World-renowned theatre designer Ming Cho Lee, who designed more than 300 productions across the globe, passed away October 23 of natural causes at the age of 90.
Born October 3, 1930, in Shanghai, Mr. Lee moved to the United States in 1949 and attended Occidental College. He would go on to become one of the foremost set designers in the country, receiving the National Medal of Arts in 2002. His extensive credits included work in opera, dance, and theatre.
Mr. Lee's Broadway career began in 1956 as the assistant to set designer Jo Mielziner on the 1956 Ethel Merman vehicle Happy Hunting. He was subsequently the assistant scenic designer for The Square Root of Wonderful; Look Homeward, Angel; The Infernal Machine; The World of Suzie Wong; Whoop-Up; There Was a Little Girl; and The Best Man; as well as Boris Aronson's assistant on A Loss of Roses and Do Re Mi.
In 1962 he created both the scenic and lighting design for Broadway's The Moon Besieged. Other scenic design credits on the Main Stem included Mother Courage and Her Children, Slapstick Tragedy, A Time for Singing, Little Murders, Here's Where I Belong, and King Lear. In 1970 he received his first Tony nomination for Best Scenic Design for the short-lived musical Billy. He later created the scenic design for La Strada, Gandhi, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, All God's Chillun Got Wings, The Glass Menagerie, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, Caesar and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, The Shadow Box, Angel, and The Grand Tour.
Mr. Lee's scenic design for K2, Patrick Meyers' 1983 drama about scaling the second highest mountain, earned him a Tony Award for Best Scenic Design as well as Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards. His final Broadway credits included the 1983 revival of The Glass Menagerie and Execution of Justice in 1986. In 2013, he was honored with the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Mr. Lee also worked with many leading American dance companies, including Martha Graham, American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, Eliot Feld Ballet, Jose Limon, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. From 1962 through 1973, he was the principal designer for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. He designed sets for such opera companies as the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and San Francisco Opera, and for theatre groups including Arena Stage, Mark Taper Forum, Guthrie Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and Manhattan Theatre Club. Internationally, Mr. Lee designed productions for Covent Garden, Hamburgische Staatsoper, Teatro Colon, Royal Danish Ballet, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, the Hong Kong Cultural Center, and Buhnen Graz.
In 2018, Mr. Lee became the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Henry Hewes Design Awards, an honor that now bears his name. Lee had previously won three Henry Hewes Design Awards: the first for the 1964 production of Electra at Shakespeare in the Park, the second for Ergo in 1968 at the Public Theater, and the last for K2 . Other awards included an Obie for Sustained Excellence, the New York and Los Angeles Outer Circle Critics Awards, and the Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture from New York City.
Mr. Lee also had an equally influential career as a teacher. He arrived at Yale University in 1969 to teach set design, and the following year succeeded Donald Oenslager as the Chair of the Design Department. He retired from teaching in 2017, after nearly 50 years, and was the Donald M. Oenslager Professor in the Practice of Design Emeritus at the time of his passing.
Mr. Lee was awarded six honorary degrees, including one from Yale University in 2020, and was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1998. He is survived by his wife Betsy, whom he married in 1958, and their children.