He's got Broadway covered

He's dressed everyone from Melanie Griffith to Mick Jagger. Meet Tony-winning designer William Ivey Long.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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."

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."

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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.

Broadway couture

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.

Inspired by the Medicis

Long is no stranger to transformations himself. Working on his doctoral thesis in history on Medician wedding festivals, he had a change of heart. "I realized I wanted to design those Medician wedding festivals," he says. "What hubris!"

While Long had never designed an official set or drawn official costume sketches, theater was always an avocation; his parents had both worked in the field. So he went to the library, checked out a book on stage design, and applied to Yale. He was accepted - and had the good fortune of rooming with Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver.

But the transition for this "little farm boy from North Carolina," as he describes himself, to New Haven wasn't seamless. His first night at the university, he recalls Weaver took him to the Yale Cabaret. That night, he saw two male playwrights dressed in women's dresses. One played Mother Superior. "I was not prepared for this," he says, his eyes growing wide with disbelief. It was "total culture shock," he says, and he felt, "I don't belong here." He still gets embarrassed recalling his naiveté, although he's quick to say, "I'm not saying I know anything now."

The Broadway veteran still distinctly remembers the first costume he ever designed: "an Elizabethan ruff for my dog, who stood very still." Long was 6 at the time. "I remember sewing and I remember figuring out, if you sew big stitches, it pleats."

When asked about his ideal show to design, Long says he's a pragmatist. "I take whatever I'm given and that becomes my dream show." His job is to "support the story of the characters, who they are, what they feel, where they're going, and where they've been," he says. He particularly loves "helping a performer become someone else."

John Waters and his chartreuse shoes

Katherine Marshall, co-owner of Tricorne, a Manhattan costume shop, agrees that Long does a good job of catering his designs to the actors. "He's not married to a concept. He does what really works well for each individual actor or actress. He'll have a sketch, an idea, a concept, but he's open to anything," she says.

In addition to being an open-minded colleague, Long demonstrates "great dignity and humor," says John Waters, writer and director of the 1988 film "Hairspray," on which the Broadway musical is based.

Mr. Waters is particularly fond of the gaudy suits Long designed for the character of Corny Collins, the dance show host of the fictional "Corny Collins Show." But Waters's favorite items on the set are Collins's "puke green shoes." Waters even has a matching pair. "I liked them so much I do wear them," he says. "Not to the show, though. I don't want to upstage Corny."

Costume designers also enhance the character and help the actors with the characterization, says Ms. Stroman. In "The Producers," for example, Long helps Ulla, one of the leading female characters, become "sexy and strong." Ulla, a Swede, has a very feminine wardrobe (primarily in the blue and yellow colors of the Swedish flag), yet still commands a great deal of power and strength, Stroman says.

Certainly one of the more memorable costumes Long has designed includes the "Chrysler Building" dress in "The Producers" - a hand-beaded silver, black, and white extravaganza, which cost more than $10,000. "I call that a costume with a capital K," Long says, laughing. And then there's the play's costume designer, who is dressed in "the biggest cliché" Long could think of: a lavender suit and scarf. But don't expect to find Long in lavender. He is, he says, "a blue blazer kind of guy."

Despite his conservative dress, "Mr. Hairspray," as one of his friends calls him, is anything but a conservative designer. In the costume shop's office for "The Boy from Oz," surrounded by bolts of fabric, boxes of shoes, sketches, photographs, and files, Long says he feels particularly fortunate to have worked with Mel Brooks and Waters. They are "two of the greatest American satirists," he says. "The way they have vanquished PC is sublime."

In one of the shop's two fitting rooms down the hall, the actress who plays Prudy Pingleton, the evil mother from "Hairspray," is being fitted for her finale. Long can't help peeking in.

"You can show outrage and go back to being glamorous," Long says of her outfit, approvingly. He claps, and she claps.

"You know where this came from?" he asks of her Jackie Kennedy-inspired dress. "It's a bedspread from Garnet Hill." And now, "it's on Broadway."

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