what we’ve done before and learning how we can adapt it and improve it and change it. In many cases, I think what will be wonderful about this tour is its going to be much more intimate than the others and you’ll really feel like you’re in the same room as them.
Hanna: I find it so interesting that you mentioned that you were changing the design as the tour was going back out. How frequently do you go back to the shows that you’re working on to tweak and make adjustments once they’ve opened or once they’ve gone out on tour?
Michael: Oh yes you have to. I mean you’re name is on it so you have to be sure that it’s as exciting as you can possibly do. You’re at the mercy of the sizes of all the different theaters. Certain pieces you can use in some theaters and some pieces you can’t use. There’s also a very quick time that you have to get into the theater and get out of the theater. So you try to keep as much as the essences of the real design as you can. It’s better for you designer or me as a designer to make those choices and suggest things to them rather them doing it on the fly and get to a theater and say oh well we can’t do this and oh we can’t do that.
Kelly: And Michael, for those who have never seen The King and I or maybe a Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical at all what would you say to prep them in advance of this performance?
Michael: It will change your life. You won’t be able to go to the theater again without… I mean you’re seeing the best. You’re seeing the combination of the golden age of the American musical comedy. It’s changed since then some things for the better and some things not for better. It’s such a deeply emotion experience. Again it’s that combination of the music, the scenery, and the costumes. The costumes of this show are absolutely amazing and most of it is made from Tai silks. Catherine Zuber has done an amazing job. Also as a set designer when the costumes are so rich and colorful you kind of want to pull back a little bit in terms of color so that the focus can really be on the people. I think if you have never seen it before you are in for such a beautiful experience. Often times we wonder, like when we were working on My Fair Lady, what was it like to have been in the theater on opening night and heard that piece for the first time, same with South Pacific, same with The King and I. These are the gems in the crown of American musical theater.
Kelly: Well Michael that says it all. Thank you so much for being on today’s episode of All Access, of course you are the set designer for The King and I. Rodger & Hammerstein’s The King and I will be here at The State Theatre on December 14th and 15th. Thank you so much Michael and we look forward to the show coming around in December.
Michael: Okay well I hope you enjoy it.