LA STAGE Times was given permission to witness the process Dangerous Beauty underwent in the final months leading up to its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse on February 13. This is the second in a three-part series of articles prepared via interviews with producers, the creative team and cast, as well as onsite reporting that began with the first group sales presentation in October 2010. Click here to read Part I.
Legendary costume designer Theoni Aldredge died on Jan. 21. The next day, Soyon An began technical rehearsals for the premiere of the musical Dangerous Beauty at the Pasadena Playhouse, which features An’s haute couture attire. Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Playhouse, saw it as a passing of the torch.
Aldredge won three Tonys (Annie, Barnum, La Cage Aux Folles) and an Oscar (The Great Gatsby). That An, a two-time Emmy Award-winning designer (So You Think You Can Dance) should make her theatrical design debut at 29, just as Broadway lost its 78-year-old icon, prompted Epps to discuss An as a possible successor.
“I think [Aldredge] was one of the greatest costume designers ever,” he offers. “I always remember those original Dreamgirls costumes. Not because they were beautiful, but what they did theatrically: the way in which they made those onstage changes was stunning work. So you start to think about lineage and who’s coming along. Soyon’s certainly in that kind of line, from my point of view, of truly great designers. She’s quite brilliant. If she wants to continue working in the theater, I think she’ll have every opportunity to do that.”
An is later stunned by the compliment, admitting she needs to research Aldredge’s designs to fully comprehend the company Epps has placed her in. “I’m honored and blown away,” she admits during tech week, as the cast puts her elaborate couture creations to the test for the first time on stage.
Dressed in her usual working outfit of jeans, knee high boots, t-shirt top and the occasional cap, An easily looks years younger than her age. It’s a perception she addressed at both the first production meeting in October and the start of rehearsals in late December, as if to allay any unspoken concerns among the musical theater veterans in the room.
“Believe it or not, I’ve been designing for ten years,” An tells both groups. She attended LA’s Otis College of Art and Design at age 16, quickly followed by the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. “Costume design for five. Even though this is my first theater show, my background is TV and film and music tours [SYTYCD, American Idol]. I’m also the fashion editor for the magazine Jimon, so the look we’re going for in the costumes is very Christian Lecroix, very Alexander McQueen. [Showtime’s] The Tutors with John Galliano for the men. Inspired by the period but with a modern edge.”
At both events director Sheryl Kaller interjects, “She may tell you that it’s Lecroix or Galliano or The Tudors but really the designs are hers! When Tara [Smith, Dangerous Beauty producer] showed me a number from So You Think You Can Dance, I said, “‘there are my costumes.’”
Smith is the one who asked An to participate in Dangerous Beauty, the new musical of the famous 16th century Venetian courtesan/poet Veronica Franco based on the 1998 film. With book by original screenwriter Jeannine Dominy, lyrics by Amanda McBroom and music by Michele Brourman, the story has been retooled from an epic screen romance to a more empowering feminist tale. Smith says new ideas regarding the stage costumes emerged during a conversation with Kaller following their 2008 workshop production at the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University’s Theatre & Interpretation Center.
“We were talking about what I had responded to in the film,” she relates over lunch at Lemonade, referring to her first experience with the Franco story while a USC student. “And how progressive these women felt to me on film. I realized it doesn’t really translate on stage. The women are in corsets and long dresses. They are in the 16th century no matter how much of their bosom is showing. It doesn’t look modern. I don’t even remember how it came up, but Sheryl and I started talking and thought, what if the courtesans had pink hair? What if it had a little bit of rock and roll?
“Then Sheryl said, what if there were hot zippers? Zippers weren’t even invented then. What if the corsets had zippers and they were bright colors? We tried playing with it, say 20%. At the end of Northwestern, we knew we had to go all the way.”
All the way meant tinkering with not just the clothes, but ultimately the music arrangements and choreography as well. “My exposure to dance was really through So You Think You Can Dance, as cheesy as that may sound,” admits the Tony-nominated (Xanadu) Smith, who is in her late 20s. “I think it is a brilliant show. That is how I found Soyon. I started thinking this is not being done on Broadway. The Broadway dance they show on the show was for me like, yeah, that is old Broadway. Why isn’t there a new language for Broadway dance? That was where my mind started going.”
To tell the story of Franco’s rise and fall, An would create 50 individual costume pieces for 20 actors. The costumes needed to be able to move and breathe with the choreography created by Benoit-Swan Pouffer, the Alvin Ailey-trained artistic director of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.
Dangerous Beauty Women’s Costume Designs
[slideshow post_id=18326 exclude=18429,18461]
Photos: Jim Cox (c) The Pasadena Playhouse
“Tara actually contacted me to ask if I was interested,” An confirms at her house in early November, after taking a preliminary design conference call with Pouffer, Kaller and set designer Tom Buderwitz. “I asked her if this was serious because it was kind of out of the blue. That was back in like April. Then in the summer I met with everyone to see if we’d like to work together.
Unlike the others, she had not seen the movie. What sold her on participating was the musical’s message. “I didn’t even know there was a movie!” she laughs. “I didn’t sign on until I finished the script and then I was like, I love this. I said I wanted to be a part of this because I agree with what everyone is saying, in terms of it is what’s happening now. I’m all about women empowerment and the women’s movement. I feel like this is a very interesting play in terms of what women have to sacrifice for what men are given at birth.”
