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How Tony-winning costume designer Catherine Zuber helps make this spectacular spectacular
One of the most heartbreaking moments in Moulin Rouge! The Musical comes in Act II, when the villainous Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) forces his conflicted courtesan Satine (Karen Olivo) to change out of a lush maroon gown that fits her like a second skin. In a flash, she gets an unwanted makeover as she quick-changes into a subdued pastel ensemble, complete with hat and jewelry. It's reminiscent of Eliza Doolittle's metamorphosis in My Fair Lady, only Satine seems like she's being imprisoned, not set free.
"That was my biggest challenge," says Catherine Zuber, the costume designer for Moulin Rouge! who's won seven Tony Awards. "One costume has to come off within seconds and another one has to go on that's completely transformative. It has to be beautiful in its own weird way, but also look like a cage. When Christian [Satine's bohemian lover played by Aaron Tveit] sees her and asks, "What are you wearing?!" he's saying it doesn't suit her, that she looks ridiculous."
That scene encapsulates the essence of Moulin Rouge!, Broadway's new jukebox extravaganza based on Baz Luhrmann's 2001 movie of the same name. Set at the turn of the 20th century in the title Parisian nightspot, it's a romantic tragedy about an enterprising showgirl torn between the starving artist she loves and the callous aristocrat who keeps her and her friends employed. Directed by Tony nominee Alex Timbers and featuring 70-plus pop hits from the past 50-odd years, the show is an eye-popping, head-swirling, sensory-overload seduction.
A significant part of the production's allure is its more-is-more aesthetics. Derek McLane's immersive scenic design spills into the house and Justin Townsend's lighting makes everyone look beautiful. But Zuber's contributions are what put it over the top. For the 33-member cast she's created approximately 200 costumes adorned with more than 30,000 Swarovski crystals. "I think The King and I is the only show I've ever worked on that had more costumes because of all those children," she says. The Moulin Rouge! costumes are so embellished, there's even a staffer who comes in five hours a week just to do crystal replacement. "That's so important for us to make sure that the backstage team is keeping everything in tiptop shape," she says. "The costumes need to look great every night."
Zuber signed on to the musical two years ago during its month-long developmental lab. Due to limited funds, she had to improvise. "I think we had $10,000 to do the whole thing," she recalls. "I bought a lot of underwear at Century 21, we ordered things from Amazon and we rented a lot of stuff from the TDF Costume Collection -- the tailcoats, the showgirl costumes."
During that lab, Zuber realized that because of Sonya Tayeh's choreography and the nightclub milieu, the costumes had to be revealing and incredible flexible. "We needed to see the women's whole bodies, otherwise it wasn't going to work," she recalls. At the show's out-of-town tryout in Boston last summer, she finally got a big budget to play with, and many of those costumes have carried over to Broadway.
Fake corsets were Zuber's solution for the showgirls. "They all have zippers," she explains. "We would hold up the show with real corsets – they take so long to lace! So much of that was dictated by the movement, we don't want the costumes getting in the way. Any kind of skirt would get all caught up in their legs. So it was a way to create a visual that would not be encumbering." Lacey hosiery, chiffon robes, sparkling chokers, feathery fascinators and glittery gloves complete the ensembles.
Meanwhile, Zuber shows the class differences between the men by their suits. The wealthy wear au courant cuts of that era while Christian and his fellow bohos favor vintage garb. "All through time there were always young artists who could be so clever with very little money and look amazing," Zuber says. "So while Christian and his friends are poor, it doesn't mean they don't have style and glamor. Their costumes are made up of pieces from a much earlier time period with worker knits underneath. I remember when I went to art school, everyone always looked so great and nobody had a huge clothing budget. It was all from just being inventive."
On Broadway, the Yale School of Drama graduate is well-known for designing costumes for period pieces such as South Pacific, My Fair Lady and The Light in the Piazza. Moulin Rouge! harks back to her tenure as resident designer of Cambridge, Massachusetts' American Repertory Theater in the '90s, where she often took a transhistorical approach. "That was almost de rigueur there to do a wonderful mélange of different periods," she says. "And it's something I always loved to do. I think because the music in Moulin Rouge! is so contemporary, the visuals need a contemporary gloss. For instance "Diamonds Are Forever" [when Satine makes her dazzling entrance] is very much influenced by Marlene Dietrich in the '30s from The Blue Angel and her cabaret performances, which are really not from the Belle Époque at all. It was really inspirational for us to pull from all these various musical genres and to sort of filter all that into what we created."
Fans of the cinematic source material will be happy to hear that while Moulin Rouge! has been reimagined for the stage, the creative team always kept the movie in mind. In fact, Zuber says Catherine Martin, who won Oscars for costume and production design for the film, was immensely helpful. "When Derek McLane and I first started working on this, she invited us to her studio just for the purpose of looking at all the research she had from the movie," Zuber says. "Just as Baz Luhrmann turned the direction over to Alex Timbers, in the same spirit Catherine Martin turned over the design to Derek and myself so we could be free to do our own interpretation. But we always went back to the movie and felt that it was our guiding light. It was so wonderful to have that."
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Karen Olivo and Tam Mutu in Moulin Rouge! The Musical. Photos by Matthew Murphy.
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