The Long View
by Liz French
Costume designer William Ivey Long is often part of the Susan Stroman creative team; they have worked together on Crazy for You, Big, Steel Pier, The Music Man, and of course, Contact, with that famous yellow dress. (Long is also onboard for Thou Shalt Not.) He recalls being invited by Stroman to the Producers backers' auditions in New York — “Actually, they were more like producers' auditions,” he says. “Every single producer in the room wanted to produce it, pilloried though they were!”
And so the two-time Tony winner — now three-, thanks to you know what, began working with Brooks, Stroman, and an impressive team of collaborators, including prop makers, beaders, tailors, the other members of the design team, and the actors themselves.
About Cady Huffman, who plays Ulla, Long says, “With curvaceous magnificent specimens such as Cady, you don't draw no picture, you get that fabric going and start wrapping and draping. That's where the magic comes alive, when you have the live, pulsating creature in front of you.” In his studio, Long, Huffman, and costume builder Katharine Marshall of Tricorne New York City did just that, and came up with Ulla's form-fitting wardrobe.
Her entry dress is a white clingy number. “It's a stretch fabric; some people think it's bathing-suit fabric — I'm happy for them — it's not,” Long laughs, adding that he couldn't use boning or substructure because Huffman does flips and splits in the scene. “Mel wanted Swedish white,” the designer adds. “Mai Britt was his reference of the period.”
Ulla appears in a blue dress in a later scene, where she is painting Bialystock & Bloom's office white. “I call it Swedish flag blue,” Long says. He also refers to the dress as the magic dress, because it has cleverly concealed chiffon side panels that Huffman untucks so they float down for a dance number with Matthew Broderick (“That Face”). “We showed Susan the mockup of the dress,” Long says, “in the worst Naugahyde chiffon, in white. I thought, if it works in Naugahyde, it will be that magical.”
The effect is indeed magical; another semi-magical but much more graphic effect is created by Roger De Bris' Grand-Duchess Anastasia gown, which bears a striking resemblance to the Chrysler Building. The New York gown is a bugle-beaded net overdress on top of a sequined shift, with a headdress based on Russian architectural motifs; the Chicago gown was a more subtle patterned lace garment. Too subtle, in fact: Long called in “uber-beader” Bessie Nelson to jazz it up for New York. “She does it [crochet beading] while watching television,” he says. “That was a lot of television dramas.” He adds, “When Gary Beach put on the beaded gown, he said, ‘Now I feel like I'm walking down the stairs in a gown.’”
The showgirls' costumes for the “Springtime for Hitler” number also underwent changes. Currently, they are clad in hilarious Austrian-themed ensembles featuring beer steins, pretzels, Valkyrie getups, and a trick bratwurst. In the Chicago production, the jokes were a lot thicker — and they concealed the showgirls' bodies too much, according to Long. “They were covering those fabulous bodies,” he says of all the “gimcrackey” on the costumes originally. “Susan said, ‘William, what's wrong?’ and I said, ‘I think they're wearing too many jokes.’” So Long and company set to work, “pushing them to the side, recutting, redesigning, and making little Marie Antoinette farthingales” to hang the various steins and pretzels off of. The only gimmick left er, standing, was the erect bratwurst. “After we changed the costumes, we said, what were we thinking?” says Long. “We weren't thinking like dirty old men, getting into the mind of the creators of the show; we were thinking like conceptualists.”
Long's costuming inspirations vary widely and include everything from Lena Horrne singing “Stormy Weather” (for Huffman's Greek goddess draped looks) to Lord Snowden's custom-made Nehru suit, which he wore to Prince Charles' investiture in 1969 (for Carmen Ghia's tux), and Long's great-aunt Mary's Easter suit. In the “Little Old Lady Land” number, the ladies are dressed like great-aunt Mary, in identical lacy peplum suits with capelets.
“Mel was very adamant about the little old ladies all looking alike, in black with little white lace collars,” says Long, adding, “Somehow, even in the sketching, I couldn't quite make them black,” noting that the ink he'd used had dried to a grayish blue. “When I did the mockup in black, which is what Mel had said, it was too strong and too black widow. We did a mockup in navy blue, and I think comedy is more possible in the blue. And I swore to him that my Aunt Mary wore navy blue. It's a better little old lady color, and that allows Nathan to be in a black velvet suit and he pops more, because nothing pops like black velvet.”
