Look closely at Carousel’s dancing millworkers and you might see the patches. Maybe you’ll wonder whether the pipe-dreaming barflies of The Iceman Cometh scrub the collars of their threadbare shirts with lye if given the chance, or would they just leave the filthy duds rumpled where they land?
Ann Roth ponders such things – and decides. Nominated for three 2018 Tony Awards for the costumes of Carousel, The Iceman Cometh and Three Tall Women, Roth has a remarkable career in Hollywood and Broadway that stretches from Midnight Cowboy to The Post, the original The Odd Couple through The Book of Mormon to this season’s triple-play of nominees.
I spoke to Roth last week, prior to the nominations (and, no, she hadn’t even realized it was that time until I mentioned it) to chat about this season’s work, the differences between movie stars and actors (names are named), and bravery at the mirror.
If you’re ever lucky enough to get an opportunity to chat with the funny and forthright Ann Roth, don’t blow it. Here’s mine.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: Ann, you have so much happening right now that I…
Ann Roth: What’s happening is that I’m heading towards my first vacation in a very, very, very long time. That’s what’s happening.
Deadline: Looking at what you have going on Broadway right now, I’d say you deserve it. And The Post is coming out on Blue-ray.
Roth: That’s what I heard. What’s it called? Blue, Blue what?
Roth: And what does that mean? It would be nice if I knew.
Deadline: It means that everyone will see your costumes in vivid detail, a good thing.
Roth: Okay. So, ask me a question.
Deadline: What I’d love to do is go through the shows that you have on Broadway now and if you could…
Roth: We’re not going back to Mormon, are we?
Deadline: No, not going back to Mormon. Let’s talk about Carousel, The Iceman Cometh and Three Tall Women.
Roth: Have you seen any of these things?
Deadline: I’ve seen every one of them.
Roth: No kidding? But you’re in California.
Deadline: No. I’m in New York. Let’s start with Carousel.
Roth: I got a new knee, sometime in the fall last year and it never occurred to me that it would give me any discomfort after it was done, but I then had to do all the drawings for Carousel, so I locked myself in my studio and did the drawings. Carousel, when (director) Jack O’Brien and (scenic designer) Santo Loquasto and (producer) Scott Rudin and (choreographer) Justin Peck and I talked – and mind you, I didn’t know Justin at that time, but Jack I’ve known for years and the rest of them are friends – we decided that it was to be an extremely realistic presentation. I guess my movie work must say that, I mean it’s on the real side.
So, they expected very real clothes and that was interesting to me. So in the beginning for the carousel world, we were to see citizens of Northern Maine who might have lived along the shore in those small towns, those mill towns. I’m a great researcher, and often I would see 12-year-old children [in her research] at a loom in tattered clothes and bare feet. Well, we weren’t doing that, of course, but I did do very real clothes of that period and so the folks might have come out of the mill and maybe taken their aprons off and did what they could to pinch their cheeks and put a bow in their hair and go to the carnival. All of those clothes that you saw, I’m not sure whether it reads, but there are little patches on them. They’re made real and the petticoats are real and the stockings are cotton. I don’t know…I don’t know if it was a good idea or not because scenery on the stage with an enormous amount of dancing, I would say prohibits realism…How do you think it worked?
Deadline: Of the two costumes that stuck out for me, one was very realistic, and a sort of signature look of the production – Billy Bigelow’s sweater. Billy’s an imposing guy and that tight sweater brings out what makes him attractive to people and what makes him threatening. The other costume I loved was Margaret Colin’s Mrs. Mullin, the widowed carousel owner…flamboyant and tattered.
Roth: [Laughs] If somebody said what kind of designer is Ann Roth, they would have to [point to] Mrs. Mullin. Those are the fun costumes to do, you know. Her hat, I love. It was almost removed from the stage, but I love it. It’s a bird in a nest and in the bird’s mouth is a note with a heart sealing the note. In the bird’s beak! I love all that stuff. That’s what I know how to do.
Deadline: Let’s move on to Iceman. How do you make each down-on-his-luck barfly stand out and give those ratty clothes a personality? Or is that a crazy question?
Roth: No, but it’s a hard question, with a long answer. I’m always surprised when people ask me that, and yet that is a question most people ask me. All designers do that. This wasn’t about reconstructing Iceman. It’s a very down book. You have to see each character and figure out where they came from. Where did they grow up, if they went to parochial school, if they left parochial school, if they ran away and joined the circus. Where did that jacket come from? Who made it? Was it left it in a bar three years ago and he took it? It’s that kind of imagination, and when you get the actor to work with you, that’s really fun. If the shirt has been washed in the sink with lye soap, if just the collar is washed, if the guy wants to wash it but he falls asleep every night and the shirt’s on the floor, what does it look like and how many shirts does he have? Those are the questions you ask yourself.