The women in Franco’s time were denied a public education and relegated to a cloistered, Christian-trained existence as wives in arranged marriages to political allies. Conversely, the city’s famed courtesans enjoyed a very visible public life with the distinguished men of the era, who valued their educated sophistication and skill as conversationalists as highly as their sexual companionship. Franco was forced by circumstance to choose the courtesan life, where she reigned as Venice’s star attraction and first published female poet until war with the Turks, the bubonic plague and the Inquisition ended her prominence.
“When a woman is sexual and has brains, that’s the whole package, so men have to contain it by labeling them courtesans,” says An, who sees the modern day correlation. “So it’s always taboo instead of the normalcy of life. Otherwise guys feel threatened.”
Being the daughter of very traditional Korean immigrant parents, she relates to Franco’s story. Though born in Korea, An is first generation American. “I had to fight for everything I wanted to do in my life. In a way it runs parallel but not to the same extent. My dad didn’t let me play sports because it wasn’t what girls do. They wouldn’t let me join Girl Scouts because they thought something was going to happen to me. They didn’t let me work when I was in high school. I would have to lie and say I was going to the library so I could have an after-school job at 14 or 15. Even going into fashion was a big deal.”
An calls today’s double standard “the elephant in the room. There is a difference. Women have to fight for the same rights as men have. If I was a son, my dad would have said do whatever you want, but because I was a daughter, it was always you can’t do this or that. Why does it still have to be this way?”
An admits her younger sister Julie, who now works for An’s company, was allowed to do what she wanted, including basketball. But their parents wanted the older sister to become a doctor or lawyer. When asked if either parent was in those fields, she laughs. “No! They’re hair stylists! To them you needed to be one or the other or you wouldn’t survive in the world.”
A week later, An presents early fabric swatches and jewelry samples at DB producer Susan Dietz’s house to Kaller, McBroom and Smith, who is attending via Skype. Dietz is away in London attending the West End premiere of her Tony-winning musical Fela! Also present is veteran theater, opera and dance costume designer Kate Bergh whom An hired to guide the neophyte through her inaugural stage production.
“Kate helped me break down the script and budgets, act as liaison with the production and allow me to concentrate on the costumes. Plus give a fresh eye.” Bergh returns the compliment at first dress, telling everyone that from a 30-year veteran’s perspective, An is “unique and fresh.” Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz seconds Bergh. “I haven’t seen costumes this well-structured or this well-built in a long time. The work is amazing and Soyon is a genius.”
Kaller likes the adjustments An has made since their last call. She likes the “zippity-doo-dah colors” picked for Franco’s courtesan outfits and for underneath the other courtesan/wives costumes, but she doesn’t want them to be any brighter. Since Northwestern the decision was made to cast six women to play both Venice’s wives and courtesans, so some of An’s biggest challenges include creating a single piece that can transform to either role onstage. These costumes, as well as six identical muslin copies created for rehearsals, must also allow the women to dance. Each outfit can transform five different ways, she explains.
Elaborate jewel-toned carnivale masks are shown and discussed. So are: the flowers on Franco’s young girl dress, finding the right yellow for her childhood friend Beatrice’s outfits, using An’s signature Swarovski crystals on leggings and costumes, corsets, silk and chiffon fabrics, elaborately embroidered and brocaded necklaces and headpieces which are oohed and aahed over, wigs, bids from costume houses. At the same time, ways to creatively meet the budget aren’t forgotten. An says she had seven seamstresses under her watch. Everyone is impressed and happy.
On December 26, the day before rehearsals are to begin, An does a full presentation of the women’s costumes at her Los Feliz studio to Kaller, Dietz, Smith, Pouffer, and production stage manager Joe Witt. Kaller and Pouffer barely manage to get out of New York City before a massive snowstorm that strands playwright Dominy. An presents each creation one-by-one on a full size dressmaker form. Superlatives vastly outweigh requests for adjustments. “Is that ostrich leather?” someone asks incredulously about a black waistband for an elaborate Franco dress. Charmeuse, drapery fabric, feathers, handmade trim, fuchsia taffeta and more parade by. High fashion meets the mystical meets 16th century. At the end, all applaud with random shouts of bravo accenting the air. An is giddy and pleased.
Fast-forward to January 30 and the invited dress rehearsal at the Playhouse. In between, fittings, adjustments and wardrobe malfunctions have occurred. At one point, An is spied in the costume room gluing crystals to carnivale masks with her team. Women learn how to sing in corsets, and how to handle the weight of the heavy costumes and wigs, versus the lighter rehearsal muslins, as they move up and down the two-story Venetian set complete with water-filled canals, balconies, stairs and intricate walkways. It’s the first time everyone has run through the entire show.
The balcony is filled with college girls invited from Smith’s USC sorority. “Our target audience,” says producer Dietz before curtain. In the lobby, the senior-age Playhouse ushers are excitedly chatting and putting on masks they crafted themselves from courtesan fabric given to them by An. The evening signifies the true return of the Playhouse, and it’s a telling juxtaposition of age groups who are drawn to participate in Dangerous Beauty’s first unveiling before a live audience.
The show gets a standing ovation. An is relieved and admits it went better than she thought it might. “Everyone did a great job,” she says smiling, then adds. “I feel proud.” When asked what she thinks the message of the show should be to those girls in the balcony, she replies:
“It’s not, go be a courtesan. Veronica sacrificed her body and even her soul to gain the enlightenment men were able to have at that time: Go to the library. Read. Do swordfights. Say whatever she wants. Just be free. I think it’s a story about life. Life is full of sacrifices. When I started my career I had to make a sacrifice. I felt like I had to choose between my boyfriend then and the career I was moving towards. If I had stayed with him I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“That’s the reality of life. The things you give up along the way will bear fruit in what you want to dive into in the future.”