by Deborah Martin on September 6, 2022
Secrets and tons of tiny details are stitched into the costumes that Tony Award-winning designer Susan Hilferty creates, though they may not be visible from even the best seats in the house.
Happily, the McNay Art Museum is providing a closer look. “Something Wicked | Susan Hilferty Costumes” opens Thursday at the musuem. It includes costumes from “Wicked,” as well pieces from Hilferty’s Tony-nominated work for “Lestat,” Elton John’s short-lived adaptation of Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles,” and designs for “La Traviata” and other musical theater productions.
There’s even a bit of a sneak peek: One corner of the show is devoted to her designs for the Metropolitan Opera’s pandemic-delayed production of “Aida,” now slated to open in 2024.
“It has been pretty astonishing for me, at this moment in my life and career, to walk into this room and see friends, many friends from the past,” said Hilferty, who was in San Antonio for two days to help fine-tune the exhibit. “When I look in here, I’m not just seeing the clothes, I’m seeing the actress or actor that’s wearing them, but also seeing the hands of the makers.”
Hilferty was in work mode, clad in comfy black clothes and “ancient” tennies, her silver hair pulled back into a tidy braid.
“Wicked” is the show she is best-known for, and it is front and center in the museum’s Tobin Theatre Arts and Brown Galleries.
The flirty pink party dress from the number “Popular” is at the entrance to the exhibit, just a few feet from the long black coat that Hilferty designed for herself to wear to the 2004 Tony Awards. She knew she wouldn’t have time to thank everyone she wanted to if she won. So she had their signatures embroidered into the fabric. That includes the stars — Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth and Joel Grey — as well as the milliners, cobblers and other makers who helped bring her ideas to life.
“The woman who did the embroidery said, ‘I feel like a forger’ because she copied everybody’s signature,” Hilferty said. “After, people would come up and they would feel the hem of my garment — it’s the only time that’s ever happened.”
Her Tony Award is in the show, too. Usually, she said, “it’s just up on a shelf with all the other awards. It’s not on display.”
That must be a pretty crowded shelf. Over the years, Hilferty’s work has been recognized with awards from Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle and the Costume Society of America. And she’s received several lifetime achievement awards, too.
Several of those awards recognize her work on “Wicked.”
The much-adored musical is adapted from Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, which tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz.” The book also gave the character a name, Elphaba. The show focuses on the friendship between Elphaba and a classmate who ultimately is known as Glinda the Good.
The McNay exhibit includes Elphaba’s signature look: A form-fitting gown and a sleek black hat.
That hat holds a few secrets. For one thing, a microphone and a battery pack are squirreled away inside of it. That’s because it is first donned onstage, in the middle of a scene, and covers and muffles the microphone the actress already is wearing.
The hat also has a capability that very few have seen.
“I originally designed it so that it could go smooshed in a narrow box like a pizza box, and so it would grow the moment that she opened the box, almost like a pop-up hat,” Hilferty said.
The hat trick was tried out briefly while the show was being developed but was swiftly dropped and has never been part of the completed show. That came as news to Rodney Gordon, who has built the hats for “Wicked” throughout its long life. In an interview they did together, Gordon mentioned the hat popping out of a box. Hilferty set him straight.
“I said, ‘Rodney haven’t you seen the show? We haven’t ever done that. It only happened once in California,'” Hilferty said. “So for 18 years, he has been making all of the Elphaba hats to pop out of a box.”
Another iconic costume from the show is the pale blue gown that Glinda wears when she makes her first entrance, floating into the action in a clear bubble. Up close, the dress is a beaded confection that looks almost as if it could take flight on its own. The skirt features layers of scalloped fabric. More layers are hidden beneath it.
Hilferty lifted the skirt to reveal several petticoats, which give the dress its distinctive bell shape. Between the layers and all the tiny beads that line it, that airy-looking dress is actually heavy, coming in at about 16 pounds.
Another secret is the harness sewn into the waist of the dress. Whenever the actress playing Glinda is in the bubble, she has to wear the harness as a safety precaution.
“When she’s onstage, when she’s actually getting back into the bubble, one of the monkeys has to come in, unzip her, clip her in and then the monkey … has to give the signal that she’s safe,” Hilferty said.
About half of the exhibit is devoted to process and the many collaborations that go into Hilferty’s work. One case spotlights how the masks for the monkeys in “Wicked” came together; another includes stunning embroidery for the current revival of “Funny Girl.”
“We are celebrating the collaboration between Susan and all of her various makers, and the cases have a very similar language,” said R. Scott Blackshire, curator of the Tobin Collection of Theater Arts. “We have Susan’s design, and then we have the pieces and the process of how it is made in collaboration with Susan, and then a final product.”
In working on the show, Blackshire said he was struck by all of the work that is hidden from audiences. And he and Hilferty are glad to be sharing that with visitors.
“A lot of what they do, we don’t see,” she said. “Everything’s underneath — there’s so many layers to what’s happening. In here, we celebrate what the makers do.”