Our “Art of Theatre” video series continues with a look at the elaborate costumes for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. Lead costume designer Michael Johnson, last seen as Pap Finn in Big River, tells us about the 120 costume pieces for the 15 actors in this fast-paced show filled with challenging quick changes.
Watch the video interview by clicking on the embedded YouTube link, or simply read the transcript below. Enjoy!
My name is Michael Johnson. We are now in charge of approximately 120 costume pieces that we need to either create or purchase. A number of shoes, hats, and multiple pieces that will be moving on and off that stage every night.
Can you give us some examples of the type of costumes we’ll see?
In particular one of the favorite parts of my show are the two principal women in the show. Sibella and Phoebe are the characters. Each one of them has five complete changes. So being an Edwardian period show, that means that they have a petticoat, a skirt, a blouse, or a shirt waist, usually some type of jacket, or some sort of top piece. Then they would have shoes that would be corresponding. They would have gloves. They would have a reticule, which is a small type of a fabric purse, and then of course they will have hair and things that go in their hair. So they need to be aware of what parts go with which costume, and the actress will know themselves what they have to do, but also we will have dressers that can help them and other cast members can help them keep track of everything, and I will have lists for them to follow.
How do you keep track of that many costumes?
A grid really helps, so modern technology is definitely part of how we are doing that. I currently have everything on an Excel spreadsheet and it is, as we speak, being converted to some Google docs, so multiple people can have multiple access and can update things and we can keep track of who has updated, etc. etc. It’s the only way we could do it.
How much time is allotted for the many “quick changes” in this show?
The “players,” which is what we are calling our ensemble, sometimes they have some very quick changes. 10 to 15 seconds. But it’s a small change. It might be like removing a coat, changing a vest, but one of the featured parts of the show is the D’Ysquith family, which the character—or the actor who plays that character—has multiple full costume changes. His average change time is 30 seconds. He has one shorter one at about 23 seconds, and he has a long luxurious one at 2 1/2 minutes.
Will your costumes be the same as they used for the Broadway production?
So, two things that we’ve changed from the original Broadway production is Broadway used a much more Victorian look rather than Edwardian. It’s a little showier, but more of an Edwardian look means that we’re going more towards the the first season of Downton Abbey and Titanic versus the Victorian look that Broadway had. But also we are using the overriding artistic vision of Edward Gorey-style animation and illustrations. So most of my costumes are all black, white, and gray, with texture whenever possible, to try and kind of emulate artistic texture, brush strokes, line strokes, ink, pencil, etc. We’ve departed a little, and we’ve added some color on the two leading ladies. So our Sibella and our Phoebe will start out with a little bit of their color palette. Sibella is pink; Phoebe is blue—which we did borrow from the Broadway production, and throughout the progression of the show, you will see them become more and more saturated of those two colors. And in their fifth outfit, they will be model-point perfect head-to-toe pink and head-to-toe blue, and I’m hoping and think will look really fabulous for everybody.
What would you say to someone who has never heard of this show?
It’s a lot of fun. I know the title throws off some people already. But it’s very tongue-in-cheek. It’s very charming. It’s a very smart show. You have to listen. You’re going to participate as the audience member. You’re definitely part of that cast to understand. Please spend the 2 1/2 hours with us to watch this very witty, new type of a musical that you don’t get to see often. And we are very excited to be able to mount this production. So please come spend the 2 1/2 hours with us. See this lovely, very funny journey that this young gentleman has to take. And if nothing else, come look at the pretty costumes and the pretty set!