Tony Winner Gregg Barnes "Runs the Gamut A to Z" in Designing Kennedy Center Follies
By Adam Hetrick
The showgirls of Follies have dressed for yet one more spree in a $7.5 million production at the Kennedy Center. Designer Gregg Barnes explains the "looks."
The showgirls of Follies – Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's musical about four regretful lovers and a host of former Follies performers who reunite for one last look across the footlights – have dressed for yet one more spree in a $7.5 million production at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The lavish staging stars Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein and Ron Raines.
Hal Prince originally staged the dark piece, steeped in theatricality, which opened on Broadway April 4, 1971, as the most expensive musical Broadway had ever seen and earned its place as one of the iconic musicals of all time.
Much like its central characters, Follies has haunted fans for decades. Sondheim's score alone delivered a mix of pastiche and soul-mining character material, which was tailored to an unparalleled cast of performers, many of whom had actually been in the original Follies spectacles themselves.
But in addition to the Tony Award-winning material and indelible performances, fans of the original always recount the spectacle that was Follies. Boris Aronson's multi-layered set of a crumbling theatre, remarkable for its time, was inhabited by a cast dressed in some of the most lavish costumes Broadway had ever seen.
Designed by the late Florence Klotz, the Tony Award-winning costumes for Follies in some ways mirrored Sondheim's score. They reflected the present-day motives and situations of the respective characters at the reunion, but also burst into the over-the-top spectacle of a living, breathing Follies show that hadn't been seen since Ziegfeld reigned.
It's only appropriate that a true Follies fan should step up to the plate to render designs for the Kennedy Center production of the famed musical. Tony Award winner Gregg Barnes, who has designed costumes for The Drowsy Chaperone, Flower Drum Song, Side Show and Legally Blonde, as well as the Paper Mill Playhouse and City Center Encores! productions of Follies, recently spoke with Playbill.com about his inspirations and designs for the new production.
You're designing Follies, which is one of the most iconic costume shows around, and the Florence Klotz initial costumes are just known and beloved. What was it like getting to tackle this incredible project?
So there are some ghosts in the costumes too?
As a designer, was this a show that you always wanted to do? This has to be a feast for you.
And it gives theatre people a lot to sink our teeth into because it sort of belongs to us in some way. It's full of show-business history, and celebrates the art of what you do, and what everyone does, while telling this tragic and poignant story.
Tell me about the research that has to go into this because you are essentially designing for two periods. You're bringing back the Follies and it's also set in the 70s. You really get to run the gamut of design through your work on this show. Where do you start?
I'll use Linda Lavin as an example. I said, "Linda let's just talk about you for about a half an hour or however long it takes, and then we'll talk about Hattie, and then we'll talk about where those things might mesh and be useful information for how you're going to present this character." So I tried to do that with every single cast member as much as I could given the logistics of people being out of town. It's 1971 undeniably, but I haven't put a capital "P" for period on top of that. I tried to keep it classic, and a lot of the details of the 70s would be more in the hair and how things are put together. In some ways it's about nostalgia, but I didn't want it to be commenting on that proper nostalgia for that time period. Also, the 70s era, because of films like "Bonnie and Clyde" and even that crazy "The Poseidon Adventure," has a very strong 1930s vibe, so I thought, "Well that's an interesting parallel when the Follies happened, they took place between 1918 and 1941." But the 30s is the main decade in that, the 20s and the 30s in that arc of time, so I thought, "Isn't it funny that even in 1971 they were looking back and these fads became so prominent again?" There were old, old shades, old ideas, so I tried to use that a little bit as well.
Are there certain original Follies images or things from your research that that really influenced your designs?
So I have done that same thing, especially with the ghosts, although Eric Schaeffer, who is directing this production, had a very specific vision that they not be too vibrant, that there is sort of a dark underpinning to the ghosts. My image is that they've been wandering in this beautiful old theatre for 50 years, and that just by the nature of these wanderings and the sort of waiting to see what happened to their lives, the clothes and the weight of the clothes, is sort of dragged down. So they don't look like Miss Havisham, but there's something about them. I think hopefully they'll operate on two levels: You'll think, "Wow, that's a fabulous Follies costume," but it will also have a sort of pathos to it, and the underpinning will be slightly dark.
Audiences always anticipate that overwhelming moment where we fall into the Follies sequence and "Loveland." You get to run wild as a designer, I bet. Klotz's originals had cherubs and instruments all over them. How do you see this segment?
Touching on what you said before about sitting with Linda Lavin and chatting with the actors about themselves and their characters, you are designing for people like Jan Maxwell and Bernadette Peters and Elaine Paige, some leading ladies with great bodies. That's got to be a thrill, too. How do you take your initial design instincts and then tailor that for the particular cast? There has to be a lot of collaboration.
With Bernadette, she said this character has an agenda. She's come back to seduce. She's trying to rekindle this passion that she felt, this unrequited passion. It was requited, but it was fumbled. So it made sense to me that she would put on a red dress. The flavor seemed right. With Jan's character, she's been a politician's wife, she lives on the Upper East Side, she's got a lot of fabulous silver in her dining rooms they discuss in the play. So we did a dress that hopefully looks like Bergdorf Goodman 1970, but it's also a little showy. Actually, a lot of politicians' wives should be coming to the Kennedy Center [to see Follies] because of the neighborhood, and I said to Jan, "They should all be sitting there thinking, 'Damn, why can't I wear that dress? That's the dress I want to wear!'" So it's not quite as showbiz-y maybe, and it's very vulnerable looking, ironically, even though she's a lady who has her armor up in spades. So we'll see—it's always a risk reinventing something, but it's thrilling at the same time.
Follies continues at the Kennedy Center through June 19. Click here to read Playbill.com's opening night story.
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