Q&A with Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella Costume Designer William Ivey Long
Posted on 01/16/2018
William Ivey Long is the mind behind the Tony Award®-winning costumes and transformations from Rodgers +Hammerstein's Cinderella . We were able to get an inside scoop on his process; read on to learn how the show came together!
Let’s talk about Cinderella. What is this? (Pointing to a large cork board filled with pictures and color swatches.)
This is my Cinderella “inspiration board” that we worked with; [original Broadway director] Mark Brokaw, as the leader, Anna Louizos [set designer], Ken Posner [lighting designer], and I. See, there’s a color scheme, there’s nuance, there’s sort of a period-ish Breughel. This I call the “Catherine de Medici,” which is Shakespeare, but in France. So, that’s my little cheeky response of explaining what period it is; but then, of course, since you have armor and dragons, it has to go back a little earlier. And then you have the romantic ball and then even more recent, to everybody’s waltz. It’s a fairy tale. In fact, that’s the period: fairy tale.
Can you describe the board for people who can’t see it?
On the left, I have picture references, like Breughel’s The Wedding Feast (see below); the blind leading the blind, and so it’s the idea of the people who live in the country, the peasants, if you will. And Cinderella is treated as one; there she is carrying milk pails. This is a Dresden figurine and we’ve sort of made that come to life and incorporated that as Cinderella. And then the aspiration of the wicked stepmother is wanting it all for her biological daughters and nothing at all for Cinderella—she wants to be a member of the court or, at least, she wants to dress like a fine lady. So, the aspirational look is Catherine de Medici, in the court of France. And then, we have mixed in, because it’s a fairy tale, we have Maxfield Parrish for our colors and our lighting. And the Prince is inspired by those medieval knights, which sort of mash up against our Renaissance knights.
(Pointing to the right side of the board.) And then the colors over here, you see, these are not primary colors; these are all secondary colors and they’re sort of greyed out secondary colors. And so the main colors of the kingdom are sort of a leaf green and a light salmon red. You know, I always say the worlds are either red and green or blue and yellow, because they’re the opposites. And so our world is definitely red and green.
So, you refer to this as your “inspiration board.”
Yes, everything comes from this board; like butterflies, because the whole world of Cinderella takes place in the forest. There are dragons and maidens collecting mushrooms. And when you start with the forest, that means everything’s growing, flora and fauna, and so, by extension, butterflies and moths. For instance, Crazy Marie begins as a moth; she’s the crazy lady, bag lady, if you will, of the forest. And then, of course, she transforms into a butterfly.
So, when you sketch, are you sitting near the board?
I sit right here. And I keep the board right next to me, because it keeps me honest and true. Of course, I break the rules—my own rules—constantly. Look at the left, there, the proportions of the people. It was very important, from the medieval through the Renaissance that the cultures are separated. The peasants always look one way and they don’t wear fashion. But then Madame and her two daughters, they are totally fixated on fashion. So, it’s important to me to keep those images in front of me.
And then I draw right here. This is the style I’ve chosen for this production. As you can see, these are all butterfly wings! And, here, I did a flat pattern for a men’s coat for the ball. This is how you cut a coat—I got it from my 18th Century pattern book. And on top of it, I started drawing the way a butterfly would open its wings. So, the back of the jacket is a butterfly wing as it’s opening.
And then Cinderella—these are the rough ideas. The idea is that all the changing is done by a magic wand spinning her around. So, I tried to include the spinning in all these sketches, so you constantly saw movement. And doesn’t that sort of look like you’re whipping up a merengue? Looks like it tastes like a merengue, her dress at the ball, doesn’t it? All egg whites!
And here are the freehand interpretations of the Breughels dancing. To keep myself light and easy, loosey goosey, I sketched with an ink-dropper, out of the ink bottle. And this is the evil regent, Sebastian. Do you see how his coat is really a bird? It’s supposed to be a black crow and it’s supposed to open up. That’s the metaphor for his “evilosity!”
So how do these beautiful, artistic sketches turn into practical, pragmatic garments?
The most fun and glorious time for the designer is when “once upon a time everything is possible.” But, the minute you have to say, “Oh, what is it? Is it this or this? Will the hand slip through? Will the quick change happen? Will it last eight shows a week? How about that fabric, is it gonna last eight shows a week for a year? How do you launder it?” So, you may think “I’m gonna use Bianchini silk crinkle chiffon for the magic of the Fairy Godmother flying in this,” but I’m just telling you right now, you have to take advantage of a few dead dinosaurs that have used their petrified blood to turn into, shall we just say (whispers) “polyester.” So, those thoughts are not the most fun thoughts, but those are the practical thoughts.
