‘Bullets Over Broadway’ costume designer has a story to tell

Chris Hewitt, Pioneer Press 4/11/16

It is not easy to keep six-time Tony Award winner William Ivey Long on topic. But when the guy has such great stories to tell, who cares?

Long is supposed to be talking about “Bullets Over Broadway,” the musical version of the Woody Allen comedy that comes to the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday. But he’s calling from Toronto, where he’s working on a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” that’s scheduled to be televised in October, so he has lots of tales on his mind. About how he used a potato to make print for a Dr. Frankenfurter costume and the show’s producers thought the fabric was from the fashion house Prada. About a bolt of cloth he calls “Hugh Jackman jeans” that Long, who designed Jackman’s “The Boy From Oz,” carries with him on work trips. About how he has never considered himself a “rock ‘n’ roll” person but now, “I guess I am!”

Or there’s the museum show that assembled sketches and costumes from his many Broadway shows, including “Hairspray,” “The Producers” and “Grey Gardens.” It was called “Between Taste and Travesty,” a title that still makes the effusive Long chuckle.

“Many years ago, my first review that ever printed my name in New York was by (legendarily nasty) John Simon, reviewing an off-Broadway production called ‘The Lady and the Clarinet,’ starring Stockard Channing — it’s the first of eight shows we’ve done together. It was a contemporary production and no one ever notices the clothes in those but John Simon did and he said they covered the bases between taste and travesty,” Long says. “I thought, ‘He gets me!’ ”

Follow-up: Years later, they became pals and it was Simon who gave the opening lecture at the exhibit.

There are also stories about Shoolbred, the bar Long owns in New York, which is named after his Scottish grandmother. And about the Fun Factory, his studio in downtown Manhattan. And about his reverence for New York Times style chronicler Bill Cunningham. And about how much he loves riding the subway but can’t shut off his pursuit of style: “It’s like a continuing graduate class in clothing choices. I want to give out little Post-It notes and say, ‘Darling, if you just cut that skirt up to here, it would look so much better on you,’ or ‘Your arms? Really?’ I want to leave little Post-Its on their tote bags. I think every designer does. It’s one of the most fun things in New York.”

Also fun? His job. Several times during a half-hour phone chat, Long uses the phrase “I have to pinch myself” to describe getting to work on iconic shows such as “Chicago,” “On the Twentieth Century” and “La Cage Aux Folles.” Which brings us to “Bullets,” which uses songs from the 1920s (“Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do”) to tell the story of a young playwright who is on the verge of his first production but is distracted by a melodramatic diva (Dianne Wiest won an Oscar in the film, barking “Don’t speak!”) and a mobster/producer who wants his girlfriend to star in the show.

“When I do one of these previously owned vehicles — the reference to a used-car lot means when I do a musical based on the film — I always ask the director, like Mel Brooks or Woody Allen, ‘Should I cleave close to the film or go away from it?’ For ‘Young Frankenstein,’ Mel said, ‘I want it to be like the film.’ I didn’t do that, by the way. But, on ‘Bullets,’ there was a desire from Woody and Susan (Stroman, who directed the stage version) not to copy the film,” Long says.

In part, that’s because there’s not much dancing in the film but there’s tons of it on stage — and, although the look of ’20s dresses tended to be very straight, Stroman wanted dresses that would twirl, a challenge that led to innovation.

“If you think about the ’20s, nobody can wear a pillow case like those women can because the dresses are all based on shifts. Shifts don’t dance. But I figured out how to incorporate that ’20s silhouette with a spinning skirt. The secret is a dropped waist. When it stands still, the dress looks like Lady Mary on ‘Downton Abbey,’ but when it dances, it has a whole new trajectory,” says Long, who was recently in the Twin Cities to meet about a project he won’t reveal (just a guess: “The Royal Family” at the Guthrie?) . “I’ve never seen that before and I’m very happy about it.”

Long is also happy that the “Bullets” coming to St. Paul flows better than the one that played on Broadway.

“I’m very up and down on tours. We put our whole being behind these shows but, every now and then, there isn’t enough room on the trucks for all of the scenery or the wardrobe boxes, so things get left behind. And that makes me sad,” Long says. “But, in a few cases, a more sleek approach tells the story better and I think this is one of those. Maybe it’s heretical to say, but I think you’ll see a more compelling production in St. Paul than we did in New York.”

And the eye-popping results of Long’s efforts, like the title of that museum exhibit, will fall somewhere between taste and travesty. In fact, Long — an avid researcher who holds two history degrees — jokes that it’s almost a shame the museum got to that title first.

“I always figured ‘Between Taste and Travesty’ was either going on my tombstone or it would be the title of my first book,” says Long, who published a book at the time of the exhibit. “But the book came before the tombstone.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *