BWW Feature: Tony Award Winning Costume Designer William Ivey Long Talks New Monograph, His North Carolina Roots and Designing With Improbable Fabrics
Six-Time Tony Award Winning Costume Designer William Ivey Long is a busy man. He's not only working on five shows simultaneously, including the movie-to-Broadway musicals of Beetlejuice and Tootsie, but he is also celebrating the publication of two books.
The first accompanies The Mint Museum exhibition, William Ivey Long: Costume Designs 2007-2016, which runs through June 3rd in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The second, The Designs of William Ivey Long, is a monograph by Bobbi Owen chronicling Long's career over four decades and 350 shows.
Next week, Long and Owen will be stopping by The North Carolina Museum of History to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The North Carolina Arts Council. They spoke to me to discuss Owen's book, Long's North Carolina roots and designing with improbable fabrics.
The book chronicles Long's career over 350 shows, which include not only the 73 musicals for which he is known but also the plays, dance and opera productions, for which he isn't? Why was that an important story to tell?
Owen: He's more well-rounded than in fact people are aware. Who knew that William Ivey Long had designed as many Shakespeare productions as he has or that he's done the original Sam Shepard plays? He's been at the beginning of so many important works.
Did any of those less known productions influence the work most people are familiar with?
Long: Yes. Here's a for instance. Back 15 years ago, Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Ashman created Smile, the musical, based on the film Smile about a teenage beauty pageant. And I really wanted to do it. So, to help me get in there, I called up and wrote letters to Proctor & Gamble who did all the Miss Teen, Miss USA, and Miss Universe, the three pageants, and I volunteered my experience to design whatever they needed because I would love the experience for Smile. Well, they accepted me, and I worked with some of the most amazingly talented people who had been with television from the beginning. And I ended up doing five years of beauty pageants, three a year. The overlap with Broadway and early television was extraordinary, and I learned so much. Now skip 25 years, to when I worked on Grease Live out there in California, I had already gotten my feet wet in live television. It ties it all together.
When you started out, you apprenticed for Couturier Charles James. How did that experience influence you as a designer and what is the connection (if any) between fashion and costume design?
Long: Fashion each season is the brainchild of each designer and they imagine what they would like to see the world look like. It's their dreams, their imagination. I'm telling stories not creating brand new, cutting edge of the moment beauty. Every costume I make is one of a kind. I don't make 500 of each in 14 different sizes. I do one of a kind couture garments with four or five fittings. That's the joy in it for me.
Owen: Well it's better than fashion because you get to do it in every period. He (Long) gets to be a fashion designer in the 16th century or the 1930's or 2018. He really understands how to tell a story with costumes, that the clothes that somebody wears, that he puts on them, really helps to explain who their character is.
Talk to me about your North Carolina roots.
Long: Life is not linear. You know it goes around like this and curves, but it looks awfully linear because my parents were both Carolina Playmakers. They met at The Carolina Playmakers and at The Lost Colony. And I'm going down next week, in my 48th year working with the Lost Colony, having started as a colonist child, working my way up as prop master and tech director. I took time off when I was at the Yale Drama School, clawing my way into the jungle of the theater, and then I came back in 1989 and have been production designer ever since. It's one of my favorite all year-round involvements that I enjoy.
And growing up at Raleigh Little Theatre?
Long: My father's first job was as technical director of The Raleigh Little Theatre. Cameron Village was the only apartment complex, and everything else was houses, so my parents were offered the stage left dressing room. I know it sounds crazy, but it was just the two of them and little me, so it was enough room. It's a beautiful building. I love the fact that my first childhood home is still standing. Careful where you raise your children!
Owen: I think he tried really hard to avoid the family business as he puts it. He wasn't going to do theater, he was going to do art history. He was going to be a professor. But it turned out that he couldn't avoid the family business because it was what he was born to do and what he's actually brilliant at.
Do you have a favorite show you've designed?
Long: There are many of them. It's not just one. My first Broadway big hit was Nine the musical, based on the Fellini movie 8 ½ . It was just magical and my first big musical, second musical on Broadway, but first breakout hit as it were. But Guys and Dolls, the revival in 1992, I think I must say is my favorite of all because Jerry Zaks directed it, Tony Walton designed it, the Runyon Land, and it starred Nathan Lane and Faith Prince. It was just a drop-dead experience for me. It just all worked. It was extraordinary.
Was there anything that surprised you in working with William Ivey Long for the book?
Owen: I don't think he's ever happier than when he has his hands in the work, that he wants to be sewing sequins on the gown before it goes on stage, that he really wants to be immersed in it from the beginning to the end. That's something that I think surprised me because I know other designers who will draw full sketches and they will make sure that the fabrics are right, and they will go to fittings, but once it gets to the theater and it's there on stage, they start to work on the next project. I think William stays with it.
It seems to me that if you are going to keep Chicago fresh for over 22 years and 34 countries, you're not just phoning it in, you're not just relying on how you did it the last time, you're not just taking advantage of the success from the past, but continuing to be part of that process, and not just doing it over but reinventing it time after time after time.
You designed a collection of dresses which debuted at The French Consulate last summer for Elle Décor and the North Carolina based company Glen Raven. Tell me a little bit about the Sunbrella collection and the gowns you're bringing to The North Carolina Museum of History May 16th.
Long: Years ago, I was reading a magazine, and there was a big, fabulous ball gown, full page, designed by Vivienne Westwood, one of my contemporary heroes. So here is this full-page ball gown, but here's the twist. She was commissioned to design it, and it was made out of, wall-to-wall carpeting. It was fantastic, and I said to myself, 'what an assignment.' I dream of being commissioned to design something out of an improbable fabric. So, when I get the call from Elle Décor and it's Sunbrella fabrics, well I jumped at it. I said, how high and how soon should I jump.
Owen: I hope that the audience in Raleigh are going to become even more familiar with the reason he's got six Tony Awards. People are going to be able to walk close up and see some of his work right there.
For more information on An Evening with William Ivey Long at The North Carolina Museum of History, visit:
Photo credit: Marie Antoinette gown by Donald Sanders. Portrait by Jenny Anderson.