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Ming Cho Lee, Acclaimed Set Designer, Dies at 90


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Ming Cho Lee, the Tony Award winner and National Medal of Arts recipient who reshaped the aesthetics of scenic design with his work for the theater, opera and dance in spaces around the world, has died. He was 90.

Lee died Friday, according to Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, chairman of the Henry Hewes Design Awards. In 2018, he received the inaugural Lifetime Achievement in Design, since named for him, from the group.

From 1962-73, Lee served as the principal designer for what is now known as the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park program held at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. He also designed sets for the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Joffrey Ballet and for such regional theaters as the Arena Stage in Washington and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

He was co-chair of the Design department at Yale School of Drama, where he taught for 48 years.

Lee won a competitive Tony for best scenic design in 1983 for K2, which takes place on a ledge at 27,000 feet, near the summit of the world’s second-highest mountain. He received another Tony for lifetime achievement in 2013, honoring his work on productions including The World of Suzie Wong, The Best Man, King Lear, Two Gentlemen of Verona and for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.

“As you know, I have the unbroken record of being a total failure in Broadway theaters. I have more flops than anyone can count,” the gracious Lee said in his 2013 acceptance speech. “I think it requires a certain amount of vision for the Tony committee to actually give an award to a failure. … [They acknowledged] even in failing, there may be something real in there.”

He received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2002.

Born in Shanghai in 1930, Lee studied landscape painting as a teenager. He attended Occidental College and UCLA in Los Angeles, then came to New York in 1954 and worked for Jo Mielziner, who designed sets for Cat on a Hot Tin RoofThe Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman and Carousel.

He created the sets for the original off-Broadway production of Hair for Papp in 1967.

Lee’s work has been shown in two retrospectives at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and in 2014, Ming Cho Lee: A Life in Design, an illustrated book featuring his work, was published.

Survivors include his wife, Betsy.

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