Podcast Episode 47 Transcript – Gregg Barnes

Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I’m Ken Davenport and today we have a first on the podcast . . . our guest today is the first ever costume designer we’ve had. How do you feel about that?

Gregg: Well I’m honored. It’s amazing.

Ken: I’m here with none other than two-time Tony Award winner Gregg Barnes. Welcome, Gregg!

Gregg: Welcome to everybody.

Ken: I literally just passed those two Tony Awards. I’m sitting in Gregg’s house. They’re right there.

Gregg: You know, it’s funny. A lot of times people will come visit me and they’ll say, “Where do you keep them?” and I say, “They’re sitting right there.” They’re not very ostentatious, though. You have to have an eagle eye to spot them.

Ken: They’re shining in the light right now. We’ll spin them in a little bit. So Gregg won those two Tony Awards for the Broadway productions of The Drowsy Chaperone and Follies. His other Broadway credits . . . ready? This could take a while. Side Show, Flower Drum Song, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Legally Blonde, To Be Or Not To Be, Bye Bye Birdie, Elf, Kinky Boots, Aladdin, Something Rotten! and this season’s Tuck Everlasting. He’s done a ton of Off-Broadway, regional and all sorts of other work, including the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in 2003.

Gregg: I did it, actually, for about ten years.

Ken: Ten years? Ooh, we’ll get to that. The Rockettes story is coming, I’m sure. Some film and TV, but, of course, I remember him when I was a sophomore at NYU and he taught a costume class. And I want to thank you for that because you actually made me realize that the wardrobe room was the last place on earth that I should be. So you’re really responsible for me being a producer, so thank you for that.

Gregg: I imagine there are probably thousands of kids I’ve turned off to the wardrobe room.

Ken: So how did you decide that the wardrobe room was for you?

Gregg: I grew up in San Diego and I was a literature major in college. I thought I would teach high school and be the drama guy. All my family . . . my dad and all my aunts and uncles, of which I had a lot . . . were all educators and so I didn’t really have a vision of working professionally in the theater for sure. But I took some scenic classics and some design classes because I thought, “Well the drama guy needs to know how to put a show together,” and I took this costume history class and you just sit in a room and you hear words you’ve heard a thousand times and, all of a sudden, they have a different meaning to you. It just sucked me in. I didn’t have to take notes, I remembered every single thing the teacher said. At the end of that . . . I was just about to graduate, actually, I was in my fourth year of undergrad . . . that teacher said, “We have a guest designer coming in to talk to our masters students. Would you mind chatting with him?” And I didn’t really have a vision of why I would do that, but I said, “Sure, I love to meet people. I’ll go talk to him.” So I went and sat with Robert Morgan who designed The Fully Monty and The Grinch and is an incredible person and an incredible designer and he saw something in me that was, believe me, to say “raw” is an understatement, but he said, “You should go to NYU.” And I honestly don’t even know why I listened to him but, a year later, I found myself auditioning to come to New York. So in 1980 I began that process and in 1983 when I got out of school I got hired by the undergraduate department . . . I was a grad student but the departments are sort of separate . . . so the reason that I met you was because I was from 1983 on for the next 20 years I taught in the undergrad department at NYU.

Ken: So what was the first thing you designed?

Gregg: Wow. Back in a community college in El Cajon, California, I did a production of The Madwoman of Chaillot. That was the first thing. The second one . . . not that you asked . . . but the second one was this epic production of Alice in Wonderland. Honestly, I didn’t draw, I didn’t sew, I was so useless. I didn’t know anything but, again, it’s funny how sometimes people believe in you, not more than you believe in yourself . . . that comes with experience . . . but I got handed this design project and we made this pretty magical production of Alice in Wonderland and, since that, even though I was a literature major . . . not that Alice in Wonderland isn’t major literature . . . but my career has been largely doing circuses, ice shows, musicals, spectacular kind of events, sort of design, so it’s funny that it found me quite early.

Ken: So one of the reasons that I love doing this podcast is that I get to learn so much about areas that I’m not that familiar with, and wardrobe and costume design, ever since I ran screaming from that classroom, is one of those areas. I always assume that you have to know how to sew, you have to know how to stitch, in order to design. Is that true or do you just have to have a visual eye?

