features + interviews

Honoring the (Re)Vision: Catherine Zuber on Adaptability in Costume Design

[Full article published in Dramatics on-line and appeared in the April 2019 print issue of Dramatics.]

My Fair LadyLaura Benanti

Laura Benanti and My Fair Lady cast at Ascot. Photo: Joan Marcus.

AS AUDIENCE MEMBERS, we may imagine that set, light, projection, sound, and costume designs are executed and then solidified, remaining unchanged once designers move to the next project. In practice, designs can continue to evolve far past opening night. Cast replacements, for example, often inspire a designer to reassess and sometimes entirely rebuild costumes. Broadway costume designer Catherine Zuber faced this challenge in the current Lincoln Center Theater revival of the musical My Fair Lady, in which Laura Benanti replaced Lauren Ambrose as Eliza, Rosemary Harris replaced Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins, and Danny Burstein replaced Norbert Leo Butz as Alfred P. Doolittle.

Zuber has created costumes for operas, dramas, and musicals on Broadway and around the world. A 2016 inductee into New York’s American Theater Hall of Fame, she has received Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards, Obie Awards, and Henry Hewes Design Awards for her creations. Zuber’s designs, both small- and large-scale, careen from contemporary dramas to classic musical revivals to musical theatre adaptations of films. When cast replacements affect any of these productions, small to large changes must be made. From fit to hue to accessories, Zuber must reevaluate the design, balancing author intent, director vision, character needs, and actor comfort.

Dramatics talked with Zuber in December 2018 to learn about the special considerations she made in adapting Edwardian costumes for several characters in My Fair Lady, as well as her overall creative approach to costume design.

With My Fair Lady, you got to engage with a classic, adored musical. Was this your first time designing this show?

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Catherine Zuber in her studio library. Photo by Martha Wade Steketee.

All the musicals I’ve done at Lincoln Center I’d never done before: South Pacific [2008], The King and I [2015], The Light in the Piazza [2005]. My Fair Lady had the most iconographic images attached to it, because of the 1964 film. For example, it’s almost an edict that if you do My Fair Lady, then you have to do black and white costumes for the Ascot Racecourse opening day scene. But at Lincoln Center, with Bartlett Sher directing and Michael Yeargan designing the set, we were challenged to not do that scene in black and white. So to pay homage to the film, Eliza has black in her costume, but everyone else, men and women, are in mauves and grays and alabaster whites. This produced the community of participants at Ascot. Then Eliza comes into that scene and pops, because now she is the one with the black.

You are asked to adjust costumes to performers of different body types. Lauren Ambrose is tall but not elongated. Benanti has a more angular, model-like figure.
There are details that make a difference for each person. The right choice for one performer needs to be adjusted for another. I always try to read the reaction of the performer in fittings. They might say, “I don’t like having things so tight around my neck,” or “I feel better when my waist is set a little lower or higher.” If it doesn’t change the silhouette of the period and it’s an arbitrary decision for the design, it’s most important that the performer feels they look their best and their needs are being addressed. I’m not someone who says, I’m the designer, this is what I want, and you don’t have any input. If somebody doesn’t like their arms, I’ll make sure they’re covered. If they don’t feel good, the costume will never work.

Most actors want to do what’s right for the character. A great actor will embrace the character work they need to do to become the person they’re playing. If that means they have to look a little heavy, thick-waisted, or whatever, if it’s appropriate for that moment, then they go along with it. Eliza goes through this transformation, and the actor has to go through the transformation, too. As Eliza, she needs to become more sophisticated, have things fit better, move in a direction that tells a story.

Some things stayed the same. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” has the same layered set of clothing on both actresses, right?
We made a new jacket for that number, cut a little differently, but they have the same skirts and a new blouse underneath. Some pieces are edited. Lauren Ambrose wore a shawl that we never questioned. She loved wearing it, and it looked good on her. But when we had a put-in rehearsal for Laura Benanti, she had one afternoon in costume, and that shawl was all over the place — it kept falling off. I said, we need to cut that shawl, it’s not doing her any favors. When we have the understudies go on, they wear the shawl with their costume. It’s a nice detail, but it’s not essential.

Do you ever make alternative understudy costumes?
The understudies or covers need to replicate what the lead person, the star, is wearing. They need to honor that. But when you have a major cast replacement — somebody like Laura Benanti coming in — that’s a different story. She has her own amazing star quality that needs to be honored. If the show is still running in a year, and someone else comes along who’s a big name, then we’ll go through the same thing. We’ll have to rework it, what works for them.

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