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Those Magic Changes

Date: Sep 12, 2007


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Sometimes great minds think alike--and far too much for their own good.

"We actually tried to do the T-Birds' first entrance with non-leather jackets," confesses Grease costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, of his and director Kathleen Marshall's approach in fashioning the hit Broadway revival. "We even tried to do 'Greased Lightning' without leather jackets."

Say what?

"Well, historically, kids couldn't wear these leather jackets to school--they would have been confiscated," says Pakledinaz, relaxing backstage at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre amid a slowly building pre-curtain buzz. "But it took us about a week in rehearsals to realize that we missed them--that people would need to see those leather jackets. We put them back. We were thinking too hard in trying to vary it from the original."

This kind of second-guessing wasn't an issue with The Pajama Game or Kiss Me, Kate--two period musicals for which Pakledinaz was nominated for Tonys in recent years (he took them home for Kate and Thoroughly Modern Millie). But neither of those shows is quite the pop-culture artifact that Grease is.

"It's tricky to work with something so beloved," Pakledinaz confesses. "Audiences have to recognize who the characters are--'Oh, that's Sandy, that's Rizzo,' and so on. You have to come up to those expectations, but not copy someone else's work."

Pakledinaz consciously didn't look at Willa Kim's designs for the 1990s Broadway revival in preparation for this production. But he does remember something of the original 1972 production, which ran until 1980.

"I was in high school when I saw the original Grease, and I had a great time," Pakledinaz recalls. "It was really a funky little production--maybe 'shocking' is too big a word, but what they went for with the humor was a bit shocking for its day." One reason for the show's impact, Pakledinaz thinks, is that many of Carrie F. Robbins' costumes came from thrift shops--and hadn't been there very long.

"I can still go out and find '50s clothes in thrift shops now, but then, they could really find '50s cothes. As a consequence, the show had a grittier, more real feel."

And in any case, it turns out, the original stage version is not what gave Grease its iconic, culture-wide reach. That would be the 1978 film starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, which still ranks as the highest-grossing movie musical of all time. Though Pakledinaz speculates that the film's costume design was also largely "thrifted," it did create a simple and individualized palette for the characters.

His and Marshall's designs took that thought further.

"One of the great things about this is that it's a very individualized, idiosyncratic company," Pakledinaz explains. "So there's less sharing possible. Among our three lead girls, neither one fits into the other two's costumes, so there are three complete sets. That means more work for the costume shops, which is good. I mean, sometimes you have that problem but can't afford to do it. Here, luckily, we can."

Pakledinaz gives a tour through the racks of costumes: Three eye-scarring suits of gold lame with a blue-and-pink madras plaid pattern over them, and gold shoes, for a number in which the character Doody sings about "Those Magic Changes," and a fantasy band and girl dancers materialize behind him. That's six flashy gold costumes for a four-minute number--a good ratio, according to Pakledinaz.

"That's when you like 'em the most--when you don't see them very much," he says.

He then shows off the T-Birds' all-important leather jackets--each one slightly different and custom-built, with buckles specially cast to be lighter and easier to dance in. One trade secret: "These jackets are made so they never really close. Real motorcycle jackets are double-breasted, but these have less material."

More trade secrets are kept in the wig room, where all the hairpieces are teased and combed into shape before every show.

Pakledinaz had a busy summer, designing not only Grease but the Encores revival of Gypsy with Patti LuPone.

"In both cases, they're shows I never thought I'd design," he says. "Even though I'd enjoyed them when I first saw them, it just never occurred to me that one day I'd be designing them."

And it might not have occurred to him when he took the job that Grease, a hit with audiences if not critics, is going to keep him busy for a while.

"I've got to do so much understudy and swing clothing, it's like a new show all the time," Pakledinaz says with a slightly exhausted laugh. "I'm trying to move on to other projects, but I can't!"

Pakledinaz will have to: He is already working on Is He Dead?, the "new" Mark Twain play, for director Michale Blakemore. But he says he's found his Grease experience particularly rewarding.

"The 1950s were the first time kids kind of broke through how their parents told them to dress, how they were supposed to look, and started becoming what they wanted to be to the world through their clothes," Pakledinaz says. "All of a sudden it just popped. The frat boy, the jock, the greaser--those types all started then. And that's great, because it gives the actors a great place to go."

With a place to go--and all dressed up.

For tickets to Grease, go here.