Another thing about those little old ladies: they're not all ladies. Most of the male chorus was called on to don an Aunt Mary ensemble, which provided another challenge for Long. “To disguise the fact that I've got men with broad shoulders, the capelet appears as if it's hung from shoulder pads; it's all gathered so it looks like there's a structure,” he says. Long also gathered the men's peplums more fully to create womanly hips and created a cream-colored lace stomacher that goes up to the neck with a little ruffle to cover any peekaboo Adam's apples. “Not only do I have them covered, there's a blue cameo right on them,” he adds.
Leo and Max's suits are modeled on vintage prototypes, and Lane wears a vintage tuxedo and opera cape, which Long found at New York's 26th Street flea market, during the “King of Broadway” number. The designer says, “This is my first time working with Matthew, but I've worked on about five shows with Nathan; I know his requirements,” adding that he and Lane are roughly the same size and shape, so Lane is easy to buy for. He says about the vintage opening tux, “I tried it on at the flea market and said, this will do for us.”
Long clothed “everything you see onstage,” including the storm trooper puppets and tank girls in the number “Springtime for Hitler.” And therein lies a tale or two. “I found John Jerard a long time ago,” he says. “We were trying to figure out what to do imaginatively [for the Amazon army in Siegfried & Roy's Las Vegas show]. I went to the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, and here comes King Neptune himself, operated by 50 people in hoods. I give my card to one of those people and said, ‘Give this to whoever made this,’ and it was Michael Curry and John Jerard.” Jerard and Curry designed the template for the Amazon army, which Stroman remembered 12 years later, when The Producers needed a similar setup. “She asked me, ‘Could you have them look like different people, with one in the middle?’ and I said, absolutely, I know just who to use,” he says. “We also had him make those hysterical pigeons. Before he came on the scene, the pigeons were just opera gloves with buttons on the knuckles.”
Long heaps additional praise on his associate costume designer Martha Bromelmeier, assistant costume designer Tom Beall, and assistants Laura Oppenheimer and Heather Bair. Other costume builders in addition to Tricorne included Euro Co., Timberlake Studios, and Jennifer Love Costumes. Joseph Scafati made the uniforms for the puppets. Long says there were five shoemakers involved in the show, including LaDuca and I.O. Dey. Paul Huntley did wig and hair design for The Producers; millinery is by Rodney Gordon; the wardrobe supervisor is Douglas C. Pettijean. “Why I love getting up in the morning is I know I'm working in a business that is completely handmade,” Long muses. “It's extremely important to know whose hands touched what.”
by David Johnson
There are lots of gags in The Producers, but you won't find many in the show's sound design. That suits sound designer Steve Kennedy and his associate designer John Shivers just fine, thank you.
“It's a classic Broadway book show, so we approached it from that respect,” says Shivers, who has worked with Kennedy on such shows as Aida and Titanic . “A show like Aida is very pop rock-oriented and in your face; this show dictates an unobtrusive system, and one of the challenges was to try and make it more traditional in its sound. A lot of that has to do with orchestrations, of course, but it also has to do with speaker placement, delay, and just trying to image things more toward the acoustic nature of the show.”
Equipment on the show includes a range of EAW speakers — JF80s, SC52s, JF200s, and KF300s, Crest 7001 and 4801 amps, Lexicon PCM91 reverb units, Crown and Shure floor mics, Sennheiser, Neumann, AKG, EV, and Shure mics in the pit, Sennheiser MKE2 lavs on the performers, and XTA DP200 digital processors, all run on a Cadac J-Type console. All the audio equipment was provided by ProMix.
Despite the relative simplicity of the sound, there are several effects in the show, all of which are run on an Akai S6000 sampler, for which Shivers had high praise. “In my opinion it's a brilliant device for that purpose,” he says of the sampler. “We've used minidisks in the past, but I found them to be very unreliable and limited in their editing capabilities. The sampler is a little more complicated to set up, but extremely reliable. I used it recently in combination with the Cadac software, which has a basic sequencer program in it, and it can pretty much do anything you need it to do, in terms of firing sound effects and multiple sequences of effects.”
One effect that gets a big laugh is the voice of Mel Brooks himself singing, “Don't be stupid, be a smarty/Come and join the Nazi party!” as a chorus member mouths the words; it represents what is probably the flashiest audio effect in the show, such as it is. “It's just part of a click track that we have running with some of the chorus during that number,” Shivers explains. “There are three click tracks in the show, and they're all dumped onto the sampler. Mel was in the studio one day, and we had recorded the cast singing ‘Springtime for Hitler,' so we just overdubbed him on a separate track. It was mixed out of stereo, with a click on one side and the chorus and voiceover on the other. That's the big mystery!" Shivers adds with a laugh.
Photos: Paul Kolnik