He's got Broadway covered
He's dressed everyone from Melanie Griffith to Mick Jagger. Meet Tony-winning designer William Ivey Long.
In a costume-shop fitting room on Eighth Ave., William Ivey Long stands in front of actress Stephanie Block, who is trying on a succession of oversized sweaters. As costume designer for "The Boy From Oz," an upcoming Broadway musical on the life of singer-songwriter Peter Allen, Mr. Long has to select an outfit for Ms. Block, who is playing Liza Minnelli. The scene is what Long describes as one of Ms. Minnelli's "insecure scenes."Skip to next paragraph
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Daughters of glamorous, strong mothers "hide themselves in their clothes," Long says. And Minnelli, daughter of Judy Garland, was no exception.
"Everyone who has a strong mother somehow feels inadequate," Long announces. Glancing back at Block, who is practically drowning in a dusty purple sweater coat, he says, "We have now made it too inadequate."
Long, Block, and accompanying costume designers and drapers finally agree on a gray sweater from Barney's. "There's something sad and nice about this," Long says, placing his hands expertly on Ms. Block's shoulders and waist. Circling her, Long flits over to a rack of clothes, many of which still have price tags dangling off them. Flicking through the garments deftly, he makes his pronouncement: "Actually, ladies and gentleman, this is not bad."
A renowned costume designer, Long has received four Tony awards for his costumes for "Nine," "Crazy for You," "The Producers," and "Hairspray." In his 25-year career, he has designed tens of thousands of costumes for Bernadette Peters, Melanie Griffith, Mick Jagger, and the actual Liza Minnelli, among others.
But Long not only works wonders with his costumes - he also establishes trust and a bantering rapport with the actors.
"He always puts actors and actresses at ease in their fitting," says Susan Stroman, choreographer and director of numerous productions with Long, including "Contact" and "The Producers." "He makes [the actors] feel like they're the most beautiful person in the earth," she says, adding that makes her job easier. "They come back from fittings with William with a big smile."
For example, at one point in the fitting Block has a momentary bout of squeamishness, fearing she looks dowdy. Long immediately assures her that she's gorgeous. The moment ends before it really begins.
The visionary designer works primarily for theater, which means that Long is hard at work now that the Broadway season is revving up. Traditionally, opening season for Broadway starts after the Labor Day weekend. Thus, Long and his assistants (typically three to five per show) will be toiling long hours this weekend. In addition to "The Boy From Oz," Long is working on costumes for "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Never Gonna Dance" - all of which preview in the next two months.
Being a costume designer involves more than simply concocting exquisite designs on a budget. Costumes have to be designed to accommodate quick changes during the show - and to survive being yanked on and off. Long, who considers his costumes "couture garments," guarantees the costumes will survive eight shows a week for one year.
In "The Boy from Oz," there are some 160 handmade costumes, which can require hundreds of hours to complete. Big musicals often have between 250 and 400 costumes. The 1994 production of "A Christmas Carol," one of the largest shows that Long has worked on, had 600 costumes. Clothing budgets for large shows originating on Broadway tend to run from several hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million.
Selecting the right attire isn't easy. "I don't want to overwhelm the actor," Long says. He relies a great deal on the actor's instincts to help him. Referring to Block, he says, "By now I can ask her, 'How does this feel?' She's been living with this for six weeks. She can answer if it feels right because she's been inside the body of the character."
In "The Boy From Oz," Minnelli transforms from an insecure girl into a confident woman. The nature of her costumes also changes throughout the play. In a later scene, as Minnelli begins to find herself, she wears a glamorous red, beaded dress ("hotcha, hotcha!" Long declares), red stockings, and shoes. "It's fabulous watching Liza become a butterfly," he says.