They say when you’re nervous onstage in front of a crowd to imagine the audience in their underwear. But an actor never wants to be the one in his underwear in front of an audience. Enter Broadway dressers. Members of this integral backstage team preserve the look of the actors—literally dressing them from head to toe. From pre-setting costumes backstage to facilitating quick changes, from keeping their actors hydrated to coordinating post-show madness, the relationship between an actor and a dresser is one of the most intimate on Broadway. Get to know the right-hand men and women for Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kinky Boots’ Wayne Brady and King and I’s Kelli O’Hara.
Dressing Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton feels nostalgic for Jennifer Hohn, who made her Broadway debut as a dresser working on the Tony Award-winning In the Heights, Miranda’s debut work, which also played at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. “Every day I just keep saying, ‘Am I supposed to be having this much fun at work?’” A block away at Kinky Boots, dresser Julien Havard, a veteran dresser with over 15 Broadway shows under his belt, enjoyed his first experience working with Wayne Brady, who recently ended his stint as Lola. “He’s so even-tempered, enjoyable and hilarious that even in a mishap or a pair of uncomfortable shoes or a too-tight gown, nothing really throws him off at all. If anything, it’s hilarious and it’s so entertaining, and he’s so in it, and he’s so committed.” Now on their third show together, Fran Curry and Kelli O’Hara have an established rapport. “We definitely have a groove, but the thing I always think to myself [is] that the dresser that she needed for Nice Work if You Can Get It is not the dresser that she needs for The Bridges of Madison County, which is not the dresser that she needs for The King and I. As an artist her environment is different for every show, what she needs is different for every show, and it’s my job to be fluid and flexible and be whatever she needs me to be for that show in order to create an environment where she can do her job.”
A dresser’s job goes beyond making sure every button is in place and every hook has met its eye. Get a glimpse of what happens “behind the seams” at Hamilton, The King and I and Kinky Boots to make the onstage magic happen for an 8 PM curtain.
6 PM (Two hours to curtain)
Curry arrives at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center to tidy up from the previous show, lay out O’Hara’s undergarments and fill water bottles. The night is just gearing up.
6:30 PM (An hour-and-a-half to curtain)
Curry heads to the wardrobe department meeting where the team discusses who in the cast is on or called out that night, what the changes are for the show and how they apply to the dressers. After the meeting, she heads to an intimate quick-change booth built backstage by Lincoln Center just for O’Hara and Curry. “Kelli’s clothes are too big to be in her dressing room. They don’t fit through doorways, so we made a place where she could come and live because everyone else can go back to their dressing rooms, and she really doesn’t have that capability.”
Havard arrives at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre and begins to prep the dressing room for Brady. That includes prepping tea and water, setting out towels and turning on his steamer. “An hour before half hour is when a lot of pre-show stuff will happen, like collecting his laundry and pulling his bras, panties and body shapers.”
Hohn arrives at the Richard Rodgers and heads to the wardrobe room to check in with the show’s wardrobe supervisor and team of fellow dressers. She also begins her show prep just like Curry and Havard.
7 PM (One hour to curtain)
Curry presses the elaborate costumes. The iconic lavender dress O’Hara wears during “Shall We Dance?” is yards of fabric, so that requires the most attention.
During the show, Hohn dresses Miranda and Jonathan Groff, whose dressing rooms sit next door to each other—one flight up on stage right. Right now, Hohn sets their costume pieces backstage where she’ll need them to dress the actors during the performance.
After Brady arrives and feels comfortable (usually playing his PlayStation 4) Havard arranges his costumes backstage, including nine pairs of shoes.
7:30 PM (Half hour to curtain)
Hohn perches outside of Groff and Miranda’s dressing rooms at the ready should the two stars need anything before the lights go down in the house.
Curry checks to see if there are any small repairs to be done on the costumes. O’Hara has a pair of crochet gloves that are fragile and will often need a little bit of hand-sewn mending.
7:45 PM (15 minutes to curtain)
Curry goes to O’Hara’s dressing room and loosens her corset so it’s easier to put on. After the hair team affixes O’Hara’s wig, Curry helps her into the corset, and the two of them head backstage to the quick-change booth to put on the rest of her first outfit, a stunning blue dress.
