The Clothes Mock the Man
Behind the parody costumes in Forbidden Broadway
Jenny Lee Stern, in a beaded two-piece pantsuit and green scarf, channels Judy Garland while singing “You Made Me Love You.” Except here the lyrics are, “You played me loony. I didn’t want to do it.” Because this is Forbidden Broadway, the musical revue that satirizes the Great White Way, back from a three-year hiatus in its latest incarnation, Alive and Kicking!
The pantsuit will look familiar to anyone who saw End of the Rainbow, the recently-closed Broadway play about the waning days of Garland’s career. “I took making the costumes recognizable very seriously,” says costume designer Philip Heckman. He also wanted the suit, constructed from Italian silk brocade and embellished with thousands of Swarovski crystals, to be as true to the original as possible.
Heckman has the advantage of being connected to the backstage wardrobe crews and supervisors for many Broadway productions, having worked as a costume design assistant on shows like Born Yesterday and The Boy from Oz. He even got special permission from Rainbow star Tracie Bennett to visit her dressing room at The Belasco Theatre to photograph her costumes, take color samples, and collect fabric swatches.
Of course, keeping it funny is just as important as remaining true to the original costumes.
“This season on Broadway, lots of the shows we are spoofing are in neutral, muted color palettes,” Heckman says. “Gerard [Alessandrini, the creator] is a fan of primary colors; reds, yellows and blues.” For example, in the Newsies spoof, the newsboys are colorful cartoon versions of their Broadway counterparts, wearing layers and oversized plaids in primary and secondary colors.
To build the costumes, Heckman uses a couple of shops in the city and hires freelance stitchers and tailors. But pieces can turn up anywhere. For the Once spoof, he fortuitously found all the costumes at the same thrift shop in Brooklyn on the same day. “I love putting thrift store things on stage because I always fantasize about what their life was before being on stage and coming to the theatre,” he says. “Who owned this piece and where did they wear it? And I wonder what that person would think if they knew that their donated item was in a show on stage in New York.”
Heckman often has to get creative, since Forbidden Broadway changes almost daily during previews . (It officially opens on September 6 at the 47th Street Theatre.) “When a late 1950s beaded Marilyn Monroe evening gown with matching satin gloves and jewels is requested, or a Mary Martin Peter Pan costume with less than 24 hours’ notice, the challenge begins,” Heckman says.
That’s not unlike his experience in television (he was Emmy-nominated for As The World Turns), where it’s typical for new script pages or new characters to arrive the night before a scene is shot. Likewise, the Forbidden Broadway team will try a number to get an audience reaction, but it may not stay in the show, or it may be taken out and reinstated later. In these last-minute situations, Heckman will often go to a Halloween or party store, or even use leftover costumes from As The World Turns.
He then alters the pieces as needed, typically making them ready for quick changes. There are between 25 and 30 numbers and only four cast members, so the costumes are often jumpsuits that zip up in the back. For example, the Matthew Broderick/Nice Work if You Can Get It costume is an all-in-one tuxedo and fat suit that the actor can remove in a few seconds.
Sometimes Heckman has to let his favorite costumes go. There used to be a puppet number including War Horse, which was cut. Heckman hired a shop in Brooklyn that worked on many War Horse costumes to create a comical bright blue horse head with big googly eyes and false eyelashes. There was also a bright blue bustle for the sparkly tail. “It’s just the nature of previews,” he says. But you never know when a costume might come back.
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science.
Photo by Carol Rosegg