“I have been living and working in New York for over 20 years in a wide variety of artistic disciplines but I have never before had the chance to work on a Broadway musical, the art form that really defines this city in many ways, so I was thrilled to have a chance to finally be part of this special world,” says Ishioka, who has been a part of many special worlds. A Tony nominee for the sets and costumes of M. Butterfly, the designer won an Oscar for costumes for Bram Stoker's Dracula and a Grammy for the artwork of Miles Davis' album Tutu, and says she came into the project with “high expectations for Julie Taymor's ability to create a high-value theatrical experience.”
This meant “recooking” characters familiar from comic books and the movies to her and Taymor's taste. “She allowed me the freedom to reinterpret the iconic comic book characters in my own fashion,” Ishioka says. “In particular, I was able to play with the looks of the Sinister Six, the evil characters that Spider-Man battles”—a highlight of Act II, where the Green Goblin unleashes a small army of genetic mutations on Manhattan, in the number “Sinistereo.”
Ishioka says she “pulls ideas from innumerable sources until I come upon just the right trigger that will become the base of my design. In this case I was naturally very influenced by the comic book originals, but I then distanced myself from those original characters and designed them according to my own vision.” One she made entirely on her own, the knife-edged Swiss Miss. “I think she adds a lot to the Sinister Six, being the first female super villain,” she says. “The costume design for the Green Goblin also contains many elements that you will not find in the Marvel comic books. Overall I wanted to move away from the metallic look you see in the Green Goblin's costume in the Spider-Man films, and give the characters a more organic feel.”
For Spider-Man, “Marvel did not want me to stray from his signature blue and red, but Julie Taymor and I felt that an ombre expression would elevate the design and give the costume a more elegant flavor. The spider mark on the front and back of his costume (and on all of the merchandise for the show) is my original design, chosen by Julie from over 30 ideas I submitted.”
Ishioka says that when she became involved in the show “the scenic design was well under way already. I set out designing the costumes with George Tsypin's scenic design in mind so that there would be harmony between the two visual elements.” But the costuming changed with the show, as Taymor's version gave way to McKinley's. “In Julie's the Sinister Six paraded down a runway, one at a time, in an uproarious fashion show that opened Act II. I personally really liked this scene, but when she was replaced by the new director the scene was unfortunately cut.”
Ishioka's most impressive creation is arguably the spider goddess Arachne, who makes a tremendous visual impression weaving a silken web as the show opens, a sequence retained from Taymor. As not a few critics noted, however, the subsequent makeover of Arachne from all-powerful villain to Peter Parker's friend and mentor left the character dangling by a thread, storywise. “We lost the powerful scene in which she sings at the top of her lungs above the audience, filled with anger. I was also sad to see the loss of the mysterious and sexy Furies, Arachne's minions, whose costumes I particularly enjoyed creating.”
But Ishioka is philosophical about the experience, which still allows for breathtaking scenes. “Julie Taymor wanted to create a theatrical experience never before seen on Broadway. The design team, myself included, the choreographer and the rest of the creative team all aimed to make a really cutting-edge show,” she says. “But the reality of any Broadway show is that it has to appeal to the mass audience if it is to succeed, and alas, the innovativeness of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark was deemed too challenging and ultimately reigned in. I suppose that is the great challenge for any director: to close the gap between creating a unique theatrical experience and giving the audience exactly what it wants.”
Click here for a photo gallery of Eiko Ishioka's Spider-Man sketches.