He may well be the most recognized name in Broadway costume design. He created the iconic black-and-white costumes for the original Nine and the Chicago revival, as well as the psychedelically colorful designs for Hairspray and Seussical. And this week, William Ivey Long contributed his skills to the St. George Society annual gala, a fundraiser for the philanthropic organization. His design for the evening's mascot is only the latest triumph in three decades of creating characters from the outside in. Whether reinventing the unique visual styles of Dr. Seuss in Seussical, recreating Edie Beale's "revolutionary costumes" for Grey Gardens, or conjuring military conformity in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, Mr. Long is the go-to-guy for costumes that reveal character as much as an actor does.
Mr. Long arrived on the theater scene at a time of great change, when New York was in an economic recession, support for the arts was at an all-time low, and theaters were so empty that such landmarks as the Mark Hellenger Theatre were leased out to churches. "I've seen a great growth in theater going," he says, and remembers the constant mournful cry of "The Theater's Dead!" that filled Broadway in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Today, he continues happily, "theaters are never empty," and there aren't enough houses on Broadway for all the shows clamoring to fill them. "What a wonderful world to be in!" he says with a laugh, and suggests that the problem be solved by building Broadway-sized theaters in highrises, as Mayor John Lindsay did. "Broadway theater is the largest tourist attraction in Manhattan," he says. "The business itself has grown. It costs more to mount it, it costs more to attend it." To that end, he continues, producers might be more inclined to revive surefire hits rather than risk economic collapse with a new project. "Some people might say that many of the Broadway shows are more safe," Mr. Long says. "I think everything we do is risky."
With a quarter-century's experience (not to mention numerous Tony and Drama Desk Awards), Mr. Long is in constant demand for every kind of show, and appreciates the inherent challenges in each kind of undertaking. "You live on the edge of your seat, or seat of your pants, when you're doing a new project," he says thoughtfully. "The adrenalin level is higher because you don't know what's happening." With a revival, he says, the challenge is to "try to at least live up to– if not try to surpass– the original. So it's a different set of muscles you'd use for that... You're living dangerously in a different way."
"Everything I do," he continues, "is creating character and supporting the story through differences. You see people being different [via their costumes]." In shows like Seussical and Hairspray, this is easy to accomplish. Shows like The Caine Mutiny Court Martial are a different challenge. "When you do a show that's all uniforms, you really have to follow the uni-form. They all have to look alike," he says, and adds that the actors get less help from the costumes . "It's much harder for the actors to create, and therefore, when they succeed, it's much more of a triumph, because no one else has been able to help them visually."
Just as an actor in a historical play must learn as much as possible about the era depicted, so must a costume designer. "Actors are some of the smartest people on the planet," Mr. Long says. "You'd better have done your homework, 'cause they've done theirs. Being ready for that fitting is a very exciting and arduous process." Attention to detail is vital to creating an accurate costume, and minutiae can become important. For example, while researching military uniforms from 1945 for Caine Mutiny, he learned that hundreds of years after swords were no longer used in battle, soldiers' pants had snaps to hold a blade in place against the leg. "I don't know if they used it, but it was still there," he says. Small details add up to create a complete image that becomes a powerful part of the overall production. "I don't think anything's boring," Mr. Long says. "Everything's exciting, 'cause you're telling a story... I help you see the story, and help the actors and directors allow the story to come alive."