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How Do You Dress a Diva?

Date: May 30, 2018

Tony-winning designer Paul Tazewell talks Summer: The Donna Summer Musical


What becomes a legend most? That's what Paul Tazewell needed to figure out not once, not twice but three times as the costume designer for Summer, the new Broadway musical inspired by the life and music of late disco icon Donna Summer. Tazewell had to dress a trio of performers playing Summer at different ages plus a majority female ensemble in the fast-moving one-act, which spans five decades and features 22 songs in just 100 minutes, requiring quick changes for the whole company. And he did it without indulging in the sketchier '70s fashion trends that might have prompted audiences to reach for mental barf bags.

"I wanted to capture the magic of the disco era," says Broadway vet Tazewell, who won a Tony for his work on Hamilton and recently designed those eye-catching getups for Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC. "My major challenge was to somehow find everybody's collective thoughts about, or expectations of the period, then leave those elements behind that were less than attractive."

In their early meetings, director and book cowriter Des McAnuff told the designer not to simply duplicate Summer's real-life outfits. So while Tazewell scoured stacks of vintage images, video and pictures provided by Summer's widower, Bruce Sudano, he was free to go his own way in creating everything from shimmery gowns to '50s schoolgirl dresses to sleazy leisure suits. "You get this overall aura of the disco scene, but it's did not beholden to it," Tazewell explains. "I loved the tailoring of the '70s. It's not that we don't have mini-dresses today, but not all of us have mini-dresses that are similar to what Bob Mackie did. That's a lot of fun to revisit."


Of course everything he designed had to be multipurpose. "The main thing that runs through the show is androgyny," Tazewell says, noting that the women of the ensemble embody both male and female parts. "They switch back and forth. Getting them in and out of clothes necessitates a lot of thought about how clothes function, what they need to do, and how they might work for multiple scenes and multiple periods. You've got Donna going from being a high-school girl, to traveling to Germany, then transitioning into her first major performance." To provide continuity amid the rapid time shifts, Tazewell grounded the Donnas -- Storm Lever as Duckling Donna, Ariana DeBose as Disco Donna and LaChanze as Diva Donna -- in a palette of cobalt blue.

Tazewell also tweaked the retro styles to accommodate contemporary figures. "There was a sexiness to the '70s -- a low neckline, a high-cut leg -- that we interpreted with a more modern eye," he says. "That was an era of hot-and-heavy drug use and smoking, and people tended to keep those really thin bodies and fit in clothes that were very tight. When I'm trying to duplicate that quality on a modern body, it's a little tricky. The male body is so much more athletic, and also with women, they're more robust all around. Even people who are thin are very muscular. So it was getting the '70s to play in the way the clothes are fit."

Summer is one of three musicals currently on Broadway that Tazewell designed costumes for; the others are Hamilton and Escape to Margaritaville, a tropics-set romantic comedy featuring the songs of Jimmy Buffett. "Cheeseburger in Paradise" is about as far as you can get from the bloody founding of our country or the passions of a disco goddess. "T-shirts, board shorts and fun dresses," he says about his work on Margaritaville. "It should give you the feeling of being in a hammock with a fruit drink in your hand."

But that's the kind of artistic heterogeneity Tazewell embraces. Looking back over his career, the TDF Irene Sharaff Award winner claims Hamilton as his ultimate accomplishment. "It's kind of the fusion of everything that I love: music and movement, clothing in movement, period clothing and representing culture diversity," he says. "Everything that I had done up to that point kind of exploded within the same production. But looking back on things, I don't have a favorite genre. It's collective, all of it together."


Follow Michael Martin at @martinized. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Ariana DeBose in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Photos by Matthew Murphy.

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