William Ivey Long is arguably the theater world’s most accomplished and celebrated costume designer. Nominated for 13 Tony Awards over his career, he has won for six shows: “The Producers,” “Hairspray,” “Grey Gardens,” “Crazy for You,” “Nine” and “Cinderella,” which visits the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis beginning Tuesday.
A native of Seaboard, N.C., where his family has lived “since it was a part of the Virginia colony,” Long studied history at the College of William and Mary and attended graduate school in art history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He earned a master of fine arts degree in stage design at the Yale School of Drama, where his housemates included Sigourney Weaver.
Q: Some kids dream of stage stardom. How did little Billy Long know that he would want to be a costume designer?
A: Aside from hiding in the basement and painting shoes? I was always making clothes for my dog, doing scenery and costumes.
Q: You came to it by inclination, and birth, too?
A: For me, rebellion would’ve meant running off to a farm, since my parents literally ran away to the circus. My father became a playwright and professor. My mother was an actress and playwright. They were the big jump in the family. My brother and sister and I all did theater as children. We’re the apples that fell directly under the tree.
Q: You tried to fight it, didn’t you?
A: Kids are wont to do that. At William and Mary, I majored in history because I’m interested in stories. I went to grad school at Chapel Hill, also in art history — stories about art and artists. I also wanted to write books about history. But I really thought I was going to be an architect. Then I went to Yale to study with the great stage designer Ming Cho Lee. That’s when I finally gave in to the family curse.
Q: How did you get from Yale to New York?
A: The train. Seriously, I joined the set and costume union while at Yale, which displeased Ming Cho Lee, because he thought that there would be time for that. I wanted to work lickety-split. I was panicking to find a new mentor when I saw an article about [pioneering couture designer] Charles James in Women’s Wear Daily. It said that he lived at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, and I thought, so will I. I moved there and stalked him until he let me work with him for free for four years until he died in 1978, which, coincidentally, was the year I got my first Broadway job.
Q: Tell us about getting that first big break.
A: It was hard. I’m a terrible interview. People look at me and they go, “Really?” I don’t seem serious, I’m told. The change came when [former Guthrie Theater artistic director] Liviu Ciulei was directing “The Government Inspector” on Broadway. Ming Cho Lee was supposed to do it, but couldn’t, so Liviu was desperate. He hired me sight unseen.
Q: The role of the costume designer is sometimes underestimated.
A: Directors think that they tell the story, but the set, lighting and sound designer direct the show through their particular mediums. The set designer creates the world. The lighting director tells you where to look. I populate the world. I’m there to tell you the who, what, where and why, or to obscure it from you so you’re shocked when it’s revealed. Take a simple show like “Kiss Me, Kate.” A man and woman come into a room — woman in red, he’s wearing a red tie. You know they’re going to couple up.
Q: We respond to colors and to lines in primal ways. I remember that in “Hairspray,” the world went from black and white to Technicolor. In “Contact,” which you also designed, I remember that canary yellow dress. What is your approach to a show?
A: That was caution light yellow. “Contact” was straightforward, since you have a character named Girl in the Yellow Dress. Many stories have ladies of the house who entertain, and there are two types there — those who want to blend into their surroundings, so it’s harmonious, and those who are determined to stand out. Sometimes you match them to their environments, but they break out of it through the force of their personalities.
Q: Like Tovah Feldshuh.
A: Yes, she played Maria, the fiery Italian wife in “Lend Me a Tenor.” When she saw what I’d designed for her, she was disappointed. I put her in gray — not a blanket but a wool suit. She said, “I see her as wearing a red dress.” I said, “If I may be so bold, your performance is the red dress.” She got a Tony nomination.
Q: There are many versions of “Cinderella.” What can Twin Cities audiences expect?
A: First of all, let me rave about Doug [playwright Douglas Carter Beane]. He went back to the original French version by Perrault. And he has daughters of his own, so he wasn’t going to do a show about a girl who’s waiting for a prince to save her. The prince needs some saving, too. There’s a ball and a banquet. It’s not the Disney version.
Q: And you set it in different periods, costume-wise.
A: No one did happy peasants like [Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter] Bruegel. So, we have the Renaissance. I also picked 1863 because that’s the year that Visconti’s “The Leopard” is set. And Cinderella is like Claudia Cardinale, the Scarlett O’Hara of Italy. When you do a flower arrangement, you need an uneven number. So I brought in a third period, the medieval, since it’s about armor and dragons and swords. The things you have to get right are those slippers, the ballroom, and a great, romantic scene to make you weep. I went to Stuart Weitzman for the shoes. He’s the prince of shoe designers.
Q: On Broadway, “Cinderella” was headlined by Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana. We claim them both in the Twin Cities.
A: And they claim me. Four months ago, I get a call from Santino, who said, “William, I’ve just proposed to my girlfriend. She said yes. She was one of the brides in ‘It Should’ve Been You.’ I really want you to design her dress.” The girl is Jessica Hershberg. I have designed wedding dresses for her in shows. Now I was doing it in real life. Once I commit to a prince in “Cinderella,” I’m really committed.