Dress For Success Besides the set and the lights and sound, much of the “heavy lifting” of the narrative for Wicked is done by the costumes. More than 200 costumes, each individually tailored for the particular actor, sprang from the fertile mind of Susan Hilferty, not to mention double that number in shoes and hats, each with a unique, eccentric design. With a resumé that boasts work on more than 200 stage productions that span Broadway, opera, and experimental theater, Hilferty had a unique assignment with Wicked: to create from whole cloth a believable world of Winkies, Munchkins, and those iconic witches. Being the chair of the Department of Design for Stage and Film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Hilferty puts on her academic cap to work out the puzzle of Oz.
Susan Hilferty excerpts from a conversation with John Coyne and Keith Gerchak of Theatre Projects Consultants I come from a background in which there were no arts whatsoever - not even television. We read. That was our entertainment. When I was in high school, I was interested in drawing and making things. I never saw professional theatre. I was in plays, but I never saw plays. Clearly, it was something that I was passionate about, but it was not rooted in any kind of family experience.
WITH only four actors playing over 20 roles, “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” is madcap onstage. But life in the wings is just as manic.
For 90 minutes crew members snake past one another with ladders, smoke machines and life-size dummies, all without making a sound. But most patrons don’t even know these backstage artists exist.
It’s the same with any production: after opening night, directors and designers usually move to their next projects, while a small army stays behind to safeguard their artistic vision. Take Nevin Hedley, who has been the production stage manager of “The 39
June 27, 2008
Balsamic with that? … Christina Tan in her cabbage outfit designed in the tradition of haute couture.
Photo: Simon Schluter
The wardrobe department called Christina Tan's outfit "the Cabbage". The name was inspired by the dozens of chlorophyll-tinted layers of tulle and netting in her upside-down petticoat, the layers as ruffled as any member of the brassica family. The fish-tailed Edwardian dress worn by Liz Styles is called "the Lettuce Patch", for the beds of green ruffles planted across her torso, and the regency finery worn by Matthew Hamilton is known as "the Cockatoo", for the feathery plumes on its chest which cascade beneath the coat-tails.
Susan Hilferty employs the artistry of costume design to illuminate the unknown yet somehow familiar world of Wicked.
Susan Hilferty, the Tony Award–winning costume designer for the blockbuster musical Wicked, describes herself as a storyteller. "I make the world real," she says.
The best costume designers assist in reflecting and revealing character and emotions, creating a sense of time and place, and enhancing and illuminating the script. Hilferty is one of the best, and her 200 costumes for Wicked, together with Eugene Lee's ingenious set and Kenneth Posner's striking lighting, bring to life the world envisioned by Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics), Winnie Holzman (book) and director Joe Mantello.
By Mark Blankenship
And in Wicked, which opened on Broadway in 2003, that world is incredibly detailed. The musical reimagines The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the witches, and from her first creative meetings, Hilferty knew she wanted to honor the show's magic by giving each character an utterly unique appearance. That means every costume is tailored to fit the actor who wears it, and that even the ensemble members have one-of-a-kind looks. If you're at the show, pay careful attention to scenes in the Emerald City: All of the townspeople wear green, but every woman's skirt has an individual cut, and every man's hat has its own special brim.
Of course, the costumes begin with Hilferty's personal vision. In one key scene, Elphaba, who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, learns to fly while wearing a dramatic black dress. Hilferty not only created the shape of the costume, but also designed its fabrics herself. (There are over thirty materials in that outfit alone.) "Each piece of the dress has to have a certain weight and texture," she explains. "And even though it's black, there are potentially a million types of black fabric. You have to decide which black you want."
June 22, 2008
By Michelle Griffin
Casting the performer according to the cloth is par for
the course in the extravagant Wizard of Oz prequel, in which the
real stars are the phantasmagorical costumes.
The wardrobe department called Christina Tan's outfit the "Cabbage". The name was inspired by the dozens of chlorophyll-tinted layers of tulle and netting in her upside-down petticoat, the layers as ruffled as any member of the Brassica family. The fish-tailed Edwardian dress worn by Liz Styles is called the "Lettuce Patch", for the beds of green ruffles planted across her torso; and the regency finery worn by Matthew Hamilton is known as the "Cockatoo", for the feathery plumes on the chest and cascading beneath the tails of his coat.
August 1, 2004
Last April, when Susan Hilferty learned she won a 2004 EDDY award on behalf of her team for her twisted Edwardian take on the costumes for Wicked, little did she know that she would soon need a bigger awards cabinet. Hilferty also received the 2004 Tony Award for Best Costume Design, proving that EDDY judges are ahead of the game.
Who are the movers and shakers of entertainment technology? Who are the people in this industry — be they designers, inventors, manufacturers, technicians or dealers — who can get things done? And what does it mean in this industry to have power, anyway? We were sitting around the office one day trying to figure that out, and it started turning into kind of a fun game. Then it started to get a bit obsessive. And then, we started wondering, what does the rest of the industry think?
Broadway's big hit of the season features full makeup on the main character, outrageous costumes, a tuneful pop score, and a large foreboding presence overseeing the whole thing — and no, we're not talking about Taboo.
