With 'Spring Awakening''s Return to Broadway, its Period Costumes Get a Contemporary Refresh

How the rock musical's costume designer is setting this revival apart from past productions — one pair of antiquated suspenders at a time.
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How the rock musical's costume designer is setting this revival apart from past productions — one pair of antiquated suspenders at a time.
Photo: Kevin Parry/Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Photo: Kevin Parry/Boneau/Bryan-Brown

When the sexually charged rock musical "Spring Awakening" debuted on Broadway in 2006, it didn’t take long for critics and theatergoers alike to realize that it had something special. Following an exemplary opening season, the show — a coming-of-age story set in 19th-century Germany — received eight Tony Awards and launched a string of subsequent productions in countries as far-flung Malta and New Zealand. Never mind that it later launched its two young stars, Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff, into the Hollywood stratosphere.

For the past three months, "Spring Awakening" has made Los Angeles's Deaf West Theatre its home. Here, the project sported a radical new spin: True to the Deaf West's mission, it's performed simultaneously in spoken English and American Sign Language by a cast of 27. And come next week, Deaf West's boundary-breaking production is headed to Broadway, securing an 18-week run at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre through Jan. 9, 2016.

As with many (if not all) Broadway productions, "Spring Awakening"'s costumes are nearly as integral to the show's DNA as its soundtrack. Crisp shorts held up by suspenders abound in every production, as do baby-doll dresses, frumpy cardigans and clompy, lace-up shoes.

This time around, the clothes and styling are receiving a more contemporary update with the help of an award-winning set and costume designer Dane Laffrey. Laffrey has been with Deaf West's "Spring Awakening" revival since the very beginning, and as the show progressed, so did his costumes. 

While heading into tech week, Laffrey took some time to chat with Fashionista about the unexpected sex appeal of 19th-century school uniforms, his affinity for costume-hunting on Etsy and everything in between.

In terms of your creative process, what has differentiated this project from others you've worked on in the past?

It's not necessarily apropos of the clothes, but the fact that more than half of the principals are deaf or hard-of-hearing actors was an entry-point to understanding the world. We wanted to set up a scenario in which there was a real feeling of loneliness and alienation for these characters, like they're caught inside something that feels cold and scary and oppressive. 

I think the thing that's most relevant about this piece is how you deal with the juxtaposition of a very contemporary book and score — in terms of vernacular, and certainly in terms of music — against a story that's set at the turn of the 19th century. Figuring out how we were going to approach what "period" meant for the clothes was certainly a very early conversation, because there's no simple answer for how to address it. 

Photo: Kevin Parry/Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Photo: Kevin Parry/Boneau/Bryan-Brown

What was your inspiration for the female leads, like Wendla and Martha?

I was interested in finding common threads in what teenagers looked like in 1892 and what they look like now, then figuring out what the connective tissue is. That can make it feel not necessarily contemporary and not necessarily period, but kind of timeless. An unintentional result of putting very straightforward period clothes on stage is that the lens through which you're approaching the character becomes a couple steps removed. You don't feel like you necessarily know that person. 

The literal approach to that is creating a very vintage-y universe. If you saw somebody walking down the street today in one of our costumes, I don't think you would have a second look at them, but they also aren't distractingly outside of the period, either.

What are some of the other female or male costume highlights?

With the women, their costumes have all included pieces we've wanted to find deliberately. I'm often more interested in finding clothes than designing them and having them built exactly to my specifications. 

When I think about the women's pieces, I think of the weird thrifting we did in L.A. and New York. I just found an amazing store with really strange, old Soviet socks that I was really excited about and very odd, lumpy sweaters and strange things from Etsy in France. With the Internet and all those independent vintage vendors, you can find the weirdest shit. It should all feel unique to the piece, but also very urgent and recognizable.

There are certain costume staples that remain consistent with each production of this "Spring Awakening." How did you interpret this?

We've definitely taken inspiration from a lot of different places and did an enormous amount of research, but the one thing we tended to not do is research the previous productions of things. That makes it feel like you're treading on the toes of the other artists who have made that work.

Now with that being said, I was also a big fan of the [original show]. I think I saw it two or three times on Broadway, so I definitely knew what that production looked like, but I really wanted to start by digging into the research. I looked at a lot of school photos taken through the ages and I found many from the teens and the '20s and the '30s and the '40s, all the way up to the '60s. There's not a whole lot of change in what those clothes are, and you can instill that into garments.

What I recall from the original Broadway production is that the boys are always in school uniforms. My research led me to information that German school children of that period did not wear uniforms, per se, unless they were in Catholic school, which our kids were not. We've really dug into the boys character by character — the same way we have with the girls — instead of just throwing them in a uniform. They're all different. Their costumes should feel like a suit their mom bought, and she got it from a really nice store — or somebody's mom made theirs and somebody's is a little bit too small. 

Photo: Kevin Parry/Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Photo: Kevin Parry/Boneau/Bryan-Brown

What was your inspiration for the Adult Man and Woman, who have to remain somewhat anonymous, yet are crucial characters in the plot?

Unique to our production is that where there are normally two characters, one man and one woman, we have four. We have a deaf man and a deaf woman and a hearing man and a hearing woman, so we have double the canvas for those characters and what they stand for. We wanted to use them to provide the context against which the rest of the clothes have tension and are juxtaposed. Their costumes are very straightforward, late 19th-century period, and rendered in a very nontheatrical, simple, austere, detailed way.

We're doing something quite different, but having the adults in something straightforward is good. They play many, many characters, each of them, so their costumes shouldn't feel opposed to what the piece is doing with them functionally. 

This show obviously struck a chord with younger audiences. Were you able to cater to that rebellion or sexiness with these costumes?

The hems are a little shorter than, maybe, they should be. [Laughs.] With a very demure, kind of cutesy dress, the hem gets a little short. We try to keep the sleeves short, but not sleeveless. There's a thing about knee socks that can be sexy — but again, we try to make those funny, wool boot socks, so again, they're riding this line. 

From the actual period of the show well into the 1940s and 1950s, both German girls and boys wore what were basically garter belts to hold up their thigh-high socks. That's what the boys wore under their little shorts with their suit jackets. We've got some strange, Latvian garter belts that we might be trying out. There's just something about them that has a simple innocence to it, but also has a contemporary connotation of something a bit more salacious. 

But again, it's a dance. You want the actors to feel sexy and like they can express themselves in the music, but at the same time, the characters are figuring out their sexuality on stage. We just want to be careful that we're not playing their hand for them or getting in front of that process of discovery in the show. Since the seeds are planted, you really want the look of these clothes to be on a knife's edge. On one side they're looking youthful and innocent and demure, and on the other side, well, they're looking a little hotter.

This interview has been edited and condensed.