Something Wicked This Way Comes

by Michelle Griffin on June 22, 2008

Cast and costumes for Wicked, the new musical.
Cast and costumes for Wicked, the new musical.
Cast and costumes for Wicked, the new musical.

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.

These are only three of the 380 outfits on display in the Broadway hit musical Wicked, the Wizard of Oz prequel that premieres at the Regent on July 12.

In an extravagant 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 costumes that really stand out, a twisted riff on Edwardian finery gone mad in a parallel universe.

While some musicals, such as The Producers, have more costumes, their chorus lines are dressed in identical outfits, only the leads getting to be the show ponies. The paradigm is reversed in Wicked: lead characters Glinda and Elphaba dress with deceptive simplicity, but the ensemble is kitted out with 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 completely 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, on the phone from her New York home. “I love the way clothes are constructed. Dior and Galliano were very much interested in the way clothes are constructed: they are unbelievable engineers.”

Hilferty, 55, was already one of the leading designers on Broadway when Wicked came calling in late 2001. Since graduating from St Martin’s School of Art in London in the 1970s, she’d worked on more than 200 shows, designing costumes, sets, even directing for South African playwright Athol Fugard. She is chairwoman of design at the Tisch School of Art at NYU, and a big believer that the costume designer must be immersed in the politics, history, art and philosophy that informs each show.

But this was a truly complex challenge: Wicked 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 famous 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,” says Hilferty, “and tried to imagine a parallel universe that had developed, as if a chunk of the earth had spun off.”

It was an exciting challenge for a designer who had always been a conscientious historian, spending hours in museums and galleries studying old clothes to understand how they were made.

“This time, I could create a history,” she explains. “I could take the period of 1900 and twist it into a future we don’t know about.”

The Oz of Wicked is a decidedly skewed parallel universe where animals lecture at the university and even the humans morph into strange shapes and colours.

Wicked has a Chernobyl feeling,” says Hilferty, “weird bumps and lumps, a misshapen quality. It’s as if the bodies underneath were warped.”

The costumes we’ll see in Melbourne are recreations 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 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 Melbourne 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 Stynes was perfect for the role. In her hat and high-buttoned boots, she’s well over six foot tall.

Stynes has been working with dance supervisor Mark Myars to perfect the mincing geisha steps she needs to take wearing the costume.

“In this show, everybody has their own specific look,” says wardrobe supervisor Trent Armstrong, a lanky American who’s 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.”

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) 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 hot, 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 that 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, and then she steps into a cylinder that will shape the ruffles of her upside-down tutu. The peplum of her hand-beaded brocade bodice is so stiff Tan can rest her digital camera on it as on a table. A lime-green bodice in an eyelash fabric is studded with little 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.

M’s photo shoot 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 coordinator Michelle Skeete, as Stynes 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 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.”


What’s the big deal? It’s the most successful new musical since  Phantom of the Opera , which debuted in 1986. Since it opened on Broadway in 2003, Wicked has smashed box-office records in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and London. It’s also playing to packed houses in Tokyo and Stuttgart. The Melbourne production has already sold $10 million worth of tickets and, after  Spamalot fizzled out in April, everyone hopes  Wicked becomes a drawcard for tourists.

What’s the story? It’s based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, which reimagines The Wonderful Wizard of Ozfrom the Wicked Witch of the West’s point of view. While the book is a complicated political allegory about the nature of evil, the musical focuses on the relationship between green-skinned misfit Elphaba and popular blonde Glinda before they became famous.

Is the witch really wicked? No, she’s just misunderstood. The Wizard maligns Elphaba because she wants to save the talking Animals from persecution. If you see a little George Bush in the Wizard, you’ve joined the dots correctly.

Is it like the movie? Nope. No Dorothy. No dancing dwarfs. The musical’s inspired more by the original Oz book, which was itself a political allegory.

Really? Yeah, the Emerald City was Washington, the yellow brick road was big business, Dorothy a proto-feminist heroine. Wicked is truer to the original spirit than the Judy Garland movie.

Never mind that.

Any good songs? Defying Gravity is Elphaba’s Big Moment with the empowerment chorus, but Glinda’s star turn, Popular, is the show’s real ear worm – you’ll be humming it for weeks.

Any scary bits? The flying monkeys are pretty freaky.

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