“I always say that we all speak different languages, and clothing is one of the languages I speak,” says Dear Evan Hansen costume designer Emily Rebholz. While it may be subtler, make no mistake that her “voice” communicates to audiences at the Music Box Theatre just as loudly as that of the actors onstage—and director Michael Greif behind the scenes—when it comes to creating viscerally real characters.
It can be easy to dismiss costume design of a contemporary show, believing that the work is less demanding than sewing sequins or 60-pound hoops skirts. But, be it a period show, a fantastical adventure, or a modern-day production, building a character is always labor intensive. “It’s all about character,” agrees Jennifer von Mayrhauser, a longtime costume designer with 30 Broadway credits and a current member of the Tony nominating committee. “Everything that I do for theatre, or television, or film is very much coming from the script and from the character.”
Rebholz begins the show the same way. When it comes to contemporary design, like in Evan Hansen, she first pores over research then pulls images and creates a collage. From there, she’s not simply pulling items out of a closet; Rebholz builds her characters through design from the ground up, literally. “A lot of times with teenagers, I’ll start with shoes. ‘What kind of sneakers do you think this characters wears?’” she’ll ask the actor in their initial meeting. “Footwear or something like that, especially for guys, it tells a lot about someone: where they shop, what they want to project, what clique they’re in. Especially with teenagers, there’s so much about image and what you’re putting forward.”
For Evan, “We both were like ‘It’s New Balance,’” says Rebholz of her discussion with leading actor Ben Platt. “We don’t want to go with something super cool Urban Outfitters, but we don’t want to go too dad.” The specificity with which Rebholz and other designers execute their vision establishes the authenticity of the modern-day setting. “With contemporary clothes or the way contemporary characters appear, it is so difficult because everybody knows who these people are and everybody has a frame of reference for it, so any audience member can spot a lie,” says Tony-winning costume designer Clint Ramos. “That’s the challenge of contemporary clothing: We need to be able to translate a large amount of truth through how these characters appear.”
Such was the quandary for Rebholz while creating the look for Connor Murphy, played by Mike Faist. “We went through a lot of different jackets and some of them felt so clichéd,” she admits. “Until I found this old, vintage jacket in Army/Navy Surplus and he’s in a kind of gray.” To make it more real, Rebholz distressed and bleached the jacket—lived-in gray reads more legitimate than crisp black. Having been with the production since the first reading, Faist has worn that exact costume for years. “That’s like a lived-in thing,” says Rebholz. “It’s Connor’s skin now. And that goes for all of them.”
Rebholz and her design compatriots emphasize the key to molding the “skin” an actor slips on is close collaboration with that performer. “I definitely feel like it’s my vision, but then that person, that actor needs to be able to feel that they embody it and that they are really becoming this person,” Rebholz says. These designers also consider the actor as himself, not just the character. “It’s so personal with every show,” says Mayrhauser. “You definitely think about the person, not just their approach to the character. It’s also who they are, what they look like, what looks good on them.”
In fact, that’s how Dear Evan Hansen came to find its now signature color. “On that black set was all those lights,” explains Rebholz. “To pull focus for Ben, that light blue was just a little bit magical. It almost acts as white without being bright white. It just seemed perfect, but now it has become such a thing,” she laughs. (Stars walked a blue carpet opening night and lead producer Stacey Mindich even has her office decorated all in blue.)
Rebholz’s work stands in service to what needs to happen onstage, a philosophy by which Ramos also abides. He pulls clothing to support and allow for the actor’s physical choices, thinking “What kind of garment actually helps the actor with his mannerisms?” Platt has been lauded for his physical performance, complete with minuscule tics that make his anxiety palpable for the audience, but his clothes help with Platt’s projection of that image. “He’s hiding,” says Rebholz of Evan. “He’s not the coolest kid, he doesn’t get the newest clothes all the time, [so] we got slightly oversized Gap, we got L.L. Bean, Old Navy. He starts with oversized jeans that are from JC Penney.” We see it as he fiddles with the cuffs of his too-long-sleeved sweatshirt or the edges of his arm cast—which, by the way, is a real cast plastered on and sawed off nightly.
“There isn’t a way to do it to look authentic without it [being real],” says Rebholz. From Evan’s cast to Connor’s chipped nail polish to Cynthia’s ruby ring anniversary present, the devil—and the backstory for these actors—is in the details, and moreso when it comes to a contemporary show. “[A contemporary show] becomes more detail-oriented, whereas sometimes if it’s a big fantasy design, it’s more about the conceptual-ness of it,” says Rebholz, who in addition to her Broadway credits has designed for the Santa Fe Opera.
Designing for a contemporary show is deceptively difficult. As much as it irks Rebholz and co. when people say their work is simple, it’s the sign of a job well done. “The ‘casual’ [description] drives me crazy, but I do think it’s when people are like, ‘They’re just wearing clothes,’ that’s actually how I know I’ve done my job well.”