If you want to learn about a play or musical, talk to the costume designer.
That's the behind-the-scenes person who needs to know everything about the characters and the story. Through fabric, ribbon, beads and thread, the costume designer helps create the look of the world the actors inhabit on stage.
Susan Hilferty is one of Broadway's top costume designers. She has dreamed up the clothes for hundreds of productions, including Wicked, for which she received a Tony Award, and Spring Awakening, and also opera, film, dance and experimental theater. As well as being an artist, she is also an academic, as chair of the Department of Design for Stage and Film at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
Now Hilferty has designed the 100 or so costumes for Wonderland: Alice's New Musical Adventure, the Frank Wildhorn musical being produced by the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts (formerly the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center). The show premieres at the center Dec. 5, with preview performances beginning Tuesday.
Hilferty has been in Tampa for much of the past six weeks working on Wonderland as the company rehearsed and installed the show at the center. One Sunday morning, fresh from a day off that she spent bird- and alligator-watching from a canoe on the Hillsborough River, she talked about her creative process. As she spoke, she paged through thick loose-leaf notebooks that document the development of each costume, from sketches to swatches of fabric to snapshots of fittings.
"I'm constantly doing them,'' Hilferty said of the sketches, many of them in watercolor. Trained as a painter, she figures she did as many as 700 sketches of various versions of the show's costumes. "It's all in the sketch. But the real creative act is translating the sketch into reality.''
Even before Wonderland came along, Hilferty knew Lewis Carroll's two iconic books — Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass — extremely well, because she has often used them in graduate design seminars she teaches at NYU.
"The Alice story makes a great project for a designer because it is so metaphorically rich,'' Hilferty said. "Alice goes down the rabbit hole and into this other world. It's the basis of so many stories. The Grimm fairy stories; Into the Woods (she designed costumes for the 2002 revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical); Shakespeare — A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest; The Wizard of Oz and Wicked.''
Alice in the Wildhorn musical is a contemporary New Yorker. Hilferty spent a lot of time thinking about who she is.
"That's the first question,'' she said. "For me, it's the secret of the costume design. You have to identify who the character is, and what world they live in.
"Our Alice is a woman in her 30s who is at a crisis moment in her life. She's a writer who has writer's block. She's breaking up with her husband. She feels she's losing her daughter."
Wonderland opens with a party at which Alice arrives feeling inadequate — and totally underdressed. "Everybody at the party is dressed to the hilt — almost like chess pieces; they're all sculpted in black and white and silver — and she has just not worn the right thing. We all know what that's about. It's at that moment when Alice has a kind of breakdown and goes down through the rabbit hole, and that sets her on a series of quests.''
Alice, played by Janet Dacal, wears a red wrap dress throughout the show — the most simple costume in a world of extravagant costumes. "It's one look,'' Hilferty said. "My Alice never changes. It's her quest. It's all circling around her. Visually, with the red, she's at the center of every scene.''
The other people at the party all show up in Wonderland, but they're distorted. "Alice's agent, for instance, is all dressed in white and has platinum hair at the party. Later, he becomes the White Rabbit.''
Presiding over the party is a literary doyenne named Mrs. Everheart who later becomes the Queen of Hearts, costumed to spectacular effect. "She looks like a deck of cards, like a high-fashion, exploded deck of cards,'' Hilferty said.
Though Wonderland was conceived to be an eye-popping affair, Hilferty didn't have completely free rein.
"It's always in the text,'' she said. "That's the difference between being a fashion designer and a costume designer. A fashion designer can, just on a whim, go in whatever direction they want to go. Color? You can do whatever you want to do. But my responsibility is to the story and the characters.''
Curiously, for such an omnivorous expert on all things Alice, Hilferty has never watched the 1951 Disney animated film. Not even as a girl growing up in Arlington, Mass.
"We never saw films. We always read books. Getting lost in a story and imagining my own world has been part of my life for a long time. I think it's one of the reasons I'm a costume designer, because I like to tell stories. And I use clothes as my medium.''
Her most vivid childhood memory of Alice is the illustrations by John Tenniel in the Carroll books. Hilferty had not intended to incorporate those famous Victorian images into the costumes, but at least one aspect of them ended up playing a subtle but decisive role in her design.
"I really didn't crack it until the striped stockings,'' she said, referring to the horizontal striped stockings that Alice wears in the illustrations to Through the Looking-Glass. They are worn in the musical by Alice's daughter, Chloe, who leads her mother down the rabbit hole, reached via elevator in this telling of the story.
"The idea of the striped stockings was very important to me,'' the costume designer said. "It was a visual way to reference the inside of Alice's head.''
Hilferty's costumes are amazingly well-made, with all the beading, embroidery, painting and printing done by hand. The fabrics range from wool to silk to satin to rayon — plus oddball material, like the automobile dashboard plastic that stiffens the Queen of Heart's elaborate, fanlike overskirt.
Eric Winterling, whose company built most of the costumes, estimated that it took 325 hours to make the Queen's costume.
"These costumes are as sumptuous as they look,'' Hilferty said. "It's exactly what they do with haute couture.''
Theater costumes also have to be tough. "This is all finished so it will last,'' she said. "These clothes live an incredibly abused life. They do eight performances a week. They get sweated into. They get torn. Bought clothes won't hold up.''
But even Hilferty's costumes wear out if a show is a hit. "We've just made our 75th or 80th Elphaba dress'' for Wicked, she said.
The actors adore the woman who designs such gorgeous outfits for them. That Sunday, the Queen of Hearts costume had arrived, and when Hilferty and Winterling were inspecting it, a squeal of delight could be heard down the hallway. It was Karen Mason, who is playing the Queen, seeing her completed costume for the first time.
"Oh, my God, that is so beautiful, Susan,'' Mason said, tenderly fingering the garment. "It is so spectacular.''
"You think they'll notice you?'' Hilferty said.
The designer knows that her lavish costumes will eventually become just part of the job.
"The actors have been watching it happen as the costumes developed, so they're excited,'' Hilferty said later. "Soon it will be routine, and they'll say, 'Ah, I've got to put on that old costume again.' ''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.