Fresh off another record-busting season, "Hamilton" making headlines for more than just sold-out theaters and educational rap, and Hollywood mega-stars headlining shows, musical theater is hotter than ever. But there's another reason that the venerable art form — be it on- or off-Broadway — is so special: the costumes. And the wardrobe on stage does so much more than just help tell the story.
Through creative color-play, sumptuous textures and innovative shapes on custom-made pieces, costume plays the role of director of photography to guide your eyes to a plot-defining moment. Wardrobe can magically transform in an instant for a gasp-inducing, live action, climactic reveal. Plus, costumes help talented (and oftentimes Hollywood-famous) actors, like Michelle Williams, Emma Stone and Sienna Miller as Sally Bowles 2014's "Cabaret" and Jake Gyllenhaal currently in "Sunday in the Park With George," physically and psychologically immerse themselves into character for up to eight shows a week.
"A [stage] costume can completely change a performance or make a performance finally become cohesive," says Sutton Foster, a two-time Tony-winning triple-threat who we chatted with at the Amopé GelActiv Insoles & Inserts launch. "When I'm rehearsing, I'm in my Lululemon pants and my hair is on top of my head... But then, all of a sudden, I put on a dress and a pair of shoes and a wig and I look in the mirror and I'm like, 'I'm transformed into someone else, and there's something really exciting about this.'"
The process all begins with the script and meetings with the director, set designer and sometimes a choreographer. "I always say, 'the set designer and the director create the world. I then populate the world and then the lighting designer illuminates the world.' In that order," says costume designer William Ivey Long, who counts six Tony Awards on his mantle and 15 nominations (plus, an Emmy nod for "Grease: Live!" on TV, thank you very much). Then there's background research, mood board compilation — like Long's floor-to-ceiling IRL Pinterest layouts featuring tear-outs of anyone from a Taylor Swift perfume ad to '30s-era Ruby Keeler in "42nd Street" — and concept sketching.
"Stage [costumes] at times can be a little more fantastical. A little more exaggerated or you can take more liberties," says Foster, comparing her own experiences on TV, including starring roles on "Younger" and "Bunheads" and her Broadway-spoofing turn on "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life." ("Stars Hollow: The Musical," #neverforget.)
Designers especially let their imagination and creativity loose in what's referred to as a "concept production," which incorporates details from varying eras. In the "Sunday in the Park With George" revival, Clint Ramos reimagined period elements, inspired by titular artist Georges Seurat's famous painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," for Jake Gyllenhaal (and his smooth, dulcet singing voice) and the rest of the cast.
"I looked at what [Seurat] wanted to do, which is basically break the mold of tradition and do something modern, and I thought, 'oh, maybe we could echo that in the design of costumes,' explains Ramos. Hence, a "Victorian-inspired couture" costume palette with both streamlined or heightened 19th-century silhouettes in vivid, saturated hues.
Sometimes mixing period detail can be a functional (and beautifully complex) storytelling tool. For "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812," starring a padded Josh Groban, Paloma Young, who won a Tony for "Peter and the Starcatcher" in 2012, created an early 19th-century Russian folk meets '80s punk rock (with a touch of S&M at one point) motif. For Natasha (Denée Benton, Ruby in season two of "UnREAL"), she started with a period correct empire waist gown, then modified the silhouette as she sketched.
"If I followed the style lines of a dress made in 1812, that would appear young and beautiful to someone in 1812," Young explains. "But our audience will feel a little weird [and] not be able to read the character because the costume is going to get in the way."
Once the costumes are researched, sketched out and planned, they're sent to a specialty costume shop — like the Broadway standby Tricorne — to be hand-sewn, hand-beaded and hand-appliquéd to essentially be made into a "couture garment," says Young. Each piece involves up to five or six fittings with the actor, and duplicates are created for understudies and swings, who fill in roles at a moment's notice.
