A fan of Hairspray in all its myriad adaptations over the years, on stage and on screen, Hairspray Live! costume designer Mary Vogt faced new challenges when called upon to give her one take on the beloved property.
With the intense and very involved choreography on display in NBC’s latest live theater production—from directors Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski—Vogt quickly realized that she would need costumes that could hold up under pressure. Not only was there a demand for period accuracy, merging the realism of the Hairspray films with the “wild colors” of the stage musical—the costumes had to stretch.
Fearing that costumes would rip during a big dance moment—knowing that the production was a “One Night Only” experience—Vogt crafted costumes out of stretch fabrics, encouraging actors like Derek Hough to push her materials to their limits.
Speaking with Deadline, Vogt discusses the process of refining a “hybrid” look for her costumes and the biggest expenses at hand in her department.
What drew you to NBC’s production of Hairspray Live?
I’ve always loved the play. I loved the John Waters film, and I loved the 2007 Hairspray film that [producers] Neil [Meron] and Craig [Zadan] did. I never saw in person, but I’ve seen reproductions of it, and films of the original play. I really love Neil and Craig’s work—they’ve done a lot of musicals, and movie musicals, and I really wanted to work with them, so the combination of them and the project was really great. It just sounded like so much fun.
What were your preparations for this unique style of production, which brings the trappings of live theatrical productions to a television audience?
There was a lot to research on this because there’s been a lot of productions of Hairspray. I first looked at the John Waters film— the clothes were realistic, but very eccentric, and had some surreal quality to them. The movies were realistic, but with a heightened sense of reality, and the play was full-blown, wild color, and just crazy, wild fun.
I said, “Well, it would be great to combine a bit of the John Waters film with the movie Hairspray, with Neil and Craig’s movie, and then with the play, using the realism of the two movies with the wild colors of the play.” That’s basically what I tried to do, without going too crazy, because if you get too wild, the television audience can’t relate to it. It looks too much like a play. I tried to combine all of that.
The actors were so bright and vibrant that you could go bright with them and you don’t overpower them—because the one thing you don’t want to do with costumes is overpower the actor who’s in them. Certainly, it would be impossible to overpower Harvey [Fierstein], or any of them. I had worked with Kristin [Chenoweth] before. I knew that she could take just about anything.
So with this group of actors, you could really go vibrant and broad, and they could bring a reality to something that might be a little theatrical. We actually went a little more theatrical than I would have thought we could because the actors can always come above it. Their personality is always bigger than the clothes.
What did Meron and Zadan convey about their hopes for the production?
In my initial meetings with them, they wanted to talk about color, and they wanted to not go too broad. They didn’t want it to be as broad as the play, visually, or as realistic as the film. It’s really a hybrid of the two, and they encouraged me to go to all the rehearsals, the dance rehearsals, to watch the actors performing.
It wasn’t till I saw them dancing for the first time that I realized, Oh, my gosh, normal clothes are not going to work on this. I thought we could use period clothes, and one of the first times I saw Derek Hough dancing, I thought, Oh, my gosh, he’s such an athlete. He’ll rip any clothes in a second. I talked to him about that. I said, “How in the world do you wear clothes while you’re dancing? How do you keep them on?” and he said he has special clothes made out of stretch fabric.
I thought, Well, how do you make a suit out of stretch fabric and not make it look like an ice skating outfit? That was a challenge, to make them out of these stretchy fabrics and still make them look real and period, so we worked with tailors that normally make normal suits to try to get them to use these stretch fabrics.
It was a challenge for everyone because I wanted the clothes to look realistic as much as they could, but still have the dancers be able to work in them. Everything had to be stretchy, and everything had to be modified. I always encouraged the dancers to try to rip the clothes. I would say to Derek, “Try to rip this suit.” And of course, he could rip practically anything, so I stopped asking him to do that. I’d go, “Try not to rip your clothes”.
You really had to make clothes as if you were doing a Broadway play, and even though it was one night, they had to be strong. I think when they did the movie, there was dancing in it, but it was nothing like the dancing that we had in Hairspray Live!.
Given the specifications you’ve mentioned, was everything made from scratch?