It's Wicked of course, the new musical based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, which tells the back story of two main characters from L. Frank Baum's Oz books, Glinda, who would come to be known as The Good Witch, and Elphaba, who would be forever known as The Wicked Witch of the West. While the novel explores such adult themes as animal rights, political oppression, and the nature of evil, the Broadway production, featuring a book by Winnie Holzman and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, tones down the politics to zero in on the relationship between the two women, from their meeting — and tentative friendship — at Shiz University to their fateful journey to the Emerald City to their eventual iconic destinies. Directed by Joe Mantello and starring Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda and Idina Menzel as Elphaba, Wicked received mixed notices both in its San Francisco tryout at the Curran last summer and in its Broadway opening at the Gershwin in November, but has garnered spectacular word of mouth plus hefty advance ticket sales, and as of now looks to be the show to beat come Tony time.
For the new Broadway revival of Into the Woods, the creative team played it by the book—the storybook, that is. In re-imagining this Stephen Sondheim musical about what happens after happily ever after, director James Lapine (who also directed the original production) wanted the designers—Susan Hilferty (costumes), Doug Schmidt (sets), Brian MacDevitt (lights), Elaine McCarthy (projections), and Dan Moses Schreier (sound)--to look beyond the fairy tales that populate the show—Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Baker and His Wife, Little Red Riding Hood--to the actual act of storytelling, and ultimately to the books themselves.
The process of taking an initial idea to final design can be a long but fascinating journey. To bring life to Milky-Cow for the Broadway revival of Into the Woods (the animal was little more than a prop in the original production, but is being played by a live actor in the new version), costume designer Susan Hilferty created a wide-ranging series of sketches focusing on different aspects of the character before settling on the one that worked best with the production. Here she offers us a glimpse into such a process:
Scenes from a love gone wrong: An oversized eye sits against a bright blue drop, peering through light brown scrim as spectators take seats. In the prologue, young lovers dance to discordant music, with a mourning dove and a distorted giggle integrated into the soundscape. The score is reminiscent of The Rink. Yet, when a young man carves a heart in a tree, then stabs it, we are not under the roller coaster but deep inside a tunnel of unrequited love.
Oct 1, 2000
By Susan Hilferty
Last Year in ED, NYU Design Chair Susan Hilferty Wrote That Many Prospective Students Weren't Prepared for Grad School. This Year, She Proposes a Provocative Idea for Correcting That Problem
Dear Reader: In this, our annual education issue, Susan Hilferty, the chair of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Design for Stage and Film, offers a daring suggestion for undergrad students contemplating grad school: Don't rush into anything. After seeing numerous applicants coming in for interviews woefully unprepared artistically and mentally for the rigors of grad school, she realized the problem was not that these students weren't potentially good designers, but that they weren't adequately prepared to think and work like designers. Some had no real drawing skills, many hadn't even bothered to go to the theatre. In essence, they weren't living the life of a designer. Hilferty's advice to these undergrad students can be found on page 36, and the title says it all: "Take a Year Off."
Oct 1, 1999
I am sitting with a young women who is showing me what I hope are her dreams. Spread out on the table are some crude drawings. I am holding her CV in my hand when I ask her a question: "Do you go to the theatre?"
Twentieth Century Literature
A Scholarly and Critical Journal
Published by Hofstra University
Volume 39, Winter 1993, Number 4 Athol Fugard issue
Jack Barbera, Guest Editor
BY SUSAN HILFERTY
One of my first meetings with Athol Fugard best reveals his approach to theatre and theatre design. It was in New Haven in 1980, during a design meeting for A Lesson from Aloes , for which I was to do the costumes. The set designer’s rough model was the centerpiece of the meeting. I will never forget how Athol refined the design through that model, and his brilliant way of encouraging and directing his fellow artists.
Theatre Crafts Magazine
By Beth Howard
When Sharon Ott decided to set the Berkeley Repertory’s production of Twelfth Night in the 1920s, costume designer Susan Hilferty suggested the director read Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years , a novel based in the period of France a few years prior to that roaring era. In the end, the novel’s surrealist style and sensibility set the tone for the production as a whole—costumes included.
“She was almost performing a dramaturgical function,” Ott says of the designer’s contribution to the play’s shifted focus. “She doesn’t just talk in terms of the line of the clothes. It’s the idea we’re trying to put across and how we can make it relate to now. There’s no one I feel as comfortable with talking about the entire play.”
By Adam Gordon
A theatre designer working up a sweat in playland...
So, besides learning Afrikaans, what’s a theatre sets and costume designer from New York City doing in South Africa?
“Working... working,” says Susan Hilferty, designer and co-director of “Playland,” Athol Fugard’s latest play.
“And doing my mind because I’m trying to do design and I really need my studio and it’s all very difficult to do out of a hotel room, and I really need a day off, but it’s okay.”
Ms. Hilferty, a costume design lecturer at NYU, has been closely associated with Fugard’s plays since she worked with him on a US production of “A Lesson from Aloes” 12 years ago.
LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE NEWSLETTER, 1989
By Victorria Johnson
Costume designer SUSAN HILFERTY. (Playhouse Photo)
“Clothing is the medium in which I work. But it’s not just clothes that I like. It’s the idea of working collaboratively when creating theatre. It’s like having four musicians creating the same piece of music. You can’t do it by yourself.”
She has designed the costumes for the La Jolla Playhouse production of Figaro Gets a Divorce , Gillette , The Matchmaker and The Tempest . Her work has included collaborations with Des McAnuff, Robert Woodruff, the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Athol Fugard, André Gregory and Sharon Ott. She has designed for dance (Alvin Ailey), film (Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave ) and television (1985 Emmy nominee for “A Different Twist”). Recent theatre work in New York includes Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca and Harry Kondoleon’s Zero Positive . For the Playhouse’s 1988 season, she designed Two Rooms and 80 Days , world premieres directed by Artistic Director Des McAnuff.