When I last spoke to Lynn Bowling, the wardrobe supervisor at Lincoln Center Theater, he and his staff were seeing to the more than 600 costumes for The Coast of Utopia. The approximately 150 costumes in South Pacificpose a different set of challenges to those in the Tom Stoppard play, and it's not just the difference between velvet frock coats and khaki cotton uniforms -- between the spirit-breaking cold of Russia versus the breeze-stoked warmth of the tropics.
To shorthand the difference, Bowling reaches for a word that might have sparked a debate among Stoppard's philosophy-crazed characters: utilitarian. "In South Pacific," says Bowling, "things are intended for everyday use, for people who are working outdoors. They are clothes more than costumes. They are intended to be washed. And that's exactly how they are handled."
There are informal subspecialties among Bowling and his crew of nine dressers. (Who are -- roll call, please -- Mark Caine, David Caudle, Mark Klein, Tammi Kopko, Patti Luther, Linda McAllister, James Nadeaux, Leo Namba, and Stacia Williams). "One person might be particularly good at stitching," Bowling explains, "and somebody else at taking care of boots. Polishing shoes," he adds, "is a dying art."
Most of the wardrobe staff, however, are skilled at almost everything - including a quick change when needed. "There are two especially fast wardrobe turnarounds in the show," Bowling says. "One is when Kelli O'Hara transitions from her romper" - to the layperson, that's her pink-shorts-and-top outfit - "to her bathing suit. That has to happen in about 15 seconds. The other involves Matthew Morrison. He has to go from his flight suit and leather jacket to his Marine shirt-tie-and-pants uniform. That also takes about 15 seconds. We've got that change down to such a science that Matthew even has time to crack a joke before going back on."
Asked if he has a favorite costume, Bowling mentions some of the outfits - made from magazines and gum wrappers -- worn by the women during the Follies number early in the second act. "Those are extremely amazing in terms of construction." I tell Bowling they remind me of a "Project Runway" assignment. He says they remind him of a task he once gave to his students at the University of Cincinnati, where they had to use quilted plastic and one girl made a raincoat with rods that moved like a shower curtain. (Before he came to LCT, Bowling was not only a teacher but a fashion designer.) "Like the characters in South Pacific," he comments, "that girl was an example of someone ingeniously using the materials she had close to hand."
Bowling is more than happy to expound on the day-to-day specifics of South Pacific's costumes. For example, I say that chambray shirts worn by the Seabees (of a type you can't find in any store: I've tried!) look particularly lightweight. He replies, "That's because they are. They're six-ounce fabric, rather than the ten- or twelve-ounce fabric of the dungarees we all wear now."
When I thank Bowling for all the information he has imparted and insist that he must have things to do besides talk to a journalist, he responds, "There's always work to be done with the costumes. But not as much as with The Coast of Utopia. To tell you the truth, I kind of miss that show's marathon days" - the 12-hour endurance tests where the wardrobe staff essentially worked straight through. (With official breaks, of course.) "Compared to that one, this one is relatively low-maintenance."
It may be hard to think of South Pacific -- with its forty actors and thirty musicians (and did I mention the 11 stagehands who go onstage at each performance and whose costumes must also be cared for?) as low-maintenance in any way. Besides, as I mention to Bowling as a parting shot, in South Pacific there's a use of clothing unlike anything in all of Utopia: the expression of love. The musical is, after all, a show where one of the purest moments of affection is someone (Billis) showing someone else (Miss Forbush) that he knows how to launder pleats.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com