Not everything. It would have been great, but we didn’t have the budget to do everything from scratch. Most of the principal actors, their clothes were made; certainly, everything Derek wore was made, and a lot of the male dancers. The women were a little easier because they had skirts, and you didn’t have to worry about skirts ripping. It was mostly the bodice, and they don’t have a lot of sleeve. You’ll see very few sleeves on people.
Of course, all of Motormouth Maybelle’s clothes were made. When looking at the movies and the play, when she rips off her police uniform to have her final outfit on underneath, it always looked kind of awkward to me, how they would rip off the police uniform with the dress. In the play, if it doesn’t work quite right, I’ve seen some things where actors had to help her get her police uniform off. I thought, “Well, we can’t have that”.
I thought it would be easier if she had a pantsuit on, because then she could be taking pants off pants, instead of struggling to get a dress underneath. That’s the reason that she’s wearing this gold, lamé pantsuit underneath her police uniform, because I was just concerned that she wouldn’t be able to do it gracefully, and she’d be up there struggling to get this thing off. I thought, Oh, no. That’d be just too embarrassing for everybody, so I tried to make it as easy as possible. [laughs]
We only had the one night to do it, and one of my big concerns, besides the look of the film, was that the actors could dance in the clothes, they could dance in the shoes. Harvey had done the play so many times, he knew exactly what would work for him, so he was a real partner in designing his clothes. We made his shoes for him because even if you wear high heels all the time, it’s not easy to wear them when you’re a guy. He knew a good shoemaker in New York, T.O. Dey, who made shoes for him, and they were great. He did terrific.
The shoes were one of the biggest expenses on the show because they’re really like a piece of equipment for a dancer. You have to have dance shoes, and they have to have a special sole on them, and they’re really very important to the dancer.
What degree of artistic license were you able to take with a production that is so beloved and well known?
I tried to do a hybrid of the Broadway show and the two movies, and a lot of it had to do with the actors. With these actors, you didn’t have to worry about the clothes overpowering them, because they always wore the clothes, the clothes didn’t wear them. That would be a concern—you don’t want to put something on someone that makes them look sort of ridiculous, or they don’t feel good about.
If they had cast different actors, the clothes would have been different. These clothes really worked for this particular group of actors. It was having the colors go well with the sets—we had indoors and outdoors, day and night—and just trying to make all the colors work together, to keep it from looking like a big, garbled mess, which could happen really easily on television, particularly in high def.
What was the process of transitioning costumes between scenes?
Each of the actors had their own dresser assigned to them. I think we had like 20 dressers, and then there was a group of people for the dancers. Harvey actually had two dressers because he had the most complicated costumes, and he had a whole body suit on, so it wasn’t like he could even put his own shoes on. In that body suit, he couldn’t even bend down to put his shoes on. They rehearsed with their dressers, and it actually went smoother than I would have thought.
Harvey had done it so many times, he could dress himself, and I think he even helped dress some of the other people backstage because he was just such a pro. He was amazing, and gave a lot of advice about what to do and how to do it. Then, we had some Broadway dressers come and help us—people who did the Broadway show came to Los Angeles and helped, because it’s very technical.
You only have so much time, and the clothes are made with quick-change zippers and Velcro and magnets, and all kinds of special things that make the clothes go faster. I think one of Harvey’s fastest changes was 45 seconds, and he was very aware. He kept saying, “45 seconds, 45 seconds.” He rehearsed that a lot with his dressers, and the shoemaker made special shoes that didn’t have buckles, because with 45 seconds, you don’t have time to mess with buckles. That had to be taken into consideration.
Were there nerves on your part, considering the possibility of hiccups during a live televised production?
Yes, absolutely. For me, it was mostly in the beginning, when I was preparing it. I was convinced that all the clothes were going to rip, so we overbuilt everything—like, way overbuilt. The clothes were built like it was a Broadway show that was going to run for 10 years, instead of one night.
If the clothes were going to rip, they would have ripped in one of the rehearsals because they wore them quite a bit, and there were quite a few dress rehearsals. The night of the show was almost anticlimactic because we had done it so many times that I thought, Well, this is going to be fine.
This is totally not true—everything could have fallen apart—but I felt pretty relaxed because I had a lot of confidence in the actors. Most of them had done Broadway, or some theater, and they knew. They were very good with helping each other, and Derek had been dancing since he was three years old, so he would have known ahead of time if there was a problem.
So everything was overbuilt. If I ever did it again, I wouldn’t need to do that.