SCARLET PIMPERNEL INTERVIEW: Costumer Jane Greenwood

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The second weekend in November, costume designer Jane Greenwood will go for the Triple Crown.
Jane Greenwood's costume design for Chauvelin
Jane Greenwood's costume design for Chauvelin

The second weekend in November, costume designer Jane Greenwood will go for the Triple Crown.

Three productions that bear her distinctive imprint will be opening in a four-day period: Neil Simon's Proposals, which kicks off with a Nov. 6 Broadway opening; the Tan Dun opera Marco Polo, which has its American premiere Nov. 8 at New York City Opera; and The Scarlet Pimpernel, which opens at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre the following day.

When Greenwood signed on last year to design costumes for The Scarlet Pimpernel, set in England and France in 1794, she first made a pilgrimage to several museums in London and then scrutinized her extensive at-home library, she reported in a recent intervew with Playbill On-Line.

She looked at virtually "anything and everything" she could get her hands on about the period -- paintings by Jacques Louis David, pictures of Robespierre, "a wonderful chronicle of the French Revolution called Citizens, by Simon Schama." She also drew upon memories of a trip she had made to Paris in 1995, where she had seen a great deal of the actual memorabilia from the French Revolution.

As for the myriad film versions of the tale, Greenwood viewed and found "something interesting" in each one -- from the Michael Powell version starring David Niven to the "Black Adder" retelling with Rowan Atkinson of "Mr. Bean" fame ("very amusing"), and --oh, yes-- the 1935 incarnation with Leslie Howard. "Leslie Howard was just so elegant, which was reflected in his style," said Greenwood. "Douglas Sills [who makes his Broadway debut in the title role] has that same sort of style."

Greenwood characterized her relationship with Sills as "an intellectual love affair."

"There has to be a chemistry between the actors and the designer, and I feel an actual desire to make Douglas -- as well as Christine [Andreas] and Terry [Mann] -- look as good as I possibly can," said Greenwood.

To that end, the costume designer adheres to the maxim "Less is better."

"I think the tendency with period clothes -- I know people like to call them costumes but they're actually clothes from another period -- is to do too much.

"Sometimes there's the inclination to say, 'Oh yes, a full skirt. Put 10 yards of material in.' But in fact you really only need eight yards, and the silhouette of the costume will actually look better if you use eight yards," the designer contends.

To re-create the fashions of the era, Greenwood eschewed polyester and instead sought out authentic fabrics -- wools from the north of England, silks ("particularly taffeta silk which lends itself to well to moving and catching the air") from the U.K., France, Italy, and Bangkok.

In addition, the cast's shoes and boots -- some from Mr. Pompey in Rome, the rest from Montano Leatherworks in New York's SoHo -- are all handsewn.

It's not all flights of fancy when it comes to designing for a Broadway show, however, especially when you're working with a budget of $1.35 million -- which is very "limiting," says Greenwood, when the show in question is an opulent musical with a cast of 40."

"There's a lot of finagling that needs to be done -- I spent a lot of time going to many different costume shops for estimates and then in each case taking the lowest one," said Greenwood, who ended up using the services of three costume shops in New York and two in Los Angeles. "There were many times when I would wake up in the middle of the night and think, Oh my God, it's all a disaster!" There's little chance of disaster, however. Greenwood, after all, has been wowing audiences for decades with her spectacular designs in shows ranging from Richard Burton's Hamlet to the recent Lincoln Center Theatre revival of The Heiress. (Who can forget Cherry Jones sweeping down the circular staircase in those marvelous hoop skirts?)

If she had her druthers, would Greenwood choose to design costumes for a period piece like Scarlet Pimpernel or a contemporary drama like A Delicate Balance (another of her recent Broadway hits)? "No contest," says the designer, ever the diplomat (it must have something to do with all that finagling). "I enjoy them both for different reasons.

"I enjoy the piece, I enjoy the word, I enjoy serving the play and making it as visually good as I possibly can."

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