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The Long View

Date: Nov 26, 2008


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The official opening of Roundabout Theatre's new revival of the Rodgers & Hart classic Pal Joey has been pushed back to Dec. 18 due to an injury by the lead, Christian Hoff, who's been replaced by Matthew Risch.

But the costume designer, multiple Tony winner William Ivey Long, already had his own "opening night." At least, that's how Long thinks of a show's dress rehearsal—the time all his best-laid plans for the costumes meet the demands of the staging and choreography. As a recent dress-rehearsal visit with the courtly, approachable Long showed, a big part of his job for the fast-moving, dance-heavy Pal Joey is building costumes that can be easily layered and rapidly changed.

"They're running the quick change," Long said, viewing a clutch of wispily clad female dancers on the Studio 54 stage from his worktable house right. "The whole change has to be choreographed, just like a ballet. It's got to be choreographed to the beats. We marked it in street clothes, but you don't know until you do it with the real clothes."

He pointed to the dancers and explained: "The girls are underdressed for their next look." They certainly do look underdressed, in the sense of not having terribly much on—but Long was actually using costume jargon to indicate that there's another layer under the costumes we see.

"Under their skimpy rehearsal outfits are gloves, chokers and lace corsets," Long said. "They're showgirls."

It was pointed out to Long that the negligee-like look of these sheer black lace outfits, including one worn by star Martha Plimpton, evokes his Tony-winning costumes for Nine.

"I'm always referring back to my favorite things, and black lace is a very erotic thing," Long admits, then adds impishly, "I think I'm about 10 percent heterosexual. [Director] Jerry Zaks outed me years ago: He told me, 'You're part straight.' I asked him how much and he said, 'At least 10 percent.' "

Long takes cues for the look of a show from its storytelling style, its language and, when he's doing a revival or a reimagining, from its previous incarnations.

"I like to say I help people become other people, with all the nuance that requires," Long said, warming to the subject. "I have to get inside the characters. I went to Yale Drama School, so for me it's all about the play—all about the words. Now, I'm known for some pretty wacky costumes, but hopefully they're in service of the story."

Pal Joey may be set in Chicago in the late 1930s, but it's a long way from the Roaring '20s Windy City of the musical Chicago, for which Long created an iconic monochrome, mesh-and-flesh look.

"That was very stylized," Long said. "Those were dance outfits that referred to the '20s, to flapper and gangster outfits. Pal Joey is a similar low life, people in seedy clubs, but it's more realistic." He offered another telling contrast: "Guys & Dolls is poetry; here it's real talk." Pal Joey's script is based on the work of novelist John O'Hara, whom Long rightly described as "a different writer than Damon Runyon, whose poetry and, dare I say, Shakespearean speech inspires a different world."

For the harder-edged, post-Depression world of Pal Joey, Long explained, "I've dipped everything down." Another choice bit of costume lingo, "dipping down" refers to dying costumes in a contrasting shade to mute their colors. "The palette here is very controlled, washed-out." The distressed look extends to the care of the clothes—"We don't press things; we let the wrinkles stay"—and to the hair design.

"The hair has to be set, and then messed up just right." With compliments to hair and wig designer Paul Huntley, Long gestured to a bottle-blonde Martha Plimpton and said, "Look at her wig—there's a whole inch of root there. It looks real."

This story of a cad Casanova and the women in his life may have a gritty feel, but there's one big exception.

"When Stockard Channing comes out, that's a whole different kettle of fish," says Long. "She plays the richeset woman around, and she's perfectly pressed and put together."

Sharp contrasts seem to be a key design strategy. Long talked excitedly about a pair of dance numbers: In the first, Joey dreams of the extravagant show he'll put on at the nightclub he runs, and in the next, we see the more modest, tawdry reality.

"In the dream, the look is faded, opalescent, transparent, then in reality it's down to earth—it's ethereal, then garish," Long said. "I always say: This is the first show I've done with showgirls as text; they're there to tell his story."

Pal Joey was originally produced in 1940 with Gene Kelly in the lead role. It has had just two Broadway revivals since, with the last appearing in 1976. This gives Long a relatively clean slate, but that doesn't mean he doesn't do his homework.

"I have to be a bit of a dramaturg and research the era and previous productions," Long said. When he's reviving or reimagining a show, Long said, "I call them 'previously owned vehicles,' and I always ask the director: 'How aware should I be of the previous productions?' With Mel Brooks on The Producers, he said, 'I want to reimagine it.' With Young Frankenstein, on the other hand, we definitely looked to the movie. With Guys & Dolls, we weren't to look to the movie or the previous productions; we wanted to imagine our own Runyonland."

Back in rehearsal, Long noticed a small problem that needed solving.

"They're talking about Martha's coat when she enters—she needs a more powerful entrance," Long said. "I've been looking for a really eccentric one, but I think I'm going to take the coat we've got and do a new fur collar of stonemartins." Say what? Another obscure costume reference: "They're the poor man's mink."

He noticed a dancer in a corset sitting slouch-backed on the stage between set-ups, and added, "I made these costumes comfortable. The corsets have bones in them, but they're all stretch corsets. When you have girls who are that fit, there's not much to pull in!"

Who said comfort and style, grace and rigor, were mutually exclusive? In William Ivey Long's world, a show can have it all.

Click here for more information about Pal Joey.