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How William Ivey Long created costumes for 17 shows simultaneously
During his 40-year career as a theatrical costume designer, six-time Tony Award winner William Ivey Long has worked on dozens of shows, both on Broadway and Off. But for Manhattan Theatre Club's new musical Prince of Broadway, which celebrates the oeuvre of legendary theatre director and producer Harold Prince, Long was faced with a rare challenge: to craft costumes for extracts of wildly different productions in the style of the originals. One minute the nine-person cast is decked out in tuxes, gowns, and showgirl feathers for excerpts from Follies; a little later, Tony winner Chuck Cooper shuffles in sporting work clothes and a prayer shawl as Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof; then come the decadent Berlin denizens of Cabaret. Each new section is evoked by its look, so Long and scenic designer Beowulf Boritt must immediately establish which show we're about to see, otherwise the audience would be lost. Judging from the applause of recognition some costumes received (Evita in that sparkling strapless dress! That slinky Spider Woman in black!), Long did a bang-up job.
That said, he wants to make something very clear: though the costumes may resemble the iconic originals, they are not replicas. "Novices might think I copied because, in a way, you're supposed to think that," Long says. "But in designing the costumes, I have endeavored to jolt the audience's memory of the entire original production with a few bold and dramatic strokes, carefully chosen and edited."
The approach works, and it's one Long has used just once before: for the long-gestating and still-unreleased movie Broadway 4D, which also features a series of showstoppers from a variety of musicals. "In that process, I started my distillation of these great productions," Long says. "How can you encapsulate the canon of Broadway? And how do you get new audiences as excited to see these numbers as those for whom they're familiar?"
Like Broadway 4D, Prince of Broadway was trapped in development hell for a number of years due to financing. Long did his first sketches for the project back in 2011, and he designed the costumes for the show's 2015 world premiere which, despite the title, took place in Tokyo, Japan. Since Prince has been in the biz for well over half a century, there was so much material to choose from that the lineup kept changing. "I have a huge stack of sketches from which we have moved on," Long says. "It's all about the flow, the balance."
Interestingly, Long and Prince only worked together twice previously, on a pair of quick-to-close Broadway plays in 1984: Play Memory and End of the World. However, Long did design costumes for revivals of Prince shows, including Company and Cabaret. Long actually pulled a few of his own pieces from the latter to use in Prince of Broadway. "The Alan Cumming production [which Long worked on] is now equal in the minds of the public with Joel Grey's, so the costumes are half-and-half," he says. "The Emcee and the gorilla are completely the original production, which was designed by Patricia Zipprodt. The band and Fraulein Schneider, those are mine. And then I invented this Sally Bowles. She's very similar to the band, with a beaded flapper dress, very Egon Schiele."
Long is quick to cite the costume designers of the original productions when talking about his work on Prince of Broadway. In fact, his Playbill bio kicks off with a list of all their names. "I should have said, Florence Klotz, Florence Klotz, Florence Klotz, Florence Klotz," he jokes about Hal Prince's most frequent collaborator. "But I put her in alphabetical order with everyone else." He also objects if you call the show a revue, countering that it's really a "compendium." And he has a point: most revues are more like concerts, with performers dressed in basic black, crooning songs out of context. "These are vignettes or snippets of 'you were there,'" he says of the cavalcade of set pieces starring a company of Broadway bigwigs such as Tony winner Karen Ziemba, and Tony nominees Brandon Uranowitz and Tony Yazbeck. Considering the groundbreaking shows represented -- Show Boat, West Side Story, Fiddler, Cabaret, Company, Phantom -- it's like a two-and-a-half-hour tour through the evolution of the American musical in the 20th century -- a crash course for the young, and a nostalgia trip for those of us of a certain age.
Top image: Michael Xavier and the cast in Company in Prince of Broadway. Photos by Matthew Murphy