Costume Creations: Innovative Approaches to Costuming for the Modern Musical

Costume Creations: Innovative Approaches to Costuming for the Modern Musical

Embracing the Quirks: Costuming for the Timeless Charm of Candide

As a self-proclaimed theater enthusiast, I’ve always been in awe of the sheer artistry and technical mastery that goes into bringing a musical to life. From the captivating performances to the immersive set designs, each element works in perfect harmony to transport the audience to another world. But perhaps the most enchanting aspect of all is the costume design – the vibrant, the whimsical, the utterly divine creations that adorn the stage.

It was this love for theatrical costuming that led me to seek out the brilliant mind behind the iconic looks of one of my personal favorite musicals, Candide. I had the privilege of sitting down with the Tony Award-winning costume designer, Judith Dolan, to delve into the fascinating story of how she brought Voltaire’s satirical masterpiece to life through her innovative and unapologetically quirky designs.

Embracing the Chaos: Dolan’s Vision for Candide

As Dolan explained, tackling a musical like Candide was no easy feat. “I think the hardest thing in the world to do is a musical, and I have many fellow designers who agree with that,” she confessed. “It is the hardest art form to pull off.” But for Dolan, the challenge was precisely what drew her in, as she relished the opportunity to infuse the production with her signature brand of playful irreverence.

Dolan’s research for the 1982 New York City Opera production of Candide took her on a vibrant journey through the world of late 19th-century carnival, circus freak shows, and burlesque. “I found the energy of musical theater actors demand new approaches than that of opera singers,” she explained. “These designs are brighter in color and more straightforward. They are attuned to the individual presence of each performer’s personality.”

This bold, unapologetic aesthetic was a perfect match for Voltaire’s scathing satire, which Dolan describes as “a dark comedy” that “demands a fresh approach.” By embracing the chaos and eccentricity of the source material, she was able to create a visual feast that perfectly complemented the show’s irreverent spirit.

Bringing the Quirk to Broadway

When the production transferred to Broadway in 1997, Dolan knew she had to take her designs to the next level. “The Broadway version became more circusy by default due to the gigantic Broadway scale,” she recalled. “And when I saw the scale that Clarke Dunham was doing for the set, I knew that my funky little down-and-out mummers from 1982 would not be seen on the stage. I had to pull out my costumes in order to compete with the beautiful but complicated scenic design.”

Dolan’s solution was to go bolder and stronger in her color palette, embracing the larger-than-life aesthetic of the Gershwin Theatre. “I knew I had to go bolder and stronger in color range with my designs for Broadway,” she explained. “The most recent production with NYCO that I did with Hal, he wanted to bring back the 1982 color palette of darker colors, so I re-designed everything to pull it down, and Hal was very happy with that.”

Throughout the various incarnations of Candide, Dolan’s commitment to her creative vision never wavered. Whether it was the rustic, down-and-out look of the 1982 NYCO production or the more vibrant, circus-inspired Broadway version, her designs were always imbued with a delightful sense of whimsy and irreverence.

Collaborating with the Legendary Hal Prince

One of the key driving forces behind Dolan’s vision for Candide was her long-standing collaboration with the legendary director and producer, Hal Prince. “I got that job through Hal Prince,” Dolan revealed. “I was designing a soap opera at the time, and that job was ending, and I was moving on. I was applying for more theater work by sending out letters to producers and directors through Backstage, and it was the Prince Office who got back to me.”

Prince’s guidance and trust in Dolan’s creative abilities were instrumental in shaping the production’s aesthetic. “Hal Prince didn’t really give me anything in regards to past designers because research was not that accessible back then,” Dolan explained. “He told me that he wanted it to look like a down-and-out traveling freak show, so the colors and banners were all green and grey, a rustic and dark take on it.”

But Dolan didn’t simply defer to Prince’s vision; she brought her own unique perspective to the table, infusing the costumes with her signature brand of playful subversion. “I made it an agenda for myself to offend every single ethnicity, person, and place I could think of,” she revealed. “It was equal opportunity satire, and I would try all sorts of stuff. Once you do that, and when everyone becomes a target, you can enter into the festivity of the satire wholeheartedly.”

The Magic of the Auto Da Fe

One of the standout moments in Dolan’s costuming for Candide was the iconic “Auto Da Fe” sequence, which she describes as a “a big party” that paid tribute to the religious iconography of the era. “I called the authoritative men with the ‘LISBON’ sashes across their uniforms the ‘legionnaires’ – a little masonic,” she shared, chuckling. “And I put a sash with the word ‘AYUDA’ (which means ‘aid’ in Spanish) on the Slave Captain’s assistant, though I’m not even sure if that’s correct Spanish.”

Dolan’s attention to detail was truly remarkable, as evidenced by her creation of “The Lady of Oporto” – a towering, globe-topped Madonna costume that she described as the “Infant of Prague look.” “I added a dancing Jesus puppet to that costume,” she revealed, “I wanted to pay tribute to the religious iconography as well as make her as big as possible.”

Sadly, this magnificent ensemble was cut from the 2017 NYCO production, much to Dolan’s disappointment. “Another thing that got changed in the last production that I missed, and that Hal [Prince] admitted he missed too, were the Old Dons’ original costumes for the ‘Easily Assimilated’ number,” she lamented. “I originally had them in long red underwear and really bad beards. I think the use of long underwear in reds and blacks was wonderful to bring out the cheapness and fun of the characters in order to stereotype old Mexican men.”

The Enduring Legacy of Candide

As our conversation drew to a close, I couldn’t help but ask Dolan if she had a favorite costume from the show that she was particularly proud of. Her response was a testament to the deep connection she felt with each and every one of her creations.

“No, I can’t say I do,” she said with a warm smile. “I love them all; they’re my children.” And indeed, Dolan’s costumes for Candide have become beloved icons in their own right, transcending the boundaries of the stage and etching their place in the hearts of theater fans worldwide.

Whether it was the down-and-out mummers of the 1982 NYCO production or the larger-than-life circus performers of the 1997 Broadway revival, Dolan’s designs have become an integral part of the show’s enduring legacy. Her ability to infuse each costume with a vibrant, unapologetic personality has helped to cement Candide’s status as a true theatrical gem, a timeless masterpiece that continues to captivate audiences with its quirky charm and unbridled creativity.

As I left our interview, I couldn’t help but feel a renewed sense of appreciation for the unsung heroes of the theater world – the costume designers whose vision and artistry bring our favorite stories to life. And Judith Dolan, with her unwavering dedication and her infectious passion for her craft, is undoubtedly one of the best in the business.

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