When costume designer Paul Tazewell first met with Steven Spielberg for West Side Story, he found him to be “a very generous creator” who swiftly laid out all the information he’d need, as far as the “point of view” on the material that would inform his adaptation.
“His intent was to have a West Side Story that would be reflective of the grit, of the reality of New York City in 1957, which is when the original Broadway show was created. He wanted to make sure that it was not a Hollywood, polished Broadway musical or musical movie,” Tazewell tells the film’s star Ariana DeBose in the latest edition of Deadline’s video series, The Process. “He wanted to make sure that it was reflective of these gangs that were struggling to live lives in New York City at that time.”
Spielberg’s film for 20th Century Studios is the second feature-length adaptation of Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ 1957 stage musical of the same name. The New York story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. DeBose plays Puerto Rican immigrant Anita—the girlfriend of Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), previously played by Rita Moreno and Chita Rivera, who most famously features in the song “America.”
Marking Tazewell and DeBose’s third collaboration, on the heels of the original incarnation of Hamilton at New York City’s Public Theater, and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, West Side Story brought both their first Oscar nominations. DeBose says that in retrospect, Tazewell’s costumes for Anita were a powerful tool in helping her to tap into the identity and emotional experience of the character.
“Design-wise, balancing Anita and her looks, and as a dressmaker, what she gravitated to, what would set her off…my thought [was], ‘Okay, well, she’s looking at celebrity magazines at the time, and making choices about, okay, well, I know how to make a dress, so I’m going to make my version of this dress, thinking about Elizabeth Taylor in the ’50s and her vibe,'” Tazewell says of his thought process in designing the character’s wardrobe. “It seemed completely appropriate that Anita is in this new country, having migrated, but in this new environment, and she is recreating herself. She’s growing into a full-fledged American, Latinx woman, and that was very powerful.”
DeBose lauds Tazewell on The Process for the way that he was able to “bring classic style to a new age” on their latest project, also expressing her appreciation for the functionality he’s brought to clothing for dance-heavy productions like West Side Story, and his openness as a collaborator. “I just think you really have your own language. It really is… a beautiful language. You have such a way of carving on a body, and not every designer does that,” she says. “I think the way that you carve, which speaks to your craft, allows for such movement in a garment, and allows it to come to life when someone like me steps into it.”
Tazewell speaks, in turn, to DeBose’s ability to communicate her needs in her mission to “serve the piece,” while leaving space for him to do his part as an artist. “I’m reliant on you, as a performer, to bring my work to life, and that’s the beauty of our collaboration, I think, is that I have a sense of your A game that you’re going to bring to the performance, and I need to step up as a designer to match that so that you feel supported,” he says. “Then, you can take off and bring life to what I’ve imagined. And it doesn’t look like anything hanging on a hanger, on a rack. It is only when it goes onto your body and it becomes an extension of your movement, and who you are as a character, that it really pays off.”
In conversation with DeBose on The Process, Tazewell speaks not only to the “documentary research” that informed his West Side Story costumes, his relationship with the actor and how he managed looks for the film’s massive ensemble, but also to the beginnings of his artistic journey in Akron, Ohio, as someone interested in performance, his experience performing in and sewing costumes for a production of West Side Story during high school, his journey from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute to North Carolina School of the Arts and NYU, pivotal collaborations on Broadway with everyone from George C. Wolfe to Tony Kushner and Lin-Manuel Miranda, his thinking when it comes to color and fabric selection, his desire to do “meaningful work that is beautiful on many levels and creates connection,” and more.
DeBose speaks for her part to her admiration of Tazewell’s career longevity, his intuitiveness as a designer, giving him “a run for [his] money” with her Hamilton corset, the evolution in his concept for her “America” dress over time, a “wild kismet moment of collaborative storytelling” on West Side Story and more.
West Side Story also stars Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll and more. Tony Kushner adapted the screenplay and exec produced alongside Moreno, Daniel Lupi and Adam Somner, with Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger and Kevin McCollum producing. Carla Raij co-produced, with David Saint serving as associate producer.
Check out Tazewell’s entire conversation with DeBose above.
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