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Franne Lee, who designed costumes for 'SNL' and 'Sweeney Todd,' dies at 81

Franne Lee at the New York Public Library's Hal Prince exhibition in 2019. Lee designed the costumes for Prince's <em>Sweeney Todd</em> and <em>Candide.</em>
Doug Reside
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New York Public Library
Franne Lee at the New York Public Library's Hal Prince exhibition in 2019. Lee designed the costumes for Prince's Sweeney Todd and Candide.

Franne Lee once said she had, "no fear of designing without money." She said it makes you, "more creative."

As a costume designer during the early years of Saturday Night Live, Lee had to get "creative" on a weekly basis.

The Tony Award winning designer died last week in Florida at age 81.

With a small budget and frequent trips to Goodwill, Franne Lee helped create some of SNL's most iconic characters, including the Coneheads, the Killer Bees and Roseanne Roseannadanna.

"Doing sets and wardrobe for a show like SNL is a gauntlet," former SNL cast member Laraine Newman tells NPR in an email, "But Franne gave our show a rugged elegance. She was a true artist."

Last year, in an interview with the podcast Ian Talks Comedy, Lee told Ian Fermaglich, she liked the camaraderie on the show — she was especially fond of working with Newman and Gilda Radner. The material itself was another matter.

"I didn't like a lot of the writing to be honest with you," she laughed, "I thought some of it was good but I thought it was very sophomoric."

Throughout her career, Lee collaborated closely with set designer Eugene Lee, who was also her life partner. They both won Tony Awards for their work on the Broadway musical Candide. Later, they scored the prestigious prizes again with their designs for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Len Cariou, (left), Victor Garber and Angela Lansbury in <em>Sweeney Todd.</em>
Martha Swope / New York Public Library
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New York Public Library
Len Cariou, (left), Victor Garber and Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd.

To create costumes for the darkly humorous Sweeney Todd, Lee found ideas in vintage cartoon images from the satirical British magazine, Punch, says Doug Reside, curator of the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts where Lee's papers from the 1970s-1990s are held.

Lewis J. Stadlen and Sam Freed in the Broadway revival of the musical <em>Candide.</em>
Martha Swope / New York Public Library
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New York Public Library
Lewis J. Stadlen and Sam Freed in the Broadway revival of the musical Candide.

"I think that's kind of actually representative of Franne's work," he says, "that she tends to take something that's sort of silly and comic and bring a kind of seriousness to it."

Later in life, Lee spent time painting, and started an artists' co-op. Her daughter Stacy Sandler tells NPR that her mom loved creating costumes out of "found pieces...rags and other things." She says even when Franne Lee had "bigger budgets to play with, she was always looking for the deal."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.