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.
These are only three of the 380 outfits on display in the Broadway hit musical Wicked, the Wizard Of Oz prequel that premieres in Melbourne at the Regent Theatre on July 12.
In a production for which no expense has been spared - the Australian version is rumoured to have cost between $12 million and $14 million - it's the phantasmagorical costumes that really stand out, a twisted riff on Edwardian finery gone mad in a parallel universe.
Some musicals, such as The Producers, have more costumes, but their chorus lines are dressed in identical outfits and only the leads get to be show ponies. The paradigm is reversed in Wicked: lead characters Glinda and Elphaba dress with deceptive simplicity, but the ensemble is kitted out with all the theatrical extravagance of a Galliano haute-couture show for Dior.
While there are matching costumes for the seven monkeys, five palace guards, four ballroom guards and three bureaucrats, all the other costumes are unique, and every piece of clothing is custom-made for the performer.
Each cast member changes, on average, into eight new outfits through the course of the show. Little wonder that the show's costume designer, Susan Hilferty, won a 2004 Tony Award for her work on the original Broadway show.
"I love couture," enthuses Hilferty, 55, who is in Melbourne putting finishing touches to the costumes. "I love the way clothes are constructed. Dior and Galliano were very much interested in the way clothes are constructed: they are unbelievable engineers."
Wicked was a complex challenge: the musical takes place both in an imaginary world and in a landscape the audience already knows from one of the best-loved films of all time.
But Hilferty had no interest in referencing the famous costumes that Hollywood designer Adrian created for the 1939 movie The Wizard Of Oz - the flowerpot felt munchkins, the green satin militaria of the Emerald City, or Dorothy's ruby slippers, which are on display at the Smithsonian.
The twisted Edwardian look of Wicked is informed more by the original novel The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz by L. Frank Baum, which was published in 1900.
"I looked at the world of the time the book was written, the turn of the century, and tried to imagine a parallel universe that had developed, as if a chunk of the earth had spun off," says Hilferty.
The costumes for the Australian production are re-creations of the Broadway originals, made in the same labour-intensive ways in the same studios, notably at Broadway outfitters Eric Winterling Studios and Tricorne Costumes, and by milliners Lynne Mackey and Rodney Gordon.
Shoes were made by the Sydney designer Jodie Morrison of Steppin' Out, the wigs are made to the production's specifications in Bali, and even the goofy green sunglasses and crazy print stockings are made to order.
The costumes follow the same extravagant templates as the Broadway originals, to the point that members of the ensemble are now cast not just for their talents, but to suit individual costumes. They wanted a statuesque dancer for the exaggerated lines of the Lettuce Patch dress, so long, lean Styles was perfect for the role. In her hat and high-buttoned boots, she's well over 1.8 metres tall.
Styles has been working with dance supervisor Mark Myars to perfect the mincing geisha steps she needs to take in the costume.
"In this show, everybody has their own specific look," says wardrobe supervisor Trent Armstrong, a lanky American who has come for the unpacking, organising and final fittings of several hundred individual pieces. "That also makes it difficult for when somebody new comes into the show; when you have to get somebody new into the costume."
The cast of 36 includes a handful of spares and understudies, each with their own custom-fitted kit, but what do you do when, say, the tall girl and the tall understudy are both ill? "Hopefully, you find someone the same size," he says
The elaborate costumes of the Emerald City scene are introduced in the penultimate scene of the first act, when college roommates Elphaba (who will become the Wicked Witch) and Glinda (who will become the Good Witch) come to the capital to meet the Wizard.
"I knew this was the most elegant, most high-fashion scene," says Hilferty, who imagined the citizens on a promenade. "I started with a top hat, a monocle, a walking stick. I imagined an Edwardian promenade dress, a big hat, an umbrella. I began there and started playing with that idea."
Hilferty describes her work as "riffing - like jazz". The cabbage dress came from the question "What happens if I turn a skirt upside down, so it's wider at the top and narrow at the bottom?"
In the wardrobe department at the Regent, the results of Hilferty's riffing hang in long rows of frock coats and asymmetrically pleated man skirts, and double-brimmed top hats. Some pieces are so complicated they are labelled "front" and "back" so the cast members know how to wear them. Colours span the green spectrum from citrus and pea to absinthe and menthol to emerald and jade.
Tan's cabbage outfit starts with spider-webbed lime-green tights. Then she steps into a cylinder that will shape the ruffles of her upside-down tutu. The peplum of her beaded brocade bodice is so stiff Tan can rest her camera on it as on a table. A lime-green bodice is studded with handmade rosettes. The effect is both decadent and decayed: Hilferty wanted the dress to look shredded, as if she'd torn a piece of paper over and over again. The ensemble is topped off with a wide, blonde, Marie Antoinette wig, flattened on top like the skirt, and a pair of circular green sunglasses.
A photo shoot in Melbourne last week was the first time the Emerald City ensemble had tried on its full costumes, and crew members came running to gasp at the effects.
"Work it, baby, work it," shouts hair and make-up co-ordinator Michelle Skeete, as Styles sashays to the mirror in her dress.
"My last show was Miss Saigon and all I wore was bikinis or rags," laughs Tan. "But look at this. Can you imagine us at the [Melbourne] Cup?"
Hilferty says designing the clothes for Wicked was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. "From the beginning it felt - although this seems quite the wrong word in the circumstances - but it seemed effortless. There were moments when I felt as if I had been programmed to do Wicked all my life."
Hilferty reveals that she keeps adding to the design with each new production. "Each opening is a chance to perfect it," she says. And yet, she thinks she could do more.
"It's possible to do Wicked in a completely different way," she says. "I've done that before with shows. I would be thrilled, one day, to do Wicked again with a completely different reimagining of it."