By Evan Henerson
Ground zero: nailing the gangsters.
What, you expected waiters? We’re talking “Bullets over Broadway,” after all, a tale of gun-toting thugs exerting their muscle into creative arenas in ways that only the great Woody Allen could dream up and that only musical theater director extraordinaire Susan Stroman could bring to life.
So when he took on the assignment of creating the sartorial look of 1920s New York for the musical version of “Bullets,” costume designer William Ivey Long was thinking about thugs.
“Big focus on the gangsters,” says Long, whose designs would end up winning a Drama Desk Award and his 15th Tony Award nomination. “We knew getting the gangsters right would be the main thing. After that, the flappers, of course, and then after that, the diva.”
“Or maybe, before all things, the diva,” he adds with a laugh.
Long is referring to self-adoring actress Helen Sinclair (played on the “Bullets” tour at the Pantages Theatre by Emma Stratton), and rest assured we will be giving the diva her due presently. But for now let’s stay with the men with the guns. They include Nick Valenti whose funding of playwright David Shayne’s new Broadway play comes with certain strings attached, and Cheech, the tough but curiously literate henchman sent along to chaperone the proceedings. This being a show originally directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, “Bullets” also features a chorus of gangsters who…well, engage in a practice that wise guys are not generally known for doing.
“You will be thrilled by the gangster ballet. I think it’s some of Susan’s strongest work,” says Long who has now collaborated with Stroman on more than 25 productions. “It’s so masculine and threatening and just gorgeous.”
By no means is this the first time Long has traveled to the world of toughs and molls. Musical theater fans continue to ask Long about the splendid Runyonland duds worn by Nathan Lane, Peter Gallagher and company that Long created for the 1992 Jerry Zaks-directed revival of “Guys and Dolls.”
“That was sort of unforgettable, and deliberately so, but that was a very different Runyonland,” Long says. “We did that in Technicolor. Our gangsters in ‘Bullets’ are very close to real, very dark and foreboding, so when they tap dance, it’s a jolt. I’m always aware of what I’ve done before, mainly to make sure I don’t do it again.”
That last part can be easier said than done. In a career spanning five decades and includes more than 70 Broadway credits, countless regional and international productions and work for opera, film and TV, Long has visited and garbed a lot of eras. Long recently tabulated that he has designed costumes for nine productions of “Can-Can,” four in the last 12 months alone.
“Many of those are for Susan Stroman, so I don’t want to be seen as recycling,” Long says. “I do pride myself that someone is looking. I try to make sure they’re all different.”
Above original designs for Bullets Over Broadway costumes
Unlike film or TV, the stage is the director’s medium. Long gets his creative marching orders from the director as well as all subsequent notes. After getting the assignment, Long launches into research the period he will be designing. If the piece has been adapted from an existing film, as is the case with “Bullets,” Long needs to know if the look of the film will specifically be referenced in the stage version (in “Bullets,” it was not).
Long then drafts a number of sketches which he uses to paper the walls of his New York studio. The director visits and places yellow sticky tabs on favorites. Then Long is off and running, going from thumbnails or larger sketches to creating the actual costumes, all the way through to multiple fittings. Costumes are refitted for new body types, but are rarely redesigned for a tour, so audiences who catch “Bullets” at the Pantages will see the original Broadway costumes. If a show is recreated for an international production, Long may get to go back in and rework.
“I always say thank you for the London production. That’s when you get to really fix it,” he says, laughing.
If Long has done his job correctly, audiences will drink in the glamour of, say, one of Helen Sinclair’s many diva gowns, but also take for granted that the outfit will allow for Stratton’s (Helen) to perform an acrobatic seduction dance while riding a rolling costume wardrobe known as a “gondola.”
Consider the shapeless, Grecian-inspired gowns of “Downton Abbey” worn by Lady Mary Crawley which would have been worn during the same general time period as “Bullets over Broadway.”
“That’s what they wore, and there is very little fabric,” Long says. “The women looked like statues. That was one of the points of it, and Susan has them dancing and twirling and kicking. Well you can’t kick and dance and twirl in that Grecian 1920s look, so I had to transmogrify a period. You sort of shift and shape and change, and when they’re in repose, you see the ‘20s. But when they move, it’s whatever the dance requires. Hopefully no one will notice that it’s been a challenge because they look so appropriate.”
“Trust me, Lady Mary couldn’t do high leg fan kicks walking down the stairs in Downton Abbey,” he adds.
The son of actor-director parents who had met in drama school, Long studied history at William and Mary college before moving on to study art history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (“the family school”) and, ultimately to Yale Drama School to study scenic design under Ming Cho Lee. Long never formally studied costume design. Instead, he picked up the craft through “osmosis.” Seeking a mentor, Long moved into the Chelsea Hotel and apprenticed himself to famed couturier Charles James. As some of Long’s classmates (including Christopher Durang and Albert Innaurato) began to stage their plays, they asked Long to contribute designs, not for sets, but for costumes. His break came in 1982 with the Broadway premier of Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston’s “Nine” directed by Tommy Tune.
“Nine” earned Long the first of his 15 Tony nominations. He has won six, the most recent in 2013 for the revival of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” which continues to tour. Long’s current slate includes costumes for the upcoming Broadway musical comedy “Disaster!” and several international projects. He will spend much of January in Los Angeles readying the Rydell High kids for “Grease Live” set to air on Fox January 31. November 2016 will mark the 30th anniversary of another of Long’s now iconic Broadway looks: Walter Bobbie’s production of “Chicago.”
His work has been featured in exhibitions including “William Ivey Long: Between Taste and Travesty” at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina in 2007. The title came from former “New York” critic John Simon who used the phrase in his review of the off-Broadway play “The Lady and the Clarinet” in 1983.
It was the first professional review citing Long’s work, and the designer loved it.
“I was just over the moon by it. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness. He gets me,’” Long recalls. “I always said I’m either going to put it on my tombstone or I’m going to use it for an exhibition of my work. So we had a catalog, and I knew what the title should be. Not only that, but I have subsequently become friends with John Simon and he came to the opening and gave the opening address at this exhibit. So how about that?”
This of course begs the question…was Simon paying a compliment. Does a costume designer want to hover between taste and travesty?
If that costume designer is William Ivey Long, the answer is an unequivocal affirmative.
“I guess I push things,” he says. “I sort of do an interpretive take which is how I see the world, and sometimes I guess this take is sort of mad. I don’t go out of my way to make travesty. I think my brain just has a pressure cooker in it and it turns out crazy.”