AS AUDIENCE MEMBERS, we may imagine that set, light, projection, sound, and costume designs are executed and then solidified, remaining unchanged once designers move to the next project. In practice, designs can continue to evolve far past opening night. Cast replacements, for example, often inspire a designer to reassess and sometimes entirely rebuild costumes. Broadway costume designer Catherine Zuber faced this challenge in the current Lincoln Center Theater revival of the musical My Fair Lady, in which Laura Benanti replaced Lauren Ambrose as Eliza, Rosemary Harris replaced Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins, and Danny Burstein replaced Norbert Leo Butz as Alfred P. Doolittle.

Zuber has created costumes for operas, dramas, and musicals on Broadway and around the world. A 2016 inductee into New York’s American Theater Hall of Fame, she has received Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards, Obie Awards, and Henry Hewes Design Awards for her creations. Zuber’s designs, both small- and large-scale, careen from contemporary dramas to classic musical revivals to musical theatre adaptations of films. When cast replacements affect any of these productions, small to large changes must be made. From fit to hue to accessories, Zuber must reevaluate the design, balancing author intent, director vision, character needs, and actor comfort.

Dramatics talked with Zuber in December 2018 to learn about the special considerations she made in adapting Edwardian costumes for several characters in My Fair Lady, as well as her overall creative approach to costume design.

Catherine Zuber in her studio library.

Catherine Zuber in her studio library. Photo by Martha Wade Steketee.

With My Fair Lady, you got to engage with a classic, adored musical. Was this your first time designing this show?
All the musicals I’ve done at Lincoln Center I’d never done before: South Pacific [2008], The King and I [2015], The Light in the Piazza [2005]. My Fair Lady had the most iconographic images attached to it, because of the 1964 film. For example, it’s almost an edict that if you do My Fair Lady, then you have to do black and white costumes for the Ascot Racecourse opening day scene. But at Lincoln Center, with Bartlett Sher directing and Michael Yeargan designing the set, we were challenged to not do that scene in black and white. So to pay homage to the film, Eliza has black in her costume, but everyone else, men and women, are in mauves and grays and alabaster whites. This produced the community of participants at Ascot. Then Eliza comes into that scene and pops, because now she is the one with the black.

You are asked to adjust costumes to performers of different body types. Lauren Ambrose is tall but not elongated. Benanti has a more angular, model-like figure.
There are details that make a difference for each person. The right choice for one performer needs to be adjusted for another. I always try to read the reaction of the performer in fittings. They might say, “I don’t like having things so tight around my neck,” or “I feel better when my waist is set a little lower or higher.” If it doesn’t change the silhouette of the period and it’s an arbitrary decision for the design, it’s most important that the performer feels they look their best and their needs are being addressed. I’m not someone who says, I’m the designer, this is what I want, and you don’t have any input. If somebody doesn’t like their arms, I’ll make sure they’re covered. If they don’t feel good, the costume will never work.

Most actors want to do what’s right for the character. A great actor will embrace the character work they need to do to become the person they’re playing. If that means they have to look a little heavy, thick-waisted, or whatever, if it’s appropriate for that moment, then they go along with it. Eliza goes through this transformation, and the actor has to go through the transformation, too. As Eliza, she needs to become more sophisticated, have things fit better, move in a direction that tells a story.

Some things stayed the same. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” has the same layered set of clothing on both actresses, right?
We made a new jacket for that number, cut a little differently, but they have the same skirts and a new blouse underneath. Some pieces are edited. Lauren Ambrose wore a shawl that we never questioned. She loved wearing it, and it looked good on her. But when we had a put-in rehearsal for Laura Benanti, she had one afternoon in costume, and that shawl was all over the place — it kept falling off. I said, we need to cut that shawl, it’s not doing her any favors. When we have the understudies go on, they wear the shawl with their costume. It’s a nice detail, but it’s not essential.

Do you ever make alternative understudy costumes?
The understudies or covers need to replicate what the lead person, the star, is wearing. They need to honor that. But when you have a major cast replacement — somebody like Laura Benanti coming in — that’s a different story. She has her own amazing star quality that needs to be honored. If the show is still running in a year, and someone else comes along who’s a big name, then we’ll go through the same thing. We’ll have to rework it, what works for them.