And then you have the crazy thing of: how do we do the magic transformations? Which, of course, I would have to kill you, if I told you! There’s sad little Cinderella, in the cinders, you see—all sad. And then the Fairy Godmother twirls around and there’s an interim…I call this the ectoplasm moment! And then she goes over here, because, remember, magic is all around you, and in front of your very eyes, she turns into this!
And here’s the track of Mad Marie; she starts as the beggar lady and she slowly transforms into the Fairy Godmother. When she flies, you see it’s the bottom part of a butterfly.
You’ve got a pretty big chorus and in one scene, they’re all peasants and, not that long after, they’re at a ball.
They’re at a ball—and, in fact, it’s under a minute! I call it quick change; a quick change is four seconds. A fast change is, like, 15 seconds. If you have a whole minute, in the old days, you could smoke two cigarettes, because a minute is, like, glorious. Well, now think about it. You can’t get dressed in the morning in a minute, right? So these are professionals. Every ensemble member is a major pro. You learn very quickly how to trust your dresser, how to trust the stage manager. The production stage manager is the captain of the ship; he can probably marry and bury people! It’s a great group of total professionals.
The backstage is as choreographed as onstage.
Absolutely! There’s a certain point in act two, where all this mayhem is happening and the dressers are all backstage, ready for the wedding. Once they get caught in their various positions, they can’t leave! The only way they could move, is if they went out onstage and you saw them, because the scenery, everything’s moving so fast! It’s all choreographed.
They look like miners; they’ve got their little headlights, strapped around their forehead. Do you know what bite-lights are? They’re little flashlights that you can put in your mouth and you can bite on them and that turns them on, so they can see the zipper and stuff like that. It’s very exciting, this choreography at the end of the show, because everyone wants the 11 o’clock number to knock your socks off!
How many costumes did you end up designing for Cinderella? Do you even have a count?
There are 330 costumes in the building and that doesn’t include the understudies. That includes all the swings, ‘cuz we have four swings; two men, two women. And they, of course, have all the tracks and they have the most number of costumes, because they have to fit in at moment’s notice—you know, sometimes mid-act or mid-scene! Happens all the time. That’s a lot of clothes to keep track of!
And how many people are in the show?
It hovers around 30.
So, you’ve got 30 people that you have to fit these 330 costumes on. What is that process like? And, I’m assuming that when you meet the flesh and muscles and bones, you have to change stuff, right?
Absolutely. Every performer, every dancer is different. Each body can do different things. So the more you know about the people you know, that’s good. The people who’ve just come to New York and this is their first Broadway show, you’re still learning their body types and what they can do. In every fitting, I say, “Have you gotten to scene so-and-so, where you do the something? Would you do that in this mock-up, in this muslin?”
I also say “no tears after a fitting.” Everyone has to be happy. Not just happy, but thrilled. So I ask them questions, “now you, as this character, how do you see your neckline?” And in the ball gowns, many of them, especially the first ones who came, I let them pick their color. I always give the redheads the first choice, because the redheads are hardest to match! They need to own these clothes, because they’re clothes, not costumes. Very important, very important; because remember, they’re the ones interpreting this character, so they’ve gotta tell me what seems right.
How many people work with you? And, ultimately, how big is the contingent in the wardrobe department at the Broadway Theatre?
I’m the designer. I employ other designers, even though I draw the head to toe, but we have a hair designer, we have a make-up designer, we have millinery, we have shoes, and then we have the mechanical people. But with me, I have about six people working on my design team, in various levels of union/job descriptions. And I prepare all the sketches and all the flow charts and they do the computer stuff, because I’m a Luddite. We make the charts and label everything. We pick all the fabrics, go to the shop, go to every fitting. At least three—minimum of three fittings per garment, times 330. Think about it!
There are about 30 people who work backstage, because we have 15 dressers, then we have three hair ladies, then we have people constantly stitching in the basement, day in day out, then we have day stitchers, then we have the laundry brigade. That’s onsite. You can look at the back of the Playbill and count the numbers.
It’s amazing, that you have a cast of 30…
And we have a support team of 30, basically. And the leads, about four people, have their own dresser!
Don't miss your opportunity to see WIlliam Ivey Long's Tony Award®-winning costumes and transformations in Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella, at State Theatre New Jersey for 3 performances only, February 9-10!