Gregg: It’s funny. It’s probably true in every discipline in the theater but, as a costume designer, if you say that you have a very strong sense of how to make a thing happen, that can make a career. Maybe your forte isn’t visualizing unique worlds, but you know . . . I think all of us are paraplegic in a way. Like some part of us is very strong and then, if you’re lucky enough to get far enough along, you hire people to be your weaker self and, somehow, that is a bonus because you have this alchemy of a collective that becomes a fortress, and I think that everybody you talk to has a kind of family that they travel with for a certain number of years. Even as a designer, with your assistants, your associates, but then even within the community. Say you’re hired to design a certain project. You probably have worked with that director many times before because you speak a common kind of language. So I love to draw and paint, for instance. It can be intimidating to some people and it’s not even important. It’s a funny thing, I like it because, for me, it answers a million questions and if you do tear sheets or just pencil drawings or have a rough or casual approach to it, you have to answer all of these questions at some point in the process because the shop is going to need to know what scale, how big, how many, what color, all of these questions, and if you draw and paint you eliminate a lot of them. A lot of people do spectacular, beautiful work without using that skill. They may be better at selling an idea or better at getting the job. Obviously you have to have all of these things to some degree, a potpourri of these skills, but I find that sometimes your strength is the thing that you should celebrate and work on the other parts of your skillset.

Ken: What’s your strength?

Gregg: I think that . . . I hope this is true . . . I try to be a very good listener in the early stages, because clothes are expensive to build and you don’t want to make a mistake. I never, ever, ever sneak around in dark corners, saying, “Oh, they’ll love this when they see it.” Never, ever, ever. Because a lot of times, especially in the early meetings with the director, there are many things at work. For one thing, if it’s a new piece, it’s not fully developed. You don’t have any history with it to refer to, and also they may have a strong opinion about something but you have to learn to listen to the thing that they aren’t saying. Or they may be saying it in one way but what they desire is for you to take that information and turn it into a different visual idea than maybe what their initial instinct is. So you have to listen to the words but also listen to the ideas behind them. Then, when I draw and paint, it takes a lot of time. It’s a very laborious process. But when I get into the fitting room, that information . . . I strictly see it as information. I’m just assuming this, but I think in the fashion world, when you get into the fitting room, you’re trying to realize that sketch. I’m trying to help an actor tell a story. So if I drew a skirt and they say pants I say, “Let’s talk about pants.” I don’t really care about skirts, I care about things that tell stories. So I try to be really, really flexible in the fitting room. Sometimes it gets you into trouble. You draw something, hopefully it pleases the director or the actor, and then you realize it can be a disappointment and you need to regroup. So you have to be quick on your feet in the costume business.

Ken: Talk to me a little bit about your process. You’re sitting in this beautiful armchair. I love coming to designers’ homes, by the way. I wish there was vide right now because it’s stunning in here. I want you to imagine that someone comes to you and says, “Gregg, we’re doing a musical based on this armchair. Go!”

Gregg: Okay.

Ken: What’s the first thing you do?

Gregg: Well I guess I would want to know first what the arc of the story is. For instance, do we start off on a rickety old stool and end up, by the end of the evening, in a plushy armchair? And from that, whatever that information is, I get on the internet or I get into my books or I get into a world of immersing myself. I don’t necessarily, using this metaphor, look at chairs. I may look at rugs, walls, clothing, paintings. I’ve become a big fan of Pinterest, if people know about that amazing aid to designers. What happens is I’ll type in “skirt 1860,” and within that search somebody will have, for instance, posted a wood block . . . a block that you would use to block out a pattern onto a textile . . . and I’ll think, “Oh, that’s interesting. What is that about?” And then I’ll find out that, because of the Crimean War, there was an influx of Turkish textile design in that period and, if it’s relevant to the story, I can glean and collect all of this information so that when I sit down to draw, eventually, I have a world much greater than just what you can find in a costume history textbook. So sometimes I’ll take that information to the director without any drawings at all and just let them talk and let them dream and together try to find the clues that are going to lead us down the design path. Sometimes I’ll also just sketch things in pencil, but often I just share the research. Then the next step, of course, is to start to draw and I do that quite quickly, I share that information. Say I have 25 drawings. If five of them I see an immediate response to, I’ll take those five and flesh them out and I’ll let the remainder, what the director didn’t really seem to have a real excited response to, I’ll let that stuff percolate and revisit it and change. Then I’ll start to paint just a few things. Like say if it’s a musical, I’ll do one woman in the ensemble in the eleven o’clock moment and if they respond to that then I’ll start to flesh it out. If they don’t, it’s easy for me to throw that away and develop another idea. So it’s a lot of back and forth. It’s like the ebb and flow of a tide, almost. Hopefully each time you have a meeting you’re making steps towards the eventual design.

