August 27 2014

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Arianne Phillips Talks Dressing Hedwig and Her Angry Inch


Arianne Phillips

Broadway is no stranger to men in drag (think Kinky Boots, Cabaret, and, soon, Casa Valentina). But it has certainly never seen anything quite like the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The transgressive, transformative, transgender title character first stomped onto the underground scene in the late 1990s, the surly brainchild of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask. Creating not only the singing, dancing, wisecracking East German ingenue, Mitchell played her in off-Broadway productions and in the cult-hit film of 2001. It was on the big screen that, along with her angry inch (so named, as she comically hisses in one song, for the proverbial chop she hastily underwent in an effort to flee East Berlin), the stubby star was born.

Ever plucky and resourceful, Hedwig has now made it to Broadway. Neil Patrick Harris dons the diva’s duds, reimagined by costume designer Arianne Phillips, who originally crafted them for the film version. In addition to Hedwig’s blond feathered mullet, the ultimate sight gag, her clothes—cobbled together from whatever she can salvage from her hardscrabble, socialist surroundings—are as unique, sympathetic, and fearless as she. Hedwig’s wardrobe goes a long way in telling her story, in all its gritty and triumphant reality, as Phillips explains backstage at the Belasco Theatre.

You did the costumes for the film version of Hedwig, which catapulted her to global notoriety. Did you look at this Broadway restaging as an update or starting from scratch?

It’s not starting from scratch because I know the material, but it’s a totally different experience designing for the stage than it is for film. I know the material intimately, but it’s been fourteen years since I designed the film. It’s been a real gift to revisit the material with Neil, who brings his own genius and personality to the character. The amazing thing about Neil is that he has all these skills as an actor. He’s studied circus techniques, he’s studied magic. Rumor has it—and I haven’t asked him—that he’s the president of The Magic Castle.

I don’t know that, but I do know he collects magic memorabilia.

The first time I met him, he said to me, “I love costumes. I love illusion. I love magic. So bring it on. Let’s create magic.” And I just was dumbfounded because the first thing actors usually say is, “Please don’t give me too much to do!” So that was super-inspiring and exciting.

Besides Hedwig, you’re well-known for working with Madonna, creating many of her signature looks over the years.

My experience with doing live theater really is working with Madonna and designing her last five tours. Live theater is very different from film because there are different needs for the costumes. Neil as Hedwig never leaves the stage, so if there’s a costume change, we have to find a clever way to do it—quick changes and under-or-over-dressing. Basically it’s a one-person show, whereas the film had many more characters.

Neil Patrick HarrisDid Neil bring any of his own ideas to the costumes?

He certainly brought a lot of physical ideas, in terms of how we were going to make costume changes and how he was going to wear them. He’s incredibly collaborative. He loves the process and he appreciates costumes. He understands them and how they’re an integral part of the character. Neil’s a physical actor. He’s like a triple threat: He’s a great actor, he can sing, and he can dance.

What about his drag?

The first thing was getting him in high heels, which takes a lot of bravery to wear. He has not once had an issue with it, and I didn’t have to make the heels lower. Of course, we custom-made the heels for him. Plus, working on Madonna’s tours, I have some experience dressing guys in high heels.

Did he buff up for the role? He looks more muscular than I’ve seen him.

Well, I don’t think we’ve seen him with so few clothes on. Doing [Broadway] is like being an athlete, and he never leaves the stage. On some nights, he has two shows. Luckily for me, he has the most beautiful body to dress. He looks incredible. He can create the female illusion, and yet there’s a masculinity as well. It’s reminiscent for me of Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where there’s a feminine and masculine duality. I think Neil physically embodies that sexual ambiguity. It’s provocative in its own way, and he moves beautifully.

Do any of the pieces draw from runway collections?

There are no designer clothes in this show, but I had inspiration. I spent this past year in London working on a film, and I went to see the Bowie exhibit at the V&A. I was really inspired by a lot of Kansai Yamamoto’s costumes for David Bowie. The material in Hedwig’s opening costume references Bowie, as well as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop—the “crypto-homo-rockers,” like they say in the show. On one side it’s real German camouflage and on the other side is American camo. There was a French guy who saw the show one night and he recognized the camo, which is really cool. I wanted to put a lot of story in the costumes for us, and if the audience gets it, great.

The denim patchwork ensemble is also quite fabulous.

In the film and the original Jane Street production, there’s a cape that Hedwig wears. It has a kind of graffiti effect resembling the Berlin Wall. I wanted to move on from the cape, to build from it, because that was really part of the original Hedwig. I wanted something fresh for Neil. The denim jumpsuit came from the idea that Hedwig would have made it herself to get over the wall, to blend in with it.

Arianne PhillipsIt almost looks like it is the Berlin Wall.

That’s exactly right. The Swarovski crystals make brick shapes, and this appliqué is the eye from [the song] “Origin of Love.” Over here is Adam and Eve. This graffiti was inspired directly from ACT UP graffiti in some pictures I took of the Berlin Wall when I was there a year and a half ago. It’s basically a collage that tells her story, how she was created. Here are more Swarovski beads and studs, and crystal fringe. It was really important to me to use different applications of Swarovski so that the costumes wouldn’t be just one big blob of sparkle onstage. They’re so artist-supportive and they really bent over backward to supply us. The costume is all about illusion, so what looks like a skirt is really a skort. Every costume has to feel like Hedwig made it herself.

Let’s talk about the faux fur extravaganza.

It’s our fantasy moment—Hedwig’s hairstyle revisited. And the homage to the famous Hedwig wig doesn’t end there. We capped the costume off with this gold helmet in the shape of the wig. It’s part of a collaboration with Desi Santiago, who’s an amazing performance artist and who’s also from the club scene. Desi collaborates a lot with me, working on Madonna’s tours. So this is a Hedwig helmet based on a German helmet, and because it’s chromed in gold, it’s also like an Oscar trophy. It’s a showstopper.

So much thought goes into every detail. Nothing is accidental.

There has to be a reason for everything. The costumes have to reflect the character and the story, and they’re the result of collaboration. I might come up with the inspiration, but I work closely with different artisans. Layers of thought go into each costume, based on the person I’m working with. I collaborated a lot with Eric Winterling’s studio. His shop, along with costume designer Eiko Ishioka, manufactured Grace Jones’ costumes for her last tour. One of his ideas was to use magnets for the rip-away. I wouldn’t have known that. And this crystal mesh bandanna is part of a collaboration with Michael Schmidt, one of the original creators of the club SqueezeBox, where John Cameron Mitchell workshopped Hedwig before Jane Street. Michael’s a friend of the show, so I wanted his fingerprints. I really wanted to keep the downtown integrity of the show. Hedwig was really spawned from clubs, so the costumes needed to feel downtown-worthy. That meant avoiding the kind of glitzy sleekness of a lot of Broadway shows. I felt I had to keep Hedwig‘s rock-and-roll roots.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is currently in previews and opens on April 22.

Photo: Thomas Iannaccone; Joan Marcus