In his illustrious career, William Ivey Long has dressed stars from Emma Stone and Mick Jagger to Hugh Jackman. The six-time Tony Award–winning costume designer now has 75 Broadway shows under his belt, recently adding Tootsie and Beetlejuice to his robust résumé. Both shows opened on Broadway the same week last month and are both Tony-nominated for Best Musical. Long is also nominated for best costume design for both productions, marking the second time he has been nominated for more than one show.
Downstairs at his Tribeca design studio are double-sided floor-to-ceiling boards covered with ideas alongside sketches of costumes. Facing center are the designs for Beetlejuice, which stars Tony-nominated Alex Brightman in the title role and 17-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso as Lydia. A magazine cutout shows a black-and-white Dolce and Gabbana ensemble that was just one of the many haute couture styles Long drew from as inspiration behind the costumes for Beetlejuice. The show is based on Tim Burton’s 1988 film starring Michael Keaton. In homage, Long didn’t stray far from Burton’s original look and wanted the costumes to appear as if “Tim Burton actually drew these [black-and-white] stripes on the people. That was the mission,” Long explains.
“It’s very heavy,” Long says of a jacket he made for Brightman for one of the original workshops about two years ago, though Brightman no longer wears it “because there is a lot of running around.” There’s also a black cape mounted on a mannequin that was made for Caruso. She no longer wears it in the production because she has no costume changes.
A “fantasy” world is how Long labels Beetlejuice. “But Tootsie is twisted, ironic, and full of weird juxtapositions with Dorothy Michaels,” Long counters as he skips around the room proudly describing his work while quickly turning over a mood board to highlight his Tootsie costumes too. “They’re both sort of quirky.”
For Tootsie — which is based on another 1980s film, which starred Dustin Hoffman as an actor pretending to be a woman to get work — Long crafted more than a dozen outfits for its star, Santino Fontana. He based some of Fontana’s Dorothy Michaels looks on vintage Dior, noting how the neckline on this particular fashion model helps make Fontana’s broad chest appear more feminine.
How did you do the costumes for Tootsie and Beetlejuice at the same time?
I think it’s because they could not be more different. I’ve worked with [Tootsie director] Scott Ellis [for] almost 20 shows, so we have shorthand because we’ve been doing so many together. He likes to ask me to imagine things and he’ll look at them. Actually, [Beetlejuice director] Alex Timbers did that too. We stayed within the canon of Tim Burton’s drawings. I also did during the same period Princess Diana: The Musical and Little Dancer. We have to do [Diana] again, though. We didn’t get the tone right.
This isn’t the first time you’ve been nominated for two shows in the same year. In 2005 you were nominated for the musical La Cage aux Folles and the play A Streetcar Named Desire.
But this is the first time in the same category against myself.
How do you feel about that?
My snarky remark is: Damn, now I cancel myself out. Friends have been asking who [they] should vote for and I’m going, “I can’t make that decision for you.”
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How have you done 75 shows? You are busier now than you ever were.
Of course I’m busier now than when I started out, because no one knows who you are [when you start out]. You do one at a time and then [the directors] sort of like it or don’t like it. You go for years without a hit, then you get into the groove. I go in search of the heat. Where’s the excitement? I think I’m getting better because I’ve made so many mistakes along the way. I know when an idea possibly might be a mistake, so I offer five more choices to the director. It could be color, form or shape — little mistakes. I don’t mean huge mistakes. There’s something about having done this, but also I stay very interested.
There was a 75th “birthday” celebration for you.
My diamond jubilee! We didn’t know it was going to happen. It sort of erupted. A lot of people didn’t get invited because we did it so quickly. It was the night after Beetlejuice opened. We were down here and made up a Beetlejuice drink. I had green lights hanging. In fact, they’re still there, but they’re not turned on.
Describe your team. Who helps you make all these costumes?
I have two people: Donald [Sanders, who does the budgeting] and Butler [Robertson, the research assistant]. We’re like a well-oiled machine. Donald has been with me for 20 years and Butler for four. What we do is break down the script [and review] how many people are in each scene. Then Butler starts the research. He’s the one who Xeroxes all the things we find and puts them up on the wall. Then, after the director has been here many times — back and forth, back and forth — I hire an associate designer who hires the entire team. We have up to five people.
Do the sets or costumes come first?
Scenery always comes first because you’ve got to set the world.
Tell me about how you secretly find out what the actors think of your costumes.
It’s just psychology. I learned a while ago to leave the room with my assistant there because they will tell the assistant. They think it might hurt my feelings. It allows everybody to tell what they want. I want it all to work. I want them to be happy.
You once told me that 1982’s Nine was your favorite show to design. How come?
It was pure design. It was a completely white set. All the women in [the main character Guido’s] life came to him in a dream, a nightmare, wearing black clothes. [The women are] also from different periods. So [Guido’s] mother is from the ’30s and then the up-to-the-minute fashions were the ’60s and early ’70s. I got to do all those decades and it was just incredible.
You designed Caroline Kennedy’s bridesmaid dresses.
Plus, I was a groomsman in the wedding.
Mick Jagger in the ’80s. Who is your favorite person of all time to dress?
The favorite outfit, I have to say, is Anita Morris as Carla, the mistress in Nine. I have a shrine on my wall of the fabric. But, you know, I have favorite ones all the time. Leslie Kritzer is fast becoming a favorite, [turning] Delia [in Beetlejuice] into Miss Argentina. We decided [to base that character on] Sophia Loren. She would unwrap this Tim Burton dress and there’s Sophia Loren. So what’s underneath is based on lingerie from a famous film that Sophia was in.
What do you think is your trademark look in every show?
I think it’s sexy va-va-voom shapes. But it may be just black see-through clothes on skin. I started it with Nine and I’ve done it in Chicago, then Cabaret. Sally Bowles wears a lot of black with see-through.
What about Hairspray, The Producers, or Crazy for You?
You know what? It’s just a few of them, then. What is my signature look? I don’t know.
I’m giving you the answer: It is the “spin around to reveal second costume” look.
In front of your very eyes. No light, no smoke and mirrors, and no smoke.
I love that. When I was designing Cinderella, [the producers] told me that we’re going to reserve the first two rows for little girls coming to the show. I thought to myself, “What a gift. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do our magic right in front of their very eyes?” So Cinderella’s first big transformation is right at the footlight. Those little girls squealing, seeing Cinderella go from rags to ball gown, was thrilling.
Then you do it in Tootsie and Beetlejuice.
I think the audience loves seeing it because they blink and go, “When did that happen?” And it happens right in front of them.
If you could pick one dream person to dress, who would it be?
I’m the Statue of Liberty. Bring me everybody.