Ken: So obviously Armchair would be a totally original piece. You’ve done a lot of work, obviously, on some shows that have had source material . . . Legally Blonde, Aladdin. Do you like to go back to that source material and take a look or do you stay away from it altogether?

Gregg: I do, I love it actually. I am shamelessly fearless about looking at what has come before me. I can use Legally Blonde as an example and, actually, if it’s okay, I’ll talk a little bit about Aladdin as well. With Legally Blonde, when I watched the film, there’s a lot of witty design work in the film. But what I realized was that, even though I’m watching this film on, I think it was a VCR tape . . . it might have been a DVD, I don’t remember . . . but that it had already dated itself. And I thought, “Oh, we’re developing a project that hopefully will have appeal for many, many years to come,” and even though we didn’t run all that long on Broadway I’ve done it as recently as a year and a half ago in Vienna, so it’s something that has had a life beyond its Broadway appearance. It was very successful on the road. We did it on the West End, it won the Olivier. So I thought, “How can I take the wit of that designer,” and I don’t even remember the name, I apologize to that designer, “and figure out a way to make it timeless?” So I didn’t actually quote visually anything from the film that I can remember, but I started to, within the context of the story of Legally Blonde, try to figure out a way to do some subconscious storytelling. For instance, when Elle goes to Harvard, the students that she encounters that were very different, obviously, from her Los Angeles princess peeps, I thought, “Oh, these kids probably come from generations . . . their dads went to Harvard. They have a history. She’s a fish out of water in many ways,” so I designed a lot of clothing that looked like maybe the blazer was handed down. This was their dad’s lucky blazer from the 1960s. And I paired that with a young person’s more hip styling. A friend of mine was up in Boston doing the out of town for High Fidelity and I called her and I said, “Go to Harvard Yard and take pictures of the kids,” and of course what came back to me were dirty t-shirts and jeans. It didn’t have the sort of style that I was looking for, but within that I could use some of those things. With Aladdin, what was really useful about looking at the original artwork . . . it’s a beautiful film . . . Casey Nicholaw had said, “I want to honor the animation.” So when I looked at it, it became very evident that the backgrounds in an animated film are elaborate and the people, because they have to draw them so much, so many times per second to make natural movement, are actually quite simple and color blocked. So even though those clothes had a lot of texture and a lot of graphic design within them, I tried to make them have the sense of animation in terms of having a color blocked feeling. I didn’t quote the film. I have to qualify that because I did a lot, actually, but 95% of the show doesn’t look like the animated movie. The only place where I did really use the animators’ original ideas were on Jasmine and Aladdin and Jafar because I thought, “If I was a child and I loved this film and I go to see Aladdin I want to instantly know who my hero is.” If you’re a Jasmine fan I want you to instantly have a pulse, almost, of excitement when you see that. It’s a very sophisticated version of the film, but the color, the makeup, the hair, all of that stuff pays homage to the film.

Ken: You do have an obligation. These people have an expectation of what they’re going to see.

Greg: Exactly.

Ken: And if they don’t see that you’ll disappoint them to some extent.

Gregg: Yeah. When I was a kid my family were not theatergoers, they were more little leaguers. We were quick to dash off to a football game but I always wanted to see a show. So my dad would take us to see the circus, events at the sports arena, ice shows, that kind of thing. And I remember being maybe seven or eight years old and a touring production came through that was called Disney on Parade and it was before ice shows . . . now they do a lot of Disney ice shows . . . and when I was a little kid I loved those albums that they had. If the movie wasn’t new you only knew it through these records. I remember sitting in that sports arena with the darkened light and those big soundtracks they always have and feeling this incredible rush of joy and when I work on a thing where a kid is part of that audience I always try to somehow help get that feeling so that that experience happens for that child in a way that I felt it when I was a kid.

Ken: You talked a lot, obviously, about the collaboration required for a director and a costume designer. It seems to me you’re getting a lot of feedback and instructions, if you will, from them. What about writers? Do you collaborate with the writers? Do you like a writer that says in the stage directions, “She’s wearing a long, pink gown that goes to her toes?”

