Tony-nominated costume designers bring new life to musicals on Broadway 

Costume designer William Ivey Long is nominated twice this year for best costume design for a musical, for "Beetlejuice" (above) and "Tootsie."
Costume designer William Ivey Long is nominated twice this year for best costume design for a musical, for "Beetlejuice" (above) and "Tootsie." Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

The Broadway musicals idolized for their elaborate costume designs at the 2019 Tony Awards couldn’t be more different, from the tale of a ghost rising from the dead (“Beetlejuice”) to the story of a pop icon’s career (“The Cher Show”). But they all have one thing in common: They’re based on real people or preexisting material.

"It is important to always remember, when adapting a film into a musical, that the reason anyone wants to re-imagine or reinvent a famous movie is because it has become part of the fiber of American life," says designer William Ivey Long. He’s nominated for Tonys for his work on both "Tootsie" and "Beetlejuice."

"The images of favorite characters or scenes are seared upon our collective memory. This is important to remember. But it is also important to forget."

We caught up with all of this year’s nominated costume designers to see how they put their unique stamp on these fan-favorite tales.

The Tony Awards, hosted by James Corden, will air live from Radio City Music Hall Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS. The productions nominated for best costume design of a musical are: Bob Mackie, of “The Cher Show,” Michael Krass, of “Hadestown,” Paul Tazewell, of “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” and William Ivey Long. 

Broadway's big night, the Tony Awards, is Sunday, and plenty of eyes are on "The Cher Show."
Broadway’s big night, the Tony Awards, is Sunday, and plenty of eyes are on "The Cher Show." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Bob Mackie of "The Cher Show" 

On bringing originality to "The Cher Show" through costume design:

In "The Cher Show," we are covering 50 to 60 years of her life and career. I soon realized how many of her iconic looks have become a part of the lexicon of classic American fashion. Her love of jeans and Native American-inspired pieces are still, today, part of her ongoing wardrobe. Even Cher’s most theatrical costumes continue to reflect all sorts of global influences, that are more relevant today than when they were originally conceived.

On his biggest challenge: 

One of the challenges for me became recreating her Oscar ensembles exactly the way they were originally made. As well as satisfy her dyed-in-the-wool, longtime fans. They definitely would let me know if one bead or feather was different from the original!

On the most satisfying ensemble: 

It always gives me great satisfaction when Stephanie J. Block rises from the floor in her black, feathered “Mohawk” outfit and the audience reacts wildly!

Amber Gray and the company of "Hadestown."
Amber Gray and the company of "Hadestown." Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Michael Krass of "Hadestown" 

On bringing originality to "Hadestown" through costume design: 

Well, of course, originality is impossible to avoid if we want to have any fun at all — the rest would be calculation and I’m not a math guy. "Hadestown" required the building of an entire world of color and texture and movement and time, and so in responding emotionally to the music and movement and these particular actors, my mind went to what Jane Greenwood describes as the filing cabinets of everything and everyone I’ve ever seen. No one has seen or experienced exactly what I have, so originality is innate.

On his biggest challenge: 

No rules! No restrictions! No particular period or place. Mythic iconic characters who need to be simultaneously specific and recognizable human beings. What shape of pants is that? What color hair? And so, trial and error. Discovering details that might speak universally. And developing company of actors over four productions in three nations. Dramaturgical growth of the script.

All the while, attempting to honor our continuous mission to represent this world poetically, rather than realistically. And finally, the looming awareness of what Broadway and its audiences have previously been led to expect.

On the most satisfying ensemble: 

Well, Persephone seems to be becoming iconic, and that dress and look — impossible to find in any single moment of the past, but with references to ’40s lounge singers, ’80s pop stars, today’s showy wealth, and still reflecting the enormous heart amber (gray) brings her — is a fitful and emotive combination of what my mind contains. 

Santino Fontana and company in "Tootsie." 
Santino Fontana and company in "Tootsie."  Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

William Ivey Long of "Tootsie"

On bringing originality to "Tootsie" through costume design: 

When I first started working on "Tootsie," our director Scott Ellis told me that if I “didn’t make us believe that Michael Dorsey was a believable woman, then we should all give up!”

