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Dressing "Rebecca," Part 1

Date: Aug 20, 2012


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Since 1963, Jane Greenwood has designed costumes for over 100 Broadway shows, earning 17 Tony Award nominations and a place in the Theater Hall of Fame. In this multi-part series, TDF Stages follows her as she designs the new musical Rebecca.

Jane Greenwood's head is already in 1938. "I picked up a book this morning with a photograph of Vivien Leigh on the cover. I thought, 'Wow, that's great! Why do I like that so much this morning?' And I opened it up, and [the photograph was from] 1938. Suddenly, you sort of develop tunnel vision for everything of that era."

Greenwood---soft-spoken and British-born---is living in the past because she's designing costumes for the Broadway musical Rebecca, an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel about a woman remembering her adventure at an estate called Manderley.

The show won't begin performances until October 30 or even start rehearsals until next month, but Greenwood is already making choices that will shape its future.

For instance, she has filled several large binders with sketches and "inspirational photographs" for every character. This includes "I," the unnamed protagonist who marries the dashing Maxim de Winter, moves to his estate, and finds herself assaulted by the legacy of his late wife, Rebecca. Greenwood's sketches put "I" in everything from drab country wear to fabulous gowns, charting her growth from a simple woman to a glittering lady.

In the binders, one sketch of "I" is paired with a vintage photograph of a young woman running through the street, wearing a smart hat and scarf. "The costume version is a little less sophisticated," Greenwood says. "The scarf is a little less tidy. The hat is simpler."

That speaks to Greenwood's understanding of "I" at the beginning of the show: "She's not very aware of herself. She's very hesitant and you feel she's a little bit of a klutz. She's always dropping things, and she's obviously never been in a position to buy beautiful clothes." However, the designer adds, "there is a freshness and an innocence about her that attracts Maxim. Sometimes, things that aren't 'too right' or 'too put together' have an appeal and are charming. So that is where I'm going in my head."

Crucially, Greenwood thinks of "I" and the other characters as "real people," even though they're in a musical. She explains, "I talked a lot with [the director] Michael Blakemore about the fact that it is a story with real people. We don't have lines of chorus girls. All the people that are in the crowds have personalities, even when they're in the courtroom scene. They're people from the village and have an identity. It isn't an abstract fantasy. It's real, with real clothes, and I have approached it that way."

That explains her "tunnel vision" for 1938. Hungry for authenticity, Greenwood has pored over old magazines like Town & Country, looked at vintage clothes in museums, and sorted through her own resources in order to ground herself in the period. Her studio---which is tucked in her Chelsea townhouse---is an inviting explosion of photographs, books, and notes.

She's had extra time to absorb her research. Rebecca--- which has a book and lyrics by Michael Kunze, a score by Sylvester Levay, and has been translated into English by Christopher Hampton---was originally supposed to open in the spring. "We were all ready to go with it, and we had done a fair amount of preparation," Greenwood recalls. "We were actually in Eric Winterling's costume shop establishing a nest for ourselves and getting ready for the idea of having basic fittings the following week.

"And then it was postponed. Very suddenly, really. So we found ourselves packing everything up."

With the show back on track and the sketches out of their packing boxes, Greenwood is preparing for the next steps in her process. Several costume shops---which create the actual pieces after she designs them---have already placed bids to work with her. She's also hired a tailor to create basic templates for early fittings, and she's got two assistants (both former students from Yale School of Drama, where she teaches) working with her every day.

Soon enough, Greenwood will meet with the cast---which includes Jill Paice as "I" and Ryan Silverman as Maxim---to discuss their characters and have fittings.

Those meetings could change everything.

"That's what people don't always realize," Greenwood says. "They look at pretty drawings, and that's only half a percent of what you eventually see on stage. Without the idea, you're lost, so you have to have that. But then you have to take the idea and channel it through so many different areas. You have to make decisions about who will make it. You have to make decisions about what it will be made of."

She continues, "You have to be in the fittings and decide, when you look at the actor, if it's what you really had in mind or if it has to be changed in some way. Changed for you, as the designer, to make it more in keeping with what you saw for that particular garment, or changed to suit the person that's wearing it, so that it's comfortable and right for what they imagine themselves looking like as that character."

In other words, though Greenwood's early decisions will continue echoing throughout <i>Rebecca</i>'s life, the reality of live theatre, of human beings moving through space in her costumes, will bring a new set of discoveries and choices. "Sometimes, the whole thing has to be taken apart," she says. "And hopefully you begin to see what it's really all about."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor