Paul Tazewell, costume designer for The Wiz Live!, is at the top of his game. Fresh off a Tony win for his work on Hamilton, Tazewell says he feels as though he’s “on a cloud” right now. Hamilton’s massive success has been overwhelming, although Tazewell says he had a real sense of its promise from the very first reading. “I knew that it was going to be good production. I knew that it was going to be just an amazing piece of theatre, to read it and then to experience the readings when it was actually cast, before it was staged.”
For his work on the Kenny Leon-directed The Wiz Live! Tazewell approached the telecast just as he would a theater production. “It needed to be figured out as a live production,” he says. “There was no hiding any of the sleight of hand.”
Next, Tazewell is set to work on the HBO film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks–starring Oprah Winfrey–a project he calls “very exciting”.
A Raisin in the Sun was when you first collaborated with Kenny Leon and he reached out to you about The Wiz Live!–what was it that made you really want to do it?
Well, it’s been a part of my life since I was in grade school, and in middle school was when the movie came out. I knew about the Broadway show before that. I played The Wiz in our high school musical production of it, and I also designed the costumes for that same production. But that was all generated on our kitchen table or in our dining room with help from my family. The Wiz Live! production that Kenny directed really gelled into a complete vision where everything seemed very consistent and it seemed like everyone was on the same page. It’s so much a part of the black American culture, I think, and also the American culture overall. I mean, The Wizard of Oz is obviously huge within the American culture and The Wiz has become a huge part of the African-American culture. And yet, I think that The Wiz Live!, that production allowed for it to be embraced by all of American culture, and obviously that was a wonderful thing.
The Wiz Live! was like working in theatre from your point of view?
Absolutely. Going into it we knew that it was going to have to operate like a stage production work. So, all the quick changes that needed to happen, any of the tricks that were going to happen needed to happen right there in front of your eyes. So, the transformation of the friends, not Dorothy, but the lion, the scarecrow and the tin man–that was a huge challenge to figure out. Originally, the thought was that we might not do special effects makeup for those characters, that we would do something that was much simpler. But then, we did a test and it was approved by Kenny and everyone at NBC, and so we decided that was the best way to go. But that meant that we needed to make sure that the special effects makeup on each of the three could indeed happen within the 20 minutes that there was to get them into the makeup and have it be done properly and have it be a high definition of that level. And you’re talking about makeup that individually would easily take three to four hours to apply–all of their processes honed down to 20 minutes, which was pretty miraculous. We had a full staff of people doing hair, putting wigs on, and changing wigs out for all of the ensemble. Within the performance it was a hustle, but very much like you would have backstage at a Broadway show.
You’ve said in the past that costume design is a bit like psychiatry because you’re getting into the heads of the characters and the actors. How much collaboration goes on?
A huge amount for me. I mean, The Wiz is slightly different because you’re talking about fantasy characters. When I speak of the psychology of costumes there is one level that is interpretation of the look of a character and how the audience will receive that and the emotions connected to it. And how the character might have an emotional arc within a production so how the look of a character may shift and change according to what the costumes are. So, that for me is very directly an exercise in psychology. But then, there’s also what happens with the actor and myself, very intimately, in a fitting room or when I’m talking to them about how they want to interpret the character that they’re playing, and that becomes about how do they feel about their bodies. What parts of their bodies do they feel really confident about, and then what parts of their body do I need to help them with some disguise, or toning parts of their body down?
What were some of the biggest challenges of The Wiz Live!?
It’s reinterpreting how we’ve seen that character represented for us. Definitely with Shanice (Williams) and just her body type, her skin tone and how that reflects on how what we would normally see, within the world of contemporary film. How would that character normally be cast from a Hollywood point of view? Because you think, chances are, they would go with a type that was more of a crossover type, because that’s just historically how Hollywood operates. It was very smart making the decision to go against what would necessarily be the norm and really cast according to talent. She’s a huge talent. Vocally, she’s amazing and represents someone who is very innocent and is very sweet, and is in a place of trying to realize herself as a young woman. So, balancing that with Queen Latifah as The Wiz. Then, with Uzo Aduba as Glinda, who again is another casting choice that goes very much in a different direction than how you would normally see a Glinda type. It becomes for me, say, with Dorothy, how can I reflect who she is? So, using the plaid skirt, which is like a school skirt but it is similar to the gingham that was used in the Judy Garland dress, trying to create similarities or connectors that help you to subliminally see. It’s also what is going to look best on her because we’re going to see her in one costume for the whole evening. So, how can I best represent that actress?
What can you say about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?
It’s completely not fantasy and it’s historic, but historic in a completely different way. And it’s also a story that has affected all of us. I think that it’s a huge story to tell and a story that not very many people know.