Deadline: Bill Irwin plays a character who really does come from the circus, and looks like he’s wearing something that he wore then, many years earlier.
Roth: I’ve worked with Bill quite a bit in my life and his life. He is extremely receptive to imagining where this stuff came from and what makes the character. He’s so great. He’s so in touch with his wrists and his body. I mean, he’s just superb to work with…We know each other and I find him very dangerous and he finds me very dangerous because we can get totally out of control.
Deadline: What about Denzel Washington? What was your approach to his Iceman character Hickey?
Roth: He’s a traveling salesman. He’s often on a train. He would like to look sharper than he does and yet I don’t think the suit he has on has been pressed in a very long time. [Before the play begins] he comes home from a trip and then he has this tragedy or this event in his life with his wife. And from Astoria he walks over to Manhattan. I’ve seen a couple of Hickeys and they’re usually sort of …O’Neill had…originally it was a sort of a chubby man playing that role, but the fact that Denzel danced onto the stage – that’s exactly how I imagined him doing it, bringing life into that room.
He told me in the first fitting that he was going to be very, very physical and he might – I’m joking, but I’m not – he says, “I could easily do a somersault or I could do this or I could do that and so these clothes have to be loose and I have to be able to move like hell in them.” All of that presented a problem in a 1912 suit. But the fact is that he is a traveling salesman and when you take those pants off at night and you fold them or you’re drunk and they stay on the floor, that’s how it looked.
Deadline: Let’s move on to Three Tall Women.
Roth: Well, at the beginning, you have three separate women, and they’re pretty much cut and dried. At one point, (director) Joe Mantello wanted no intermission, and so the changes were to be made within seconds off stage. That was my biggest challenge and that is the kind of challenge that is not interesting to me.
So I determined that Glenda would wear her second act costume under her first act, but that then changed [when an intermission was added] and he rearranged the blocking and everybody was allowed to change their clothes properly. There wasn’t loads of time, but there was some, and so Glenda’s first act costume is just something that, I guess, 50 years ago or 30 years ago you could buy at some of the good shops on Madison Avenue, a robe that sort of moved like a column all by itself.
And Glenda, by the way, is so fabulous to work with, just a dream person to work with. The second act costume I pretty much draped on her myself and it just turned out. Sometimes you have great luck and I had great luck with all three of the women, and so I feel good about the second act, the second part of the show. The “B” character, played by Laurie (Metcalf), should have a ’50s quality, but one that doesn’t smack you in the face as a 1950s dress. And with C, Alison Pill, I had a ’20s character because the part of the woman she’s playing, the part of “A,” happened in the ’20s. Okay, so, that dress is not a ’20s pattern, there are no bust darts. It just hangs and it hangs funny. It just doesn’t say 1920s, but at the same time, it’s evocative of the 1920s.
Deadline: You didn’t want it to look like a Halloween pageant of period costumes.
Roth: That’s correct. That’s exactly right.
Deadline: Let’s talk about the movie now. The Post is coming out (now available on 4k Ultra HD, DVD and Blue-ray). Is there a different process with a movie?
Roth: No. It’s working with actors. I don’t want this to sound…I hope you don’t print this. The truth is that I wouldn’t be very good with movie stars, I mean people who want to be presented as themselves, which I admire enormously, but that isn’t what I know how to do. I don’t know how to dress people to present themselves personally. I know how to do the character and I know how to help the actor become brave enough to lose herself and become the character. You generally do something very brave in the mirror, something that…I mean, I always have the hairdresser present and I have a lot of props there so it just might be about the length of the skirt, it just might be a heel of a shoe or a shoulder pad or a pad on the behind…so when that actor is looking in the mirror and does not see herself, she is free to become somebody else. You get it?
Deadline: I do get it. And I’m assuming what you’re saying is you don’t classify Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as movie stars who just want to look like themselves. They are actors.
Roth: That would be nice for you to say, Mr. Evans. Nice of you to put that down: Ann Roth said, blah, blah, blah both of them are actors.
I happen to think Tom Hanks is one of the great actors and it was so much fun to see him stand in the fitting room and look at himself in the mirror, and I said jam your hands in the top of your pants pockets in the back, jam your thumbs in those. You automatically stand a different way then and it may not be a Tom Hanks stand, you know what I’m saying? It may not be, and that’s that. That’s the way it works.
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