Even contemporary, store-bought-looking costumes, like the filthy T-shirt that this year's Oscar-nominee Lucas Hedges and "The Get Down"'s Justice Smith wear in "Yen," are customized for the stage. For the play about two teenage brothers living in rundown London public housing, Young thoughtfully distressed the T-shirt multiples using bleach, soda ash, sandpaper and more dyes and paints. "I try to think of the story of the dirty items — the boys eat a lot of heavily flavored powdered crisps — so there would be dark oily stains where they wiped their hands on their shirt," she says.
But going beyond couture, costumes can also be designed for a magical instantaneous transformation. (It's not like a director can yell "cut" or apply CGI live.) Broadway icon Long is famous for his ingeniously engineered quick changes; his kitchen rags to princess ball gown on-the-spot metamorphosis in "Cinderella" is pretty much the stuff of legend. Like magicians, costume designers won't divulge their exact formulas, but Long did reveal that the "Cinderella" trickery involved an inventive combination of buttons (his favorite fastening), magnets, velcro, hooks and carefully threaded fishing wire.
Ramos, who won last year's Tony for his work on the costumes for "Eclipsed," which starred Lupita Nyong'o, also put his innovative design skills to work in the David Byrne-Fatboy Slim collaboration "Here Lies Love." The musical, which chronicles the life of the former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, required one actress to wear a costume that seamlessly transitioned into six very different looks.
"She starts from a wedding gown, then into a bathing suit, into a campaign Jackie O. suit, into a sparkly disco dress for Studio 54 and then into a gown," he explains. "One runs right into the other and it happens in front of your very eyes. It's pretty magical." Ramos, who concocted similar magic for Disneyland's live "Frozen," credits techniques passed down mentor Long's "Cinderella" method, Kabuki theater traditions, cleverly layered thin fabrics and strategic "underdressing." There's also the shock effect of transitioning almost implausibly from less to more material. "That always elicits gasps [from the audience]," he says.
"I had this really magical quick change where I had a dress on top of a dress and an umbrella came down above me and I ripped off the top dress and threw the dress inside the umbrella," says Foster, whom Ramos also recently dressed in the off-Broadway revival of "Sweet Charity," about her role in "Drowsy Chaperone," which involved six costumes in one number. "The umbrella came off and I was in a completely different dress and it happened within three seconds. It's magical moments like that where you're like, 'wait, what just happened?' I was in yellow and now I'm in pink!"
But there's one behind-the-scenes element of Broadway costuming that's not very magical: infrequent laundering, even on choreography and perspiration-heavy productions, just because there isn't enough time or budget. Plus, regular dry-cleaning breaks down fabric.
Sometimes laundry is skipped entirely, as was the case in "Cinderella," which alternately starred Carly Rae Jepson and Keke Palmer in the titular role. "For the whole three years it ran on Broadway, there was only one wedding dress," Long says. "Every Cinderella fit into it. We would let out, let in, let out, let in. Only one and it was never cleaned because it was only worn for five minutes and all the dancing was done, so there was no sweating in it."
According to the costume designers who work closely with the actors, the most glamorous Hollywood stars are usually more than happy to be team players for the chance to be on stage. But some actors stepping into the role may nonetheless have specific requests to tweak an iconic costume. For example, one Sally Bowles actress asked for extra upper arm coverage to a slip, so Long added a camisole. "But, as a rule, the big movie stars want to look like [the original] because they're proving their chops," says Long. (He's currently fitting Spice Girl Mel B. in Roxy's iconic corset for "Chicago.")
There's also something about the Broadway stage that makes Hollywood actors want to strip down and get real, too, especially with their costumes. "They, in essence, are their truest selves. Just devoted and fearless actors who are willing to go to that place that is most true," says Ramos. "Like Sutton [Foster] or Lupita [Nyong'o] don't mind looking strange or odd or 'not pretty.' That's the same with Bradley [Cooper] and Jake [Gyllenhaal]. Jake is very committed to getting the look of this character right; he feels un-slick; [he's portraying] this tortured artist."
"I just remember Bradley, when we were doing 'The Elephant Man,'" continues Ramos. "Every time we had a fitting, which would last two to two and a half hours, he was so gung-ho because he was so committed to talking about the character. He's always like, 'let's get to work brah. He likes to say that a lot, 'brah.'"