The travails of designing a Broadway production often go unnoticed by many theatre-goers as their only exposure to a show is the finished product, yet the stories behind the magic often lead down interesting paths which can result in wonderful collaborations and sometimes an onslaught of accolades.
One highly anticipated musical this season is the Manhattan Theatre Company's latest offering, LoveMusik, which marks Tony Award winning director Harold Prince's long awaited return to the Broadway musical, having last helmed Parade in 1998. Joining the esteemed director is his long-time costume designer, and fellow Tony Award winner, Judith Dolan, who has worked with Prince off and on dating back to 1981 with the Houston Grand Opera's Willie Stark (an operatic spin on the book "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren).
Since then, Dolan has worked alongside Prince in numerous Broadway shows including Merrily We Roll Along, Parade and Candide, the latter earning the designer a Tony for her outstanding costumes.
Finding time to return to her full-time job, as a professor of costume design and associate dean of the Division of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, San Diego, though only for a few days as she will return to New York in time to iron out any creases in the costumes before opening night, Dolan spoke from her campus office about her unique process of designing for the Broadway stage.
In LoveMusik, which opens May 3, Dolan has tackled what she considers to be her greatest design challenge, and with the restrictive budget involved with the non-profit MTC, many difficulties emerged along the nearly two year path from concept to stage. Not to mention the high standards a director like Prince holds his creative team up to.
Working with Prince for over 25 years on many offbeat works "required more imagination than resources, which gave us a sense of trust," said Dolan. In LoveMusik, "the thing I used more than anything was contemporary dance. That sort of clash of abstract dance clothes with real vintage clothing and Broadway clothing, mixing contemporary sort of qualities with some of the clothes and putting it up there with a sort of cheeky sophistication."
Production notes describe LoveMusik as "an exciting collaboration from some of the theatre's most esteemed artists, this rich, riveting work follows the life of composer Kurt Weill and his famed marriage to Lotte Lenya, who starred in many of his groundbreaking pieces.
"From their courtship and early collaborations in Europe, through their journey to America and the debut of the landmark musical The Threepenny Opera, LoveMusik gets deep inside this fascinating, complicated partnership."
As Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Alfred Uhry's book spans nearly three decades, beginning in 1920's Berlin and ending up in New York during the '50s, Dolan set out to reintroduce Weill to a younger audience, creating a "light and young look" with her costume designs.
Prince tasked Dolan to come up with something he had never seen on Broadway before, after giving her a copy of the script over two years ago. For such a prolific stage director to demand a look he had yet to lay eyes on, the pressure began to mount.
So in keeping with the main emphasis of LoveMusik, Dolan turned to the source of the story for inspiration. "I really started with Lenya and Weill," said Dolan. "I have been a big fan of his music for years and years and had a lot of her recordings… I really read a lot of books and did a lot of visual research, looking at how things looked at different periods… I just immersed myself into what their relationship was like."
"Lotte Lenya was a legend and a worthy legend," said Prince in a message on the MTC website. "Funny, sure of herself, as bright as anyone you have worked with, and at the same time fragile. They're outrageous, hilarious, articulate, brilliant, and equal to each other and really in love. The musical essentially says that theirs was a good marriage because it worked for them… there was something larger than life about these two characters."
In spite of the larger than life nature of Weill and Lenya, played in LoveMusik by Tony Award winners Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy, budgetary concerns restricted, Dolan making it necessary to take a simpler approach to imagining their wardrobe.
"This particular show was a challenge because of resources not always being huge on Broadway," said Dolan. "There is an assumption that you have a lot of money all the time, and that really wasn't the case. I had to be careful to put the money on the stage and use the resources carefully."
Though not willing to discuss the exact figures allotted for the costuming budget, Dolan did reveal, "there was a lot of negotiation about it. But I feel honestly that sometimes not having tremendous resources forces you to be creative in a different way and really figure out what it is you need to get something conveyed on stage. And in this case, the simplicity of the costumes helped it to feel modern, contemporary and light."
With the non-profit nature of the MTC, producers have pumped in $2 million to spruce up the production. Variety recently reported on the speculation of MTC insiders of a possible commercial transfer, but those attached to the project are keeping a tight lid on the matter, for the time being.
As sales have dipped three percent since last week, with the week of March 29 bringing in $217,708, the real test will come when previews end and the reviews roll in following opening night. Already garnering multiple Drama Desk Award and Outer Critic Circle Award nominations, LoveMusik certainly has the appropriate buzz for a profitable run.
Dolan spoke to the suspected transfer rumors, saying, "I have heard very good possibilities, but when I design I do so for where I am, and for what that audience is and what those resources are. I try not to think about transfers, as that can really drive you nuts."
Much of Dolan's designs for LoveMusik came about in a collaborative effort with Prince throughout her gestational creative period.
Typically communicating through e-mail, the two would discuss various storyboards Dolan drafted along the way. Prince accepted almost 90 percent of her ideas, which she presented in a series of collage art pieces, finally giving Dolan a go-ahead to sketch out the costumes, most coming to fruition in November last year.
Speaking with a sense of utter respect for Prince, Dolan fondly recalled her first coming to collaborate with the legendary director.
"I had been working on a soap opera and it looked like my time there was not going to be much longer, so I started writing to everybody that I knew in New York," said Dolan. "I had only been in New York for two or three years at that point, and I had never written to Hal Prince because I thought he would never hire me. So honestly, it started out with me writing a letter saying I wanted to work with him.
"His assistant director (Arthur Masella) called me up and said, 'well, would you be interested in an internship?' I said sure, having no idea what that was. So I went in and showed my portfolio to Artie and he passed it along to Hal. I then had a meeting with Hal out of which came a job offer."
Along with Prince, Dolan has been recognized for her work on LoveMusik with both a Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nomination, with the possibility of a Tony nod on the 14th. Remaining extremely humble, Dolan attempted to describe her experience of winning a Tony in 1997. "It was, really, overwhelming, but absolutely a wonderful, unique experience. I was honestly surprised that I was awarded it as the Candide costumes were irreverent and fun, but not elegant. But I do very much remain grateful for the Tony."
With nothing officially on the books for the future, Dolan has already been approached by Prince to work on his next piece, along with another production called Stoker, based on the life of "Dracula" author Bram Stoker.
Visit www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com for more information on LoveMusik.