There’s another dress that you rebuilt, from a green for Lauren to a pinkish tone for Laura, in a scene with Henry’s mother, Mrs. Higgins.
It’s the same design. That green color just didn’t look good on Laura, but that green is glorious with Lauren’s coloring. She’s a natural redhead, and all those tones just sing on her. Both ladies know what works on them and what doesn’t, which is so helpful.

What considerations were made when Rosemary Harris took over from Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins?
The designs are exactly the same. What changed was the scale. Diana Rigg is very tall, like 5 feet 10 inches, and very commanding. Rosemary Harris is petite and has a fragility to her. Everything needed to be scaled down and reconstructed. We couldn’t use anything of Diana’s.

Would you characterize those as redesigns or adaptations?
Adaptations, just remade, because none of the colors changed, and the fabrics were the same. We kept Diana’s clothes, because it’s always good to have a backup in case somebody comes in to do the role down the road who is taller. Even the Ascot coat with the embroidery had to be redone to scale. It was the right choice for Rosemary Harris to underline her petite elegance and for Diana to underline her larger-than-life elegance.

There’s another replacement coming up.
Danny Burstein is replacing Norbert Leo Butz as Alfred P. Doolittle in January 2019. The wardrobe will work beautifully on Danny. It just needs to be remade. He’ll need a new set of clothes, but I don’t think it will be a new design. Like Diana to Rosemary, there are different body types.

Your costumes were set against sumptuously intricate scenic designs by Michael Yeargan.
It’s a hard musical for a set designer. The requirements of the modern audience are quite demanding, especially for this show. Back in the day, people were happy to have a drop come in and be sort of a representation — you’re in Covent Garden, then a drop comes down and a desk comes out and you are in his house. You can’t really do that anymore. People expect more, especially at Lincoln Center, and we have the luxury of such a beautiful stage.

The Higgins home, how beautifully that works and how much that brings to the storytelling — it must have been like another character for Eliza. She’s in this place, and it’s quite grand, but it’s also magical with instruments for improving her voice, and all these people dressing her and coaching her deportment.

Before getting into costume design, you pursued photography, and before entering the Yale School of Drama, you worked in a research lab at the Yale School of Medicine. How did these interests overlap?
Photography is very much like a proscenium. In photography, you’re creating a world, and if there are people in the photograph, there’s always a mystery: Who is that, what are they doing, what are they thinking, what are they wearing? I love that about photography. I also always loved vintage clothes. I had a huge collection of them. That’s how I got into costumes: A Yale undergraduate stage manager saw my taste in clothes and asked me to design for her show.

My lab boss was also a great influence on me, saying unless you really love something, you’ll never be good at it. Once I found costume design, I loved it so much. There would never be a moment when I would question what I’m giving up to do this. I got my costume design portfolio together doing undergraduate shows, and I applied to the Yale School of Drama.

In your work, you balance straightforward dramas with gorgeous musical productions like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Talk about your different stylistic choices for period shows, extravagant imagery, and quiet contemporary dramas.
Sometimes, as with Tom Stoppard’s new play The Hard Problem, I just need to be invisible. You cannot draw attention to yourself at all. With musicals like Moulin Rouge! [opening this summer on Broadway], they want more sequins, more stuff, more feathers … more, more, more. It’s a different recipe and a different approach. One is more sociology, and the other is where you’re creating something to be noticed for its own sake artistically.

My Fair Lady could be a combination of the two. It is the Covent Garden world, where you have the people coming out of the opera interfacing with the denizens of Covent Garden — flower sellers, prostitutes, and opium dealers. All of this world is converging in perhaps the only place you could have somebody like Higgins run into somebody like Eliza. You need to get the sociology of all that right. At the same time, the design does need to be elevated, because it is a musical and needs to be theatricalized.

Next, I’m doing a new play by Tim Blake Nelson called Socrates at the Public Theater. What interests me about that project is learning about Greek philosophers and the history. Michael Yeargan and I just worked on a production of Porgy and Bess that’s going to Amsterdam in January and will open the Met season in September, and we’re doing the opera Rigoletto in Berlin, which is also eventually coming to the Met.

For any show, you need to be sure your design helps with the storytelling. The audience needs to believe the characters and the subconscious message you’re forming before the characters even open their mouths.

This story appeared in the April 2019 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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