So you haven’t done wash in a week and your laundry basket positively groans under the weight of soiled shirts? Well, your pile is but a piffle compared to what awaits Patrick Bevilacqua and his backstage staff every week – every night! – at The King and I.
Bevilacqua is the show’s wardrobe supervisor and among his and his staff’s many tasks is the cleaning of the clothing. “There are 350 costumes in the show,” he told me the other day in his backstage office, “and it is our job to keep them looking fresh as paint.”
To accomplish that mission Bevilacqua is assisted by a dozen dressers, five day workers, two stitchers, and a full-time laundry person. “The stitchers restore and mend the clothing, the laundry person spends a lot of time with our washers and dryers,” Bevilacqua said. “And the day workers steam and press things. They also take care of the dry-cleaning.”
Around 60 percent of the costumes are dry-cleaned and the rest are hand-washed. “I don’t like to over-dry-clean the costumes in this show,” Bevilacqua said. “It’s not good for silk, which is the primary material for the costumes.”
The dry-cleaning is sent out two times a week. “We have to make sure we have very accurate lists of what goes out,” Bevilacqua said. “Cathy Zuber” – the costume designer – “came up with so many beautiful things, and we wouldn’t want to lose a single one.”
Among the most difficult costumes to maintain are those worn in the second-act “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet. “There’s a lot of beading,” Bevilacqua said, “and beads tend to come off.” For the show in general, the children’s clothing tends to acquire the most grime. “The kids sit on the floor a lot,” Bevilacqua explained.
Bevilacqua, who studied curating in college and got his Broadway start two decades ago with a Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, said that Mrs. Anna’s ball gown is also a task to launder. “It’s got miles of fabric,” he said, “and that fabric can get everything on it – make-up, dirt, sweat.” (Lest the word “sweat” seem indelicate, remember that, when you wear heavy costumes all night under stage lighting, your body must work overtime to keep cool.)
Bevilacqua said he is grateful that there’s no heavy combat in The King and I. “Stage blood is the hardest stain to get out,” he said. “Getting the blood out of costumes in Golden Boy” – Golden Boy is one of five LCT shows on which Bevilacqua has worked – “was a real challenge.”
Bevilacqua said he can only imagine how much harder it would be to keep clothing clean without modern conveniences. “I love watching Downton Abbey, but the washers and dryers in a house like that were humans, not machines.” How strange, I remarked, that we never see the servants in the show who would have performed such tasks. “Isn’t it?” Bevilacqua answered. “And you just know there were plenty of them.” (Online research suggests that Highclere Castle, where Downton was filmed, would a century ago have had six full-time laundry maids.)
Bevilacqua has nothing but praise for the cast of The King and I and their respect for the care of costumes. “They are a real please-and-thank-you bunch of people,” he said. “And they appreciate just how much work goes in to making them look good every night.”
I asked Bevilacqua – appropriately to a story about laundry, “acqua” means water in Italian – if his years as a wardrobe supervisor had made him an expert in the cleaning of his own clothing. What tips could he pass along to those of us who barely know how to separate things colored from things white?
“Clothing today is so disposable,” he starts by way of an answer. “Caring for tee shirts and jeans is much less crucial than caring for a silk ball gown in the 19th century.” Then he pauses. “But I’m not sure I’m an expert in how to do laundry in the 21st century. In the 20 years I’ve been working day-in, day-out with clothing, I’ve never done my own laundry. I have to have at least one day a week when I don’t have to think about detergent.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.