Designing a Revolution: Go Behind the Scenes and Into the Fashion of Doctor Zhivago

News   Designing a Revolution: Go Behind the Scenes and Into the Fashion of Doctor Zhivago
 
Doctor Zhivago costume designer Paul Tazewell takes readers through the snow-filled world of Russian revolution and romance in an exclusive tour of the inspirations and designs for the new Broadway musical.

Tazewell, a five-time Tony Award nominee for Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk; The Color Purple; In the Heights; Memphis; and A Streetcar Named Desire, set his sights on turn-of-the-century Russia for his latest Broadway project.

Tazewell narrates his design process in the following feature, sharing his design sketches with Playbill.com, and touching on the materials that inspired him, how the use of color helped set characters apart on stage and the textures that helped conjure the world of revolutionary Russia.

Setting the Musical Apart from the Film and Finding Romantic Inspiration

I purposefully didn't look at the film at first when I started designing Doctor Zhivago. I wanted to design the show before I actually spent much time with the film. I'd seen it years and years ago. I wanted to have a fresh look and approach to what Des McAnuff is trying to do as far as telling the story and hopefully in a new way.

But then, once it was basically designed and we were in the intermediate stages of the design, I looked at the film just because I thought that it would be a good idea to acknowledge some of the romanticisms and what an audience would be drawn to and remember from the film. But, if you look at the film now, it has a very strong fashion influence from the 60s. I had to decide how the designs for the musical could still acknowledge what the film brought to fashion culture. There's a great use of fur and the glamor of that and also the sumptuousness of the Russian imperial empire.

Kelli Barrett
Kelli Barrett Photo by Jason Bell

There are some vintage furs that we were able to use to effectively establish the look of the period. But there are specific fabric stores in and around New York City that carry fake fur. They've actually come a very, very long way in creating fur that looks and feels almost like real fur. You can get something that looks like fox and something that looks more like coyote, raccoon or squirrel, or chinchilla even; they're available and out there. It took a lot of searching but we were able to find a lot of those things and could pull off the look in an amazing way.

The type of fur helps to set the tone of the rich, especially in a society where fur is pretty basic, the weather requires that you wear fur. That's why they have all those fur hats. We didn't really skimp at all on the weight of the fur or the wool of the coats. It was very important to have all the clothes feel as natural as possible. It's the kind of production that it is; you need the grounding of real clothing to tell the story.

Tom Hewitt
Tom Hewitt Photo by Matthew Murphy

The Fabric of Zhivago

We're dealing with periods starting in 1903 and then going to 1930. There are fabrics that they used then that we don't so much use today in everyday clothing. There are a lot of silks and wools and some fabrics that are much more formal, or our view of them currently is much more formal than how they would be used then. So, definitely, the silk, it moves in a specific way. Cotton bobbinet that's embroidered has a certain quality to it. That's used for the over-veiling on Lara's pattern dress. The silk tulle is what we used for the wedding vale for Tonia. For example, the silks that we use for ball dresses for the ensemble and for the wedding dress for Tonia, all of those are fabrics that we see them sometimes but today, they're usually in very formal circumstances. Back then, their was all formal and that was what the revolution was a reaction to.

Sophia Gennusa and Kelli Barrett in a scene from <i>Doctor Zhivago</i>
Sophia Gennusa and Kelli Barrett in a scene from Doctor Zhivago Photo by Matthew Murphy

We created textured wool coats. You've got a multitude of different kinds of textures that will come in, and it was a great opportunity design-wise to be able to use that within all the morning coats at the very top of the show and also all of the embroidered nets and laces that was under the ladies' dresses.

Then you go to the world of uniforms. Even though they're distressed, the beauty of those costumes is that they are designed to be as realistic as possible. They've all been tainted and broken down so that they look like they've been on the front fighting. So that was a lot of fun to do and then with all the blood as well. It was great fun.

Left: Paul Alexander Nolan in the show. Right: a sketch for one of the uniforms
Left: Paul Alexander Nolan in the show. Right: a sketch for one of the uniforms

Dressing the Stars

What's important for me is that the costume always be reflective both of the period and be true to how a character is being played, which was the case with all of our principals. Both Tam Mutu and Kelli Barrett, they're young, and we wanted to make sure they always appeared romantic and sexy and fresh. We always acknowledged that as an idea, and it was very important for Des McAnuff as well, because it's going to be a modern audience that is hopefully relating to how the story is being told. We need to reflect on them as a contemporary character as well as a period character.

Kelli Barrett and Tam Mutu
Kelli Barrett and Tam Mutu

Designing Lara

This piece is silk and rayon velvet that we died specifically so that it would pop against all the other beaded dresses and formal wear of the men in that scene. One of the most important points that Des McAnuff wanted to have with that character stylistically is that you are always able to find her. The color blue ended up being very important. How that blue reads on stage is kind of amazing. We went through a few different colors of blue, testing them under the light to see what would really kind of pop. That was the blue that had a strong, almost a cerulean blue, that would pop against everybody else who was on stage.

Two of Tazewell's sketches for Lara
Two of Tazewell's sketches for Lara

Designing Anna

This is Anna at the funeral of Yurii Zhivago's father. That scene is set in 1903, and what was really exciting about that was to find the fabric. The coat is designed to be broad tail; we were able to find a fake broad tail. It's a technique of fur. It has almost a marbled quality and texture. We married that with a fox fur shawl. Her dress underneath is a moire taffeta with an overlay of embroidered net. All of that set her up as the height of fashion, the height of the aristocracy.

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Designing Tonia Tonia is always in contrast to Lara, who is popping in blue. I was apprehensive about putting anyone else in the color blue, so there is maybe one other person that appears in navy, but it's a very dark navy. Everyone else is in earth tones or a warmer toned palette.

Lora Lee Gayer as Tonia
Lora Lee Gayer as Tonia Photo by Matthew Murphy

This is Tonia's wedding dress. It goes directly from the wedding into the ball. It's a silk satin, a champagne or kind of a candlelight color. The base of the dress, it has an overlay of dimensional lace. It's a lace that has organza flowers, sequins and beads that are applied to the French lace. It's also been cuffed and beaded on the train. It's an ombré and topaz, to a champagne tone, a fringe tassel pattern that's reflective of the front drape as well. There's actual beaded fringe that runs the edge of the overskirt. Again, this is to set up that tone of money and custom, made-to-order clothing, which was de rigeur of the period and a family of that class.

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Designing Yuri

This design is an actual cut of a Russian Officer's coat from the period. Tam Mutu wears clothes impeccably, and it was not difficult to finely tailor a garment on him. All of his clothes are custom, as are just about all of the clothes in the production.

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He's got a velvet jacket with a matching waist-coat at the very top of the show, so we set him up as kind of a poet, a learned poet – he has kind of an artistic side. So design-wise, it was about drawing on icons from the period and then what we carry into it collectively as an audience or as modern people.

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He's got a tail suit, which was beautifully done. It was also about trying to find those pieces that will still keep him feeling sexy and well-dressed, but brought down a bit, because it's after their home has been taken over by the Red Forces and the Communists. I think it's important to always see him as the hero even though his clothing is broken down and distressed to its very end.

Tam Mutu
Tam Mutu Photo by Matthew Murphy
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