NEW YORK — Whether it’s “The Mashed Potato,” “The Bird,” “The Bug” or another finger-snapping, hip-shifting dance routine that the hair-ratting cast of “Hairspray” performs, costume designer William Ivey Long has a suitable — and appropriately campy — ensemble.
But for the musical version of “Hairspray,” which begins in previews Thursday night and opens Aug. 15 at Manhattan’s Neil Simon Theatre, the fashions differ from those featured in the 1988 John Waters film, which is set in Baltimore in 1962.
“When I do what I call ‘previously owned vehicles,’ meaning from a film, I ask the director if we are going to be inspired by, or should we not look at, the movie,” says Long, who has earned Tony Awards for his work on “The Producers,” “Nine” and “Crazy For You.” “There was a general sense of ‘no, we are different from the film, but we want you to look at it.’ So I purchased the movie and I watched it a total of once and I thought, ‘OK, I have committed this to memory. If I watch it twice, I will not be able to be creative.’”
Long says there is a key difference between the cinematic and theatrical versions of “Hairspray,” the latter of which is directed by Jack O’Brien and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell: “For the movie, I think John wanted to be real; we’re being surreal,” he explains.
For the musical, he created approximately 300 pieces of clothing, footwear and accessories.
“I’m starting from [the movie], but I think we’ve gone quite far,” he adds. “I’ve added color — characters have different color schemes. Velma Von Tussle has metallics and Motormouth Mabel is in purples and golds, for example.”
Long’s “hands-down favorite” scene to work on was “Welcome Sixties,” during which dowdy homemaker Edna Turnblad, played by Harvey Fierstein, receives a fashion makeover at Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway boutique. Edna visits the shop with her daughter Tracy, played by Marissa Jaret Winokur, an overweight socially shunned teen branded a “hair-hopper” by those who scoff at her ratted hair-dos.
“[Edna] gains confidence; she also changes her clothing, her hair and her fingernails — but not her shape,” Long says, laughing.
Color-coding is integral to the costuming of the show’s villainesses, Amber Von Tussle and her mother, Velma, who match each other in every scene. “But the daughter is in more femmy girl looks, while the mother will be in a sort of tailored metallic brocade suit or dress,” says Long. “So metallic means villain in this show.”
Long also cherishs a piece of wisdom imparted by Waters about the villains: “He says when these women went shopping at the grocery store, they dressed like they were going to a ball at Versailles. So all you have to do is hear John say that once, and you go, ‘OK, she’s copying Jackie Kennedy.’ Now add 10 details to this pared silhouette and it’s like, how do you ruin it? So I have ruffles and buttons and I even have ruffles around buttons. I have kick pleats and there is a nice box pleat inside the kick pleat.”
Long sought design inspiration by flipping through the pages of publications from the late Fifties and early Sixties, including Jet magazine and Good Housekeeping, as well as Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs. He also cut out photos and sketched over each image, creating a series of collages he describes as “sort of Rauchenberg,” depicting the outfits of each scene.
When he signed on as costume designer for the musical, Long bonded with Waters over the duo’s similar lineage, which also helped the designer prepare for the gig.
“My mother is from Baltimore, so I think once you have any Baltimore connection in your blood, you bond,” says Long, who was raised in North Carolina. “And I must say, I grew up on that outrageousness.””