William Ivey Long, who did the costumes for The New Century (at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater), currently has three shows running on Broadway:Curtains, Hairspray, and Chicago. He has won five Tony Awards for his work, and is famous for the unfailing wit and elegance he brings to his creations. A North Carolina native, Long took a few minutes recently from a busy schedule at his Manhattan studio to speak about The New Century.
Brendan Lemon: How long have you known the New Century playwright, Paul Rudnick?
William Ivey Long: I've known him since 1973. He and Wendy Wasserstein were my best friends when I was at the Yale School of Drama.
BL: How many times have you worked with him?
WIL: I'm not sure of the exact number. Usually, I try not to work with friends - you have to put on a different hat when you do that. Nevertheless, I did Paul's first shows in New York, and I did that play of his before New Century, which was called Regrets Only. Whenever there is "clothing involved" in one of his plays - as opposed to strict costumes - he bangs the bushes until I relent and agree to do the job.
BL: Paul told me that some of the clothing in New Century was bought off the racks at Saks.
WIL: I'm not going to totally acquiesce to that. Let's just say that some of them are B and A.
BL: B and A?
WIL: Bought and Altered. As opposed to MTO: Made To Order. Paul still seems to have trouble believing that I can go shopping like a regular person - that I can find things off the rack. But I love to go shopping. In fact, I often take other people shopping.
BL: The New Century characters are very human but still outrageous. How can you convey flamboyance by doing your work at Saks?
WIL: I find that you can get more outrageous looks on people if there's a proper label on the back of the garment. Sometimes the fitting process for a made-to-order item will make the actor doubt the reality of the clothing for a particular character. They'll ask: "Isn't this too costume-y?" When they see a garment with an actual label, they tend to relax a bit. They think it's more real. Hah!
BL: Is it harder to do period costumes or contemporary clothing?
WIL: The latter. Contemporary is so much harder than, for example, Elizabethan. A modern audience doesn't get every nuance of long-ago clothes. But they get every nuance of contemporary things.
BL: Your clothing for Linda Lavin - who plays a Long Island matron -- is a crucial part of her character. She's unthinkable without it.
WIL: Thank you. But the truth is that any good actor can convince you of the truth of a character even if they're outfitted in a paper bag. What I do is extra.
BL: What was your inspiration for what Linda wears in the first scene?
WIL: I thought: We've got to keep her shimmering like the inside of an oyster. Tasteful elegance but with a heightened sense of glamour is how I describe that look.
BL: Paul told me you've had women who've seen the play and who call you because they want to know how they can get their own versions of what Linda wears.
WIL: Oh, yes. Those phone calls don't usually make it past my receptionist.
BL: How about for the Midwestern craftswoman played by Jayne Houdyshell?
WIL: Well, I'm not from the Midwest - I'm from North Carolina - but I have cousins like her. They all talk about their clothes all the time.
BL: Even though the crafts pieces that Jayne's character shows us are kitsch-y, the clothing that she herself wears is not.
WIL: That's true. Someone like that wouldn't wear her product. In her solo scene, she's presenting her wares to a group, so she's wearing her best looks. When I watched Jayne in rehearsals, I thought her character would have a little flutter. So the skirt has some flutter. As with my real-life cousins, it's all about pretty.
BL: That brings us to the final lead cast member, Peter Bartlett, who plays the outrageous gay style arbiter Mr. Charles.
WIL: Paul was very specific in his stage directions for this guy. The script says he's wearing a tomato blazer and a gingham shirt.
BL: How did you carry out those specifications?
WIL: I looked at what Allen Moyer, the set designer, had chosen for Mr. Charles chair. It had a tomato back, so I used the colors that were in the chair's brocade.
BL: What else?
WIL: I went home and got a can of tomato soup. I dumped it in a white bowl. I added ketchup to it, and I said to the people at my studio, "Now let's go outside and pick out Mr. Charles's fabrics." We already had swatches of tomato-colored wools. We chose the ones that related both to the chair and to the bowl of tomato soup.
BL: What was Paul's reaction?
WIL: He said, "You know, you don't have to follow the stage directions."
BL: And you said?
WIL: "Are you kidding"?
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.