A LIFE IN THE THEATRE: Catherine Zuber, Costume Designer of The Big Knife, Coast of Utopia, Far From Heaven and Beyond

By Mervyn Rothstein
01 Apr 2013

Catherine Zuber
Catherine Zuber
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Meet Tony Award-winning costume designer Catherine Zuber, whose duds will decorate the denizens of Far From Heaven and The Big Knife this spring season in New York.

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"I love to enter another society, another world, and examine the components that make that world what it is," costume designer Catherine Zuber says. "To study the choices people make in what they wear, the conditions that force people to wear certain clothing, the requirements of the society that influence how they choose to dress."

That love, that intellectual curiosity, has led to a career that includes nearly 40 Broadway shows and, since 2005, five Tony Awards (for The Light in the Piazza, Awake and Sing!, The Coast of Utopia, South Pacific and The Royal Family). She has five other Tony nominations, and has designed for the Metropolitan Opera, other opera companies, and the BAM/Old Vic Bridge Project.



This season her work on Broadway includes two Clifford Odets revivals — Golden Boy and The Big Knife — the latter currently at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre.

Zuber was born in London and immigrated with her parents to New York at age nine. "The habits of the people were quite different. I remember — this was the late 1950s when we immigrated — my mother used to ride a bicycle everywhere, which was what people did in the U.K. I was so embarrassed, because at that time adults didn't ride bicycles here the way they do now. The two societies were drawn in sharp contrast in my young eyes. I always wonder if that's what made me enjoy so much observing the details that create a society visually."

Zuber went to art schools and graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 1984. A teacher, designer Michael Yeargan, recommended her for a production of Brecht's The Good Woman of Szechwan, directed by Andrei Serban, at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. "A lot of people saw that production," Zuber says. It led to "lots of work and a long-term relationship with A.R.T."

Her first Broadway show was a musical version of The Red Shoes, the famous ballet movie, in 1993. "I'd never worked anywhere in New York, and here was a big Broadway musical. I was such a fan of the film." Susan Schulman was slated to direct. "We had enjoyed working together on a tour of Annie Get Your Gun, so she put me forward as a candidate."

The musical did not fare well. "Even though the show was a famous flop, it was a great experience for me — quite a baptism by fire. It opened on a Thursday and closed on Sunday. But I thought, at least I've got a Broadway show under my belt. And I started working in a lot of New York theatres."

The Big Knife, starring Bobby Cannavale and directed by Doug Hughes, is Odets' 1949 drama about the truths behind the glitter and glamour of post-World War II Hollywood. The costumes, Zuber says, need to convey how "each character is putting on an appearance, or in a way playing a role. And what's behind that is very different."

It's a busy time for Zuber. After The Big Knife is the new musical Far From Heaven, starring Kelli O'Hara, this May at Playwrights Horizons. Then comes another musical, Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman's The Bridges of Madison County, directed by Bartlett Sher and also starring O'Hara. Bridges will be playing the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts this summer and, Zuber says, moving to Broadway next season.

She loves musicals, she says, and would enjoy working on revivals of classics, as she did on South Pacific. "My Fair Lady, The King and I — it would be fantastic to revisit them, and just revel in how beautiful they are."