Gregg: I do, actually. Oftentimes that long, pink gown might turn into a pantsuit . . . it happens . . . but at least you know that they are visual and that they are visualizing things. It’s interesting. Two projects that I’ve worked on, one being The Drowsy Chaperone and the other being . . . they were both with Casey, what was the other one? It might have been Elf. But I start to do my process and we chart everything out and you realize, “Oh, they have a scene” . . . let me use The Drowsy Chaperone as an example . . . a scene that’s set at night. They talk about the bride singing a lament to the moon, so I go back to Casey and I say, “Obviously this wedding takes place over two days. I’m assuming the wedding is the following morning,” and he says, “Oh, no, no. It’s just one day,” and I said, “Oh, well is it a night time wedding?” “No, a night time wedding doesn’t really sound right.” So I say, “Well in the dramaturgy, as it’s currently set up” . . . and at this point no one has done The Drowsy Chaperone. It’s a completely new piece . . . and I say, “they say here that the bride sings a lament to the moon.” So he says, “Let me get back to you,” and he goes to Bob Martin and all of the amazing writers and they then insert into the script The Man in Chair, if you know that piece, says “Well of course it’s ridiculous because it’s the middle of the afternoon!” So what’s great about being part of a new project is that you become part of the dramaturgy, of the story, in a sense, by the questions you ask. In fact, back to The Drowsy Chaperone, I did a sketch for Georgia Engel of her first dress and the song was called “Fancy Dress,” but when they saw the sketch . . . and I made the dress be ten years earlier than the ’20s, as if it was her favorite dress from another time in her life . . . and they saw the sketch and then they elaborated on the fancy dress so the lyric then evolved because everyone thought it was funny that she was dressed up in this anachronistically fancy dress. So I love that. I love that we get to be part of the bigger picture as well.

Ken: You said something that would make all the producers out there happy earlier in that you don’t want to build anything until you know everyone is on the same page because things are so expensive. So imagine I come to you today and I say, “Gregg, we’re going to make this Armchair The Musical and it’s going to be a medium sized musical.” Off the top of your head, what do you say? “Oh, well, Ken, you need X dollars for me to do that right.” What’s the average budget for a Broadway musical these days?

Gregg: You know, it’s interesting. My Broadway debut, which was 20 years ago, I believe, was Side Show, and I had the huge benefit and gift of working this gentleman, Scott Traugott, who is the A-list associate. He’s the guy you want to have. And he explained to me . . . it was very simple . . . he said, “Let’s chart out the show as we know it. It might change but, as of today, let’s do a count of all of the costumes.” So say there’s a hundred. We take a figure . . . it’s a generic figure . . . but we take $5,000 and we times that by a hundred, which is $500,000. Now some of the costumes will cost much less than that, but some of them might cost four times that. But it gives us a ballpark so that, when we go in, we say, “Ken, we think this might be an appropriate number,” and you say, “Oh my gosh, we’ve only raised half of that amount,” so we then know, “Well, we have a problem,” and we can regroup, we can do this, maybe we can find money here, find money there, make this compromise, and you, in turn . . . what often happens is we’ll come back with a figure that’s maybe in the middle or somewhere in that grey area. So the process is always back and forth and, even when you have a show that’s lavishly budgeted, inevitably . . . I hate to say this . . . but it’s never enough money. It isn’t just the cost of getting the costumes created, it’s also the cost of maintaining the costumes. Just the running process costs a lot of money. So if I said to you, “We could do this this way but it means that it’s going to fall apart sooner,” or, “Instead of having three pairs of shoes they could have one pair of shoes but they’ll fall apart that much faster. It might be more efficient, financially, or more responsible, financially, to have two pairs of shoes and that way they share the burden of the wear and we can go a year, or however long we can go, before we have to make new shoes.” So obviously you go into every project hoping, assuming, wanting it to be a huge hit and, if there’s money, then those questions become easier to navigate. But in the beginning you never know what will capture an audience’s imagination.

Ken: I’ll never forget, when I was an assistant company manager on Show Boat, I think it was, my first big job, and I got a bill for a pair of boots for somebody at like $1,800. You did a little bit there but talk to me a little bit more about why these things, whether it’s boots or whether it’s a gown or whether it’s a bra or whatever it is, why are they so expensive?

Gregg: For one thing, of course we live in New York City and all of us have to pay exorbitant amounts of rent, and for a shop, a big shop like Barbara Matera’s, who is no longer with us, but Tricorne, which is a very big shop, they have an exorbitant amount of overhead. That’s one part of it. The other thing about costumes, which is sort of interesting, and I was giving you that example of that $5,000 figure . . . that was 20 years ago. Now that figure, not only has it not got any higher, it’s actually gotten lower. So I think costumes might cost less than they did 20 years ago, or maybe the equivalent. This isn’t really answering the question about why things are so expensive but I have a little bit more to say about that as well. It is interesting that the people that go into this . . . if you’re an actor, you really want to act. If you make a lot of money in that process, that’s a perk. Some people want to be a movie star, but I think most people, we do it because we have this passion to tell a story. In my case I do it through design, in a shop’s case they do it through creating those designs. I don’t know any costume shop that walked away from the business at the end of their life a billionaire. They might be a nice middleclass citizen, financially. We do it because we’re passionate about it. Another thing that makes costumes expensive is that it’s all one of a kind. You develop something and there is a learning curve. I can go back to my “I drew a skirt, you want to wear pants” example. They’ve mocked up a skirt. If it turns into pants they, most often, do not bill an additional cost. The process is the process in their eyes. If you were building a swimming pool and you said, “I don’t want a Jacuzzi,” and then you decided you wanted a Jacuzzi, you would pay for a Jacuzzi. You know what I mean? A costume . . . it’s very rare that you get billed for a lot of extra things that happen in the process. I mean the costume shops are heroes to me, even though sometimes you do think, “Why does this little dress cost $4,000?” But when you look at the amount of staff, the amount of real estate, the amount of people involved . . . I can give you an example of the size of a team it might take to do an Aladdin costume, for instance. You have the draper and their team. They have to have somebody who cuts it out, they have somebody who sews it, they have somebody who finishes it. So even if it’s a small shop it’s at least four people. Maybe it’s painted. You have to have a painter, you have to have that equipment, that space. Maybe it’s painted and has a little beading on it. That’s another department, so there’s people in that department, and then who’s collecting all of these beads? Who is sourcing all of this dye? Who is hunting down the twenty pieces of cloth that might be in a single garment? So it grows. It’s not just you and one person, it’s really a village. When they say it takes a village, in our business it really takes a metropolis to make it happen. So I think that’s why. Oftentimes, I know after you’ve developed something, people hope that it will become less expensive after you’ve gone through this prototyping process, but usually, on the first costume, the shop will lose money on the costume, which is sort of extraordinary when you think, “Why does this dress cost $4,000?” So then they’re playing catchup a little bit on the future companies, if you’re lucky enough to have them.

Ken: See, I’m learning something as we go. It never dawned on me that it’s a one of a kind original. “Paris original . . .” It’s that thing . . . you’re designing a hundred costumes that are totally unique. I was expecting you to say, “Well, Ken, these things have to last eight shows a week, be danced in like crazy, be sweated in more than anything you can imagine, laundered and dry cleaned,” and they’re Paris originals, they’re Barnes originals, every single one of them.

Gregg: Yeah, you figure that a garment they make in the fashion industry for the runway literally only has to survive for . . . I think a whole fashion show with 30 looks is about eight minutes, ten minutes, so that is a big part of it. I didn’t bring any of that up, but there is that reality of sweating and the amount of wear and tear that a costume goes through in a single evening of a show. Also, I always say this, but you want to make a costume look like a butterfly and wear like an iron maiden. When you go to a theme park you sort of understand this parade is going to happen five times today and that polyester double-knit tunic can get thrown in the washing machine, but on Broadway . . . I’m making a gross statement. I’m sure that theme park parades are much more artistically approached . . . but on Broadway you want to feel like, for the cost of this ticket, I’m seeing this and it’s just happening for me, one time only, even if it’s Phantom and it’s been running for 20,000 years, you want to feel like the clothes have a special quality to them, even if it’s modern dress. That’s another thing. If you’re doing Legally Blonde you don’t want everybody in the audience to be wearing what the actors on the stage are wearing, because then the event doesn’t feel as special somehow. So even though we do buy things and, especially with the modern thing, it is a mix of creative and purchased, but you want to try to find a balance that seems unique and that relates to the fact that the purpose of it is to help tell the story.

Ken: Any specific stories you can remember from seeing something in previews, you’re sitting back, “Oh, I can’t wait for this number. This is going to be so beautiful, all the girls are going to be in their outfits, or the guys . . .” And then they come out and you’re like, “Oh my God, that isn’t right. I’ve got to do this over.”

Gregg: You know, it’s funny. We started this interview talking about how you don’t want to waste money. If I could line up all the times that I’ve wasted money, you’d be appalled. There is something about . . . it’s a magical alchemy, really. The audience is not to be underestimated. They are a part of it. So say you’ve designed and written and scored and created a moment, and it’s your opening and you need it to land in a certain way because it’s going to set up how the story is being told, and it just sits there. You know, no matter how good the dress is, that it’s not going to be the dress. If it’s okay, I can use Kinky Boots as an example. When we went to Chicago we made a lot of changes and probably half of the garments, maybe not quite half . . . we call them the “Angels” but they’re Lola’s drag pals . . . so much of that changed and it had to do with finding the right tone, in a way, for the piece. Because it’s not Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It’s not that kind of an evening. And some of the stuff was too over the top and some of it was not good storytelling and, even though I didn’t do it in a vacuum but, collectively, through really smart producing and smart direction and smart collaborators, we were able to hone in on what the problems were with the wardrobe specifically, and quickly, like really in a weekend, I would say, sketch in a new visual. And we used pieces from that and put them here, and ran to there and implemented it here, and I’m so pleased with how that all eventually came together, and it was a better design then. So, yeah, there was a smallish rack of drag items that are available for trick-or-treating, so if anybody wants a good drag costume they can get in touch with me.

Ken: You’re going to get some phone calls now! Speaking of that collaboration, how much do you collaborate with the scenic designer? Because I once worked on a show, which I shall not name, that, when we got the scenery next to the costumes, it was as if someone threw up on the stage. Do you have to think about the backdrop?

Gregg: Oh my gosh, yes. Oftentimes the scenic designer is hired before we come into the picture, and that’s my favorite. If there’s one thing I could insist on I would say hire them first. Because they start developing the world inside the box, the world inside the proscenium, if there is a proscenium. For instance, if I may I’ll use David Rockwell, who I know you’ve spoken to. I love that interview. We did Dirty Rotten Scoundrels together. I’ve worked with him many times . . . I think that was the first time . . . but I went to see the set, I had just been hired, I had never even seen the film at this point, and I went to his studio with Jerry Mitchell and Jack O’Brien and they were working on the set. It was pretty far along, and they had this beautiful, beautiful, sort of what you think of the south of France, the sky in the south of France. It was this beautiful blue color. And I thought, “Ah, I can see that if I put a person in orange in this space that’s going to be a really strong statement.” It’s the opposite on the color wheel, it’s really going to be . . . you have to be careful with your warm palette. That’s your ace in the hole. Things that are lovely and sea foamy and pale, they’ll look like To Catch a Thief and that can be useful to us. So it actually informs ways that I can work within this beautiful, crystalline world that David was developing, so I love it when the space is the first thing to come along. It’s funny, you never just work on one thing at a time, and I wish I could say that that collaboration was more intense, more side-by-side than it oftentimes ends up being. Sometimes you’ll have a couple of meetings and you’ll share a couple of sketches and you have a question a month into the process. “What happened? What color is the sofa? What color is the armchair?” But in terms of being in the best of all possible worlds I don’t think that that kind of collaboration happens as often as we would like it to. It’s just because everybody is so busy. You’re always out of town and you’ve got five deadlines that are all happening at the same moment. Right now I’ve got three shows running on Broadway, and national tours so I’m on the road a lot and sometimes hard to get. So the collaboration is tricky, but that kind of thing you’re mentioning, when you get there and it’s like, “Oh my God, what have we done?” That shouldn’t happen. You should say, “This doesn’t work, but at least it’s beautiful.”

Ken: Or, “That whole show shouldn’t have happened. Something went wrong with that.” I was going to ask you what your favorite piece of work was but Susan Stroman has inspired a new question here on the podcast, which I’m calling the Smithsonian question, which is, if you had a choice of just one of your designs . . . the Smithsonian calls and says, “We’ve got room for one, Gregg.” I’ll give you a show, though. We won’t say one dress or one suit.

