Even if you’re not a musical person, I’d wager to say you’ll like Motown the Musical, which opened on Broadway this week. The show, written by Motown creator Berry Gordy, goes at breakneck speed through five decades of Motown history (including Gordy’s childhood) and through 50 of Motown’s greatest hits. You’re bound to hear one or 20 songs you know by heart, and at the show I attended, singing along was encouraged.
With a score that encompasses hits from The Supremes, The Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye (the list goes on and on), you’d think it would be hard to focus on much else–the story, the costumes, the set. The New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood justly faults the show for prioritizing the music over storytelling (though when the music is this good, you can see why the producers would want to cram it all in there). But Motown was a style as well as a sound. And the task of creating the costumes for the show, which sparkled extra bright thanks to a sponsorship from Swarovski, fell to Tony Award nominated costume designer–and Project Runway Season 7 runner-up–Esosa. Even as we were singing along with Valisia LeKae, who plays Diana Ross, to “Reach Out and Touch,” our fashion-trained eyes were more focused on LeKae’s gorgeous crystal-covered gown than the song. (Esosa used 247,000 crystals on the costumes for Diana Ross and The Supremes.)
We caught up with Esosa to find out how he undertook a project of such scale, especially when the caracters are all still around (much of the Motown family–Diana Ross, Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder–showed up to Sunday’s premiere).
Fashionista: What was your research process like for this show? The show spans so many decades and encompasses so many acts?
Motown is one of the most documented cultural movements of our lifetime, so we found photos, video, archival material, everything and anything. For six months, my team, created binders on every detail in the script. We have them for individuals, groups, and different locations. If it was in the script we have a folder for it.
What were you most excited about when approached to costume this show?
When I was chosen to design the show I was so overwhelmed it didn’t register for a day or so. But I soon realized what a great project for me to have some fun with.
What was your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was finding the balance between real life and theater. These are real people and events. I needed to honor their legacy yet create a theatrical experience for the audience.
Tell me a little about the numbers you designed for the Diana Ross character (brilliantly played by Valisia Lekae).
Early in process I invited Valisia to my studio and showed her my ideas for Diana. I also needed to see her body, how she moved to really create the amazing dresses she wears in the show. We both share a great admiration for Ms. Ross, and we’re on the same page from the beginning. In the show she wears 25 different costumes, but the most iconic has to be, the white bugle beaded gown for her first solo concert in Las Vegas. We both knew it had to be white and beaded. I always knew it would have dramatic bishop sleeves. Together we created a special moment in the show.
What were your biggest sources of inspiration?
My biggest source of inspiration is the history. I didn’t realize how young everyone was at the time. Yet they created music and fashion looks that changed the world.
How did you incorporate all those crystals into the costumes?
Motown is known for the sparkly gowns and fancy men, so I had a lot of room to add crystal to a lot of costumes. I used them selectively at the early parts in the show, but as the company got more successful, you notice them more. By the time Diana goes solo, it’s a full on glamour.
You’ve been working in costume design for some time–how did you get into it? What’s your background?
I grew up in the Bronx and went to high school in Manhattan, but in my sophomore year at Pratt Institute, where I was a Fashion Design major, I got a job as runner for Grace Costumes, the oldest costume shop in New York at the time. My first task was buying buttons and threads for various projects. I volunteered to sweep the workroom at the end of days, just to spend time watching Grace, the founder drape dresses for Beverly Sills, Judith Jamison and Julie Andrews. Within six months I was promoted to fabric swatcher, which allowed me to work with the designer. I learned from the best designers how to use different fabrics and colors to achieve the desired effect.
What advice would you give someone who is trying to do what you do?
My advice for anyone who wants a career in theater, is to research a designer they admire, send them a note and ask about an internship. That way, you can experience the day-to-day workings and see if you enjoy it.
What is your favorite look from the show?
I have two favorite looks in the show. Valisia’s white beaded gown is iconic, and her red crystal beaded gown and matching tulle coat is a showstopper!
How did the music influence your design? (Do you have a favorite track from the show?)
Motown is on repeat at the studio all the time. Depending on the scene I was working on, I would only play that groups music. I did that for, The Supremes, The Vandellas, The Temps. The Miracles and so forth. There are so many songs I love, but “To Be Loved” is my favorite of all time.
What was opening night like–meeting the real legends? Did they have any reactions to your costumes?
Opening night was surreal. I met so many of the Motown family I was dizzy! But meeting Ms. Ross and hearing her reactions to my work was amazing.