On his biggest challenge: 

The primary challenge was to do just that: to work out the various methods of support Santino Fontana would need to turn himself into Dorothy Michaels. Hair, makeup, fingernails, undergarment support, shoes, dresses, eyelashes, purses, scarves, earrings, necklaces. Each and every element required trial-and-error experimentation.

Almost two years of experimentation. Our first breakthrough was the discovery that Santino does not have a prominent Adam’s apple. This simple fact has allowed us to open up his neckline, lowering the necklines of the dresses — as opposed to the high ruffled collars worn by Dustin Hoffman in the film.

On the most satisfying ensemble: 

Since we are telling our story in 2019 and not 1982, the choices of dresses are right now. The biggest breakthrough came when Santino and I were musing on where Dorothy chose her dresses. We felt that she would shop online and be influenced by the images on the internet (in the privacy of her own home).

A light bulb went off when I remembered seeing an asymmetrical and very flattering hemline and neckline worn by Meghan Markle at her rehearsal dinner. Michael Dorsey could have come across that look by surfing the internet. We developed that first look into many variations. That was a fortunate discovery.

From left: Ephraim Sykes, Jawan M. Jackson, Jeremy Pope, Derrick Baskin and James Harkness in "Ain't Too Proud."
From left: Ephraim Sykes, Jawan M. Jackson, Jeremy Pope, Derrick Baskin and James Harkness in "Ain’t Too Proud." Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Paul Tazewell of "Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations"

On bringing originality to "Ain’t Too Proud" through costume design: 

The Temptations were very well know for being some of the most stylish and fashion-forward Motown group of their time. As I reinterpreted their looks my hope was to maintain that impact of stylishness while making sure to have a modern appeal.

On his biggest challenge: 

As soon as the curtain goes up on "Ain’t Too Proud," the action is propelled forward like a speeding train filled with split-second costume changes. To keep pace with the staging and how the story is told, there are many costume looks throughout that need to play seamlessly as matching group performance looks that elegantly transform into character specific individual looks.

On the most satisfying ensemble: 

I would have to say my favorite stage picture is for "My Girl." The Temps are in silver gray slim fit sharkskin suits that are bound in white. Their look is reflected in the black, white and grayscale scenery and projections in a very satisfying way.

Alex Brightman in "Beetlejuice."
Alex Brightman in "Beetlejuice." Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

William Ivey Long of "Beetlejuice" 

On bringing originality to "Beetlejuice" through costume design: 

For "Beetlejuice," it was the desire of director Alex Timbers and set designer David Korins and all of the design team that we make a huge attempt to channel the art and artwork of Tim Burton. He is an accomplished artist, painter, sculptor — he was featured at MoMA in a solo show of his work.

We studied his preliminary sketches for the film. We worked to channel his energy and unique draftsmanship. I particularly wanted my every sketch to look like he might have done it. What hubris.

On his biggest challenge: 

Through much trial and error, the black and white iconic suit worn by Beetlejuice — and his many clones in “Beautiful Sound” — became the centerpiece and toughest assignment of the entire project — how to conjure up that look, without copying it. How to make the audience feel they were in the world of the movie, but yet be uniquely in our newly created life of Beetlejuice on stage.

I wanted it to look like Tim Burton had hand-painted that suit right onto Alex Brightman’s body. A blank canvas of a body — transformed into an image right out of the brain of The Master.

On the most satisfying ensemble: 

The goth world of Lydia, the Mourners at the Funeral, was another classic look to develop and present to the world of Burton but also to be uniquely our own. The black outfits are meant to look like they are sketched or drawn or painted by a black marker or pen and ink right onto the actor. 

I used a layering method of a light gray underlayer, with several lyres of see-through fabric, lace, webbing, anything resembling a hand-drawn line — building up the effect on the body. The ladies hats and veils at the funeral have a heavy dose of hand-drawn spookiness.