Gregg: Okay, the whole thing.

Ken: What show of yours would you want thrown in there?

Gregg: Oh my goodness. This is like Sophie’s Choice in some way, like which child do I keep? You know, it’s funny, I’m torn between two and I know that doesn’t answer the question but I’ll explain why, if that’s okay.

Ken: Start with two.

Gregg: It’s cheating, I know it’s totally cheating, and the Smithsonian is going to reject one anyway. But the original production of Side Show . . . It meant so much to me. It was my Broadway debut. I thought it would take five years to make that debut. It took twenty years to make that happen, and we worked on it so long. Of all of the things I’ve worked on, whatever anybody thought . . . good, bad, indifferent, huge fan, didn’t care, whatever they thought . . . we created the event. There was nothing in it where we later thought, “I wish we had . . . we should have . . .” We set out to make this thing happen and it happened. It was all make by Barbara Matera, which was a huge . . . the craftsmanship of those costumes was extraordinary. So that comes to mind. That would be my Column A choice. My Column B choice would be The Drowsy Chaperone because it was an evening that just percolated along, and I felt like all of the elements of the storytelling were equally delightful, if that’s the right word. I loved being a part of it. It was joyous, so unexpected. We opened in Los Angeles with no plan to come in and then I think it was Woman in White that closed quite unexpectedly and two weeks later there we were, loading in The Drowsy Chaperone. It was incredible. And actually the Tobin Foundation has a museum in San Antonio and they bought all those sketches, so they’re not in the Smithsonian but they are, that design, is all preserved in a museum in Texas so that’s really great.

Ken: They’re not there yet.

Gregg: So maybe I’ll give Side Show to the Smithsonian, since the others already have a seat of honor.

Ken: My last question now, which is my infamous genie question.

Gregg: Oh my gosh, I should know how to do this!

Ken: Yes, it’s suited for you, and Casey Nicholaw, who just did it a couple of weeks ago. I want you to imagine that the genie comes to your door, knocks on the door and says, “Gregg, thank you so much for this amazing outfit. It’s incredible, and because of that I want to grant you one wish, just one.” I want you to imagine and think, what’s the one thing that you can’t stand about Broadway? You’re such a gentile guy. You’re so nice and friendly and collaborative. What’s the one thing that makes you so mad, that keeps you up at night, that makes you swear? If you could change this one thing that the genie would change with the snap of a finger, what would you want that genie to change about Broadway?

Gregg: Wow, you know it’s an interesting thing about . . . I think there’s a kind of cynicism about people who love the theater, and I guess I’m speaking to people who blog . . . or not “blog,” excuse me!

Ken: That’s okay, I can take it.

Gregg: You can take it! People who go on the chat rooms and all of that. And I love to get that opinion, I love to see what people think. It’s raw, instinctual, they’re not afraid to share their thoughts and they’re very passionate and I love that. But I think that oftentimes, if something isn’t working . . . nobody loves everything, not everybody loves everything equally . . . they often say, “Well, they sat down, because, ‘This is going to make a lot of money if we do this.’” And I just hate that because I have never, in the 35 years I’ve been doing this, ever sat down at a table where anybody said any words to that effect. We all want to tell a story, make it beautiful, make it unique, make it have meaning, so that attitude, that there is a kind of cynicism . . . I just don’t know anybody that I have ever worked with or collaborated with that has that. I’m not sure if I’ve answered the question well but I know when I read it, I think, “Oh God, that’s so hurtful,” and it isn’t at all what we set out to do. We set out to make something joyous and, if it’s in entertainment, we want it to be joyously life changing. If it’s a story with a different kind of meaning we want you to come out and be changed or have a different perspective on life. That’s really what the job is, ultimately.

Ken: Well I agree and I want to thank you so much for being here. Your answer about the Smithsonian question just shows what kind of guy you are because I asked you what work would you want, of your work, in the museum, and you said a show where we all just got along and the story was told wonderfully. It wasn’t about your designs. You’re an incredibly collaborative guy and we need so many more of you in the theater and it’s obvious why you’ve been such a success. So thank you so much for that. Thank you for spending the time with us. Thank you, all of you, for listening. Next week, Gregg, one of your producers, Daryl Roth, is with us next week. Thanks so much and we’ll see you then!

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Ken Davenport
Ken Davenport

Tony Award-Winning Broadway Producer

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