Designing Woman: The Franne Lee Story

Franne Lee’s deep and rewarding dive into the world of costume design began when she was an art major at the University of Wisconsin.

“I was helping my teacher who asked me to go down to the theater with him to do some sketches,” she said. “They were doing a Restoration comedy. I walked back stage and someone was working on a Shakespearian costume. They were dripping wax all over it. Now, I had been dripping wax on my three-dimensional paintings at the time and I said, ‘Wow! That’s interesting.’ A light bulb went off in my head and I decided to take a costume design class the next semester. That’s how I got started.”

Franne Lee’s remarkable costuming resume spans Off-Broadway, Broadway, television and now South Florida theatre.

One thing led to another and before long Ms. Lee went from a costume designer’s assistant to lead designer. She moved to New York and won a Drama Desk and Obie Award in 1970 for her work on Andre Gregory’s “Alice in Wonderland” Off-Broadway. She then met and married Eugene Lee, with whom she won a Tony Award in 1974 for Best Scenic Design — along with another Tony for Best Costume Designer — for Harold Prince’s Broadway production of “Candide.” Five years later, she would win yet another Tony for Best Costume Designer for Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, “Sweeney Todd.” 

“I did two operas with Hal Prince as well,” she said. “I did ‘Girl of the Golden West’ with him in Chicago and then ‘Ashmedai’ at City Opera in New York.”

Ms. Lee added she actually had a lot to do with getting Hal Prince inspired to produce Mr. Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”

“I was with Hal when Stephen came in from London and had copies of the play ‘Sweeney Todd’ is based on, called ‘The String of Pearls,’” she said. “It was a play he’d read or seen when he was in England. He handed the scripts out and said, ‘I want to write the music, lyrics and the book to this musical.’ Everybody took a copy and later I was on a plane with Hal, going out to Chicago to do ‘Girl of the Golden West.’ I asked him what he thought of that play. He said, ‘I’m not doing a musical about people eating people!’ I told him I thought it would make a wonderful musical or even an opera. He said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t think Steve can do it all.’ I said, ‘Well, why don’t you call Hugh Wheeler to write the book and let them do it together? It would be a wonderful piece.’ When we got off the plane I said, ‘Call Stephen!’ It wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t push it. I was like that back then. I was very bossy!”

While Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler were creating “Sweeney Todd,” Ms. Lee found herself another gig — “Saturday Night Live,” for which she was the original costumer, a position she’d hold for five years and one that would bring her an Emmy Award for Production/Costume Design. She created costumes for many memorable skits on that show including the Killer Bees, the Coneheads, the Wild and Crazy Guys, the Samurai and the Blues Brothers, to name a few.

Ms. Lee said her style has always been about making the most of limited material and budgets.

“Coming from an Off-Broadway situation where they don’t have much money, I always think of what I can beg, borrow or steal,” she laughed. “It’s a challenge to work within budgetary limitations and I think these limitations actually help make me more creative.”

Ms. Lee added before designing costumes for a play she likes to spend a lot of time delving into what it’s about and what the director wants to bring to it.

“I have to know who the actors are and get detailed descriptions of their roles,” she said. “I ask questions about their full identities, from the leads down to the minor parts. I think when costuming a play that it’s really important to create a world of characters that can live in the same room together. I also think it’s important to keep the audience from working too hard to learn who each character is. I like to help them more easily identify each character through their clothes.”

Ms. Lee eventually found her way from New York to South Florida by way of California, Tennessee and Wisconsin. She moved to Lake Worth Beach in 2017.

“My cousin, who lives down here, got me to visit and hang out,” she said. “She said to me, ‘Why don’t you send out some resumes to some of the theaters while you’re here?’” 

Ms. Lee’s costume design for Palm Beach Dramaworks’ 2018 production of “Equus” blended an interesting contrast of Steven Maier’s starkly realistic clothing with the stylized concept of the horse he rode, played by Dominic Servidio.

That led to work at the Lake Worth Playhouse (“Inspecting Carol”), Palm Beach Dramaworks (“The Cripple of Inishmaan” and “Equus”) and the Maltz Jupiter Theatre (“Born Yesterday”), among others. As of this writing, Ms. Lee is doing the clothes for “Looped,” a play about Tallulah Bankhead, at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden. After that, she plans to work on the Shakespeare Troupe of South Florida’s production of “The Tempest.”

“I have no plans to retire,” Ms. Lee said. “In fact, I’d like to get hired to do more plays. I’d be happy doing a couple a year. That would be perfect.”

To learn more about Franne Lee, including her theatre, television and film credentials as well as a collection of her impressive paintings, log on to www.frannelee.com.

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