In the course of one week, costume designer William Ivey Long opened a pair of productions treating that eternal topic, romance, in wildly different ways. First up was Epic Proportions, Larry Coen and David Crane's farce about love on the set of a 1930s biblical epic. Plunked down somewhere in the Arizona desert, miles from any form of escape, are the cast and crew of a film made up of bits and pieces of Cleopatra, The Fall of the Roman Empire, and The Last Days of Pompeii. Off-camera, an even more tempestuous drama is in progress, as Benny and Phil, brothers and professional extras, both fall in love with Louise, their winsome supervisor, played by Kristin Chenoweth.
Epic Proportions provided Long with a double feature of design challenges: there's 30s period for the characters, plus "movie" costumes for the overblown epic on which they are toiling. For the latter, the designer and his staff took part in a marathon screening of Hollywood biblical sagas, including two Cleopatras, The 10 Commandments, The Robe, Ben-Hur, and The Sign of the Cross.
Thus, many of the costumes have film antecedents. When actress Ruth Williamson appears as the Queen of the Nile, she sports a headdress, built by Woody Shelp, based on a design by Oliver Messel for Vivien Leigh in the film of Caesar and Cleopatra (the actual headdress, without modifications, was worn by Chita Rivera in the 1983 flop musical Merlin). When actor Tom Beckett plays a cruel slave driver, his costume is taken directly from Edward G. Robinson's in The 10 Commandments. Long notes that the Claudette Colbert version of Cleopatra (1934), directed, like so many of these films, by Cecil B. DeMille, was a prime source of inspiration.
Even the 1930s costumes are movie-influenced--when actor Jeremy Davison, who plays Phil, makes his first entrance, he's in farm boy overalls and cap, just like Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath. Williamson also plays the mannish, predatory costume designer Cochette, a hybrid of Edith Head and Coco Chanel, in a long black-and-white dress with a black tie and wide-brimmed black hat.
Long insists, "We didn't want the costumes to be funny. We wanted the way they were worn to be funny." And indeed the costumes are meticulously done, with fine materials such as hand-woven Indian silk. But there are big laughs when Chenoweth, thanks to various convoluted plot twists, ends up on the set, in chains as the imperiled Princess Isis, wearing a lengthy, shimmering cerulean blue sheath dress, with a stunning decolletage. It's a look--part ancient Egypt, part Dinner at Eight--which slyly parodies the not-very-accurate costumes of vintage historical films.
Epic Proportions received mixed-to-negative reviews (although the design was praised), but Long's next project had the critics dancing in the street. Contact, a "dance play" by Susan Stroman and John Weidman, is a trilogy of pieces incorporating dialogue and movement to tell three different tales of love and sex. The first, "Swinging," is based on Jean-Honore Fragonard's 1768 painting The Swing, and features a woman and two men in a variety of encounters. Long's task was to recreate the costumes from the painting. The suits for the men (Sean Martin Hingston and Scott Taylor) are made of a changeable blue-green silk, while the woman (Stephanie Michels) has an elaborate pink silk--the materials were obtained from the London fabric house Hopkins.
The second piece, "Did You Move?", is set in an Italian restaurant in Queens circa 1954 and features Karen Ziemba as a woman who dances out her fantasies of romance while her abusive mobster husband is helping himself to the buffet. Ziemba wears a beautiful, floral-print "Doris Day dress," as Long puts it. The designer, who normally works with the finest materials, reveals that the dress is made of polyester. "It was Karen's idea," he says, adding that when both worked on the musical Steel Pier, she noticed that silk dresses stood up badly to the sweaty hands of male dancers, when performing lifts. Polyester allows the costume to withstand all sorts of handling, including Ziemba's strenuous pas-de-deux with dancer David McGillivray.
The real design challenge for Long came in the third piece, "Contact," in which Boyd Gaines plays a suicidal advertising executive who wanders into a downtown swing dance club and finds himself hopelessly smitten with a cool blonde in a yellow dress (Deborah Yates). Long admits that they went through no fewer than nine versions of the yellow dress (the rejects are now on display backstage). The twists and turns were many: "I made a yellow dress, with gloves and a pocketbook. It was chiffon and silk and Barbara Matera made it. That's the dress we use in the poster. Then we discovered Deborah has to be picked up in it, so I redid the dress, keeping it short, but in stretch fabrics, and it was sewn down to a leotard. We replaced chiffon with rayon, with net on top. But that fabric would rip; also the short dress made her look like just another chickie at the dance club. A longer look was more sophisticated, but it was designed to be flowing, and, her foot got caught in the stretch fabrics and it ripped every night. For a while, we were making a new outer layer every night. Then I tried a slinky jersey with cracked ice on it; everybody loved the way it looked, but the cracked ice was scratchy."
Finally, Long came up with a long version of the dress of the cracked-ice jersey, which pleased everyone. "Then the big problem was, the dress is so form-fitting that you see her underwear." The solution: a Donna Karan Body Shaper. "I can't say enough positive things about it," says Long. "It's made on a special loom and there's only one seam, placed where you don't see it." The result is stunning, giving Yates an allure that recalls Cyd Charisse in the MGM days.
The clothes for the other dancers in Contact look like they were purchased at New York's hippest shops but in fact, they were carefully designed and built. "These days, designing for musicals is more like designing for movies," says Long. "You take real clothes, you copy them, and then you change them. I did that for Cabaret, too." Proving that even the most casual-looking assignment can be a challenge of epic proportions.
The Epic Proportions design team includes David Gallo (scenery), Paul Gallo (lighting), and Aural Fixation (sound). Laura Oppenheimer was the assistant costume designer; Jessica Fried and Michael McLeer were Long's assistants. The costumes were built by Euro Co, with millinery by Rodney Gordon and Woody Shelp, and wigs by Paul Huntley. The stage weaponry was designed by Lewis Shaw. The rest of the Contact creative team included Thomas Lynch (scenery), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting), and Scott Stauffer (sound). Jennifer Arnold was assistant costume designer; Holen Miles was Long's personal assistant. Carole Morales was wig/hair consultant; the wig and hair design was by Paul Huntley. Costumes for "Swinging" were built by Euro Co; the boots were by Kulyk Theatrical. The women's costumes for "Did You Move?" and the yellow dress for "Contact" were built by John Schneeman Studio Ltd. The presenter's gown (for the awards-show opening of "Contact") and additional women's clothes for "Contact" were built by Jen King. The men's shoes for "Did You Move?" were by J.C. Theatrical. The millinery was by Rodney Gordon.
Epic Proportions continues its run at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Contact, a Lincoln Center Theatre production, is currently playing at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre and moves upstairs to the larger Vivian Beaumont when it begins its Broadway run early in 2000.