7:55 PM (Five minutes to curtain)
While listening to a playlist of music mixed by Miranda, Hohn helps him into his look for “Alexander Hamilton.” “Lin is truly a joy to work with, it’s like working with a friend. No matter what kind of day he is having he always radiates positive energy.” The two of them work together effortlessly to fasten every button like firing bullets.
Havard gets Brady fully prepped for the show alongside the hair, makeup and sound team. The Lola transformation process takes Brady about an hour. “Once the wig is on, we put him into the opening tiny red dress. He likes to wait until the very last minute to put on his gold pumps. All the while people come by and visit. He’s so social. I’m Mr. Serious when it comes to the dressing room; I’m not used to all of the socializing. But again, he’s so multi-task-man. Literally, I’ll hold the phone to his ear while he’s stepping into his undies; what goes on in that brain is really remarkable.”
8 PM (Curtain Up: Act One)
Once Miranda steps onstage, Hohn anticipates a coat change stage left with Anthony Ramos (John Laurens) and puts a ball gown on ensemble member Emmy Raver-Lampman. Hohn rushes to stage right to catch Miranda coming offstage for water, tea and time to towel off.
While O’Hara performs the first scene and “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” Curry preps the next costume change. (Fun fact: Curry wears an apron filled with a water bottle, mints and more for O’Hara’s needs during her changes.)
Havard sends Brady off to make his entrance for “Land of Lola.” “Lola doesn’t show up [onstage] until ten to 15 minutes into the show, so once he’s in his little red dress, I get him into his little gold coat and pocketbook, give him a little water, and tell him, ‘Nice and easy,’ and off he goes to make his entrance.”
Hohn puts the elaborate (and heavy) King George cape on Groff before he struts onstage for “You’ll Be Back.” “He always compliments me on my jewelry and says, ‘Oh Jen, you look fabulous!’ So I’ve been getting bigger earrings [with] more dangle. It’s our only moment!”
It’s not all suits and seriousness at Hamilton—you have to spice things up performance after performance. “Jonathan has a moment where he runs past us with the cape, and he’s holding the cape like this [superhero style], and we have to step out of the way so he can pass us. We’ll salute or do a silly dance.”
Even though Hohn officially dresses Miranda and Groff, she helps out where she’s needed. In this moment, she assists dresser Emily Roney with a change for the “The Schuyler Sisters.”
Between “Land of Lola” and “Sex Is in the Heel,” Havard leads the first “pit stop” quick change. As its moniker suggests, it’s all hands on deck. “He has a wig person, a makeup person and me. The three of us travel in a pack like a pit stop [crew] at a car race. So they’re concerned about the hair, they’re concerned about the makeup, and I’m concerned about the clothes. We all have to bob and weave around each other. It’s really something, and he’s so compliant. I’m like, ‘Stand there! Leg up! Leg down!’ and we just strip him down and put him back in whatever the next thing is, and he’s really great at doing whatever we tell him to do.”
After “Sex Is in the Heel,” Havard and the backstage crew take Brady out of drag for “Not My Father’s Son.” “It’s not quick, but it’s involved because he goes from a drag queen to his male persona.” That means a bald head, a microphone change, a complete makeup change and a wardrobe change. Another pit stop job.
Over at Hamilton, between “Wait for It” and “Ten Duel Commandments,” Hohn experiences the biggest flurry of action. “A lot of coats come off and many the actors exit on one side and things are being tossed in different directions,” so she has to organize and hang those pieces over fans until they’ll be next used. After that she assists Jasmine Cephas-Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds) out of a dress and into a bodice.
Curry escorts O’Hara to her entrance for the bedroom scene where she sings “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” Then Curry begins the detailed process of prepping O’Hara’s iconic lavender ball gown costume, which she wears starting at the second scene in Act Two. It’s an eight minute setup. “When I first started it took 20 minutes to set up, now I’ve probably got it down to like eight to ten minutes. It’s like a cake, [one hoop skirt is] the bottom part of cake, then there’s the white petticoat and the pink petticoat and then the lavender, and it’s all tied together. So you have to go in and do all the ties from one layer to the next and then put the next layer on and tie those two layers and then put the next layer on and tie those together, so it takes some time.”
“Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” ends and all the actors change. Miranda enters the wings and discards his gun to props. Hohn grabs his sword sheath and coat, pulls off his boots. He puts on his next pair of shoes while hair and sound make adjustments. Hohn puts him into a green vest for “Dear Theodosia.”
Intermission at Kinky Boots. Havard undresses Brady and gives him a few minutes to himself. “I leave him in the room with the makeup team because at the end of the act he’s in his male persona, and then he only has intermission to get his Lola face back on. [Then] I go up and we put him in his fabulous red boots for the first time and his little riding crop and cardigan sweater. [He gets his] civilized ‘What a Woman Wants’ costume on.”
At Hamilton, intermission is all about readying Miranda for Act Two. “Sound comes up, and he changes everything—even his undershirt—so sound has to take his mic belt off of him and put it back on him, then check it to make sure it’s in right. Hair arrives to fix his hair. That’s when I check in to see if he has guests—or if it’s a two-show day and he wants dinner in between. After he’s dressed and onstage, I have a good 20 minutes of downtime before I do anything.”
Intermission at The King and I. Curry and O’Hara go to the dressing room for the first time since showtime. “She’s onstage most of the time, and all of [the costumes] are weighted. The ball gown weights 35-40 pounds on her, so she’s hauling that around, and she needs a minute.”
The first of two quick changes for Havard in Act Two. “[Wayne] will be coming off, and we have to get rid of his boots, his sweater, his riding crop, his little jumpsuit, and he’s going into gold boxing shorts and a robe, but it’s pretty quick—it’s less than a minute. It’s the strip down that has to be quick. What we’re putting him in is just a pull-up and a robe. Then once they do the ‘In This Corner’ boxing number, we have an equally quick change. All the while, we’re just laughing and singing. There are some things I’ve added to the never-thought-I’d-see-this-happen list. Making sure the boobies are straight and not crooked. Just the craziest stuff. You’d never thought you’d be asking Wayne Brady to straighten his boobs out.”
O’Hara dons her iconic ball gown. “She pretty much stays in the ball gown all the time [in Act Two]. I go with her to and from every entrance and exit. So I drop her off and pick her up throughout the show…A costume like that has a wingspan of ten feet, so you really want to take care of it and protect it and that’s my job.” Mishaps rarely happen, though one time the show had to hold due to a zipper malfunction. Curry saved the day by hand-sewing O’Hara into the dress before sending her back out onstage.
Havard grabs Brady after what he calls the “confrontation” scene with Charlie and runs into the quick-change booth to transition into a stunning yellow dress for “Hold Me in Your Heart.” When the song is finished, Brady quick changes again into the show-stopping beaded red dress and boots. “I love zipping those boots up, I don’t know why. They’re so pretty and intricate.”
Time for the grand ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” at The King and I. Curry assists with other actors for 20 minutes since Kelli sits onstage as an “audience member.”
During “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” Hohn and her fellow dressers act out a small improv skit backstage to make Leslie Odom, Jr. laugh as he exits the stage. Whether doing a silly dance or striking a runway pose “it’s literally 30 seconds, he runs off and we’ll have a prop book that says ‘Sightseeing in Jersey’ or ‘Things to Look at in Weehawken,’ or Jeannie made a phony Declaration of Independence and fake spilled ink all over it—just as a gag to get him to laugh.”
Curtain call at Kinky Boots. After Brady’s bow, Havard removes those red boots quickly! “It must be some kind of torture. So the boots come off, the now sweaty beaded gown comes off. We take special care of that; it gets wrapped up and taken to the wardrobe room to be dried off with fans. With something like that, a $10,000 hand-beaded dress, you can’t wash it. We wipe it down, spray it with vodka (an odor absorber), and then we lay it out on some fans so it’s dry the next day.”
The King and I hasn’t ended yet. Curry quick-changes O’Hara out of her ball gown and into for her final look of the show. “She is the perfect teammate,” says Curry nearing the end. “This is our third show together and communication is almost telepathic.”
As Miranda prepares to make his final entrance at Hamilton, Hohn slips him into a black coat for his final scene.
Havard will sometimes grab guests and bring them backstage, but Brady also has an assistant, so they split the responsibility. “One of my jobs is to take his laundry down, put his dress away and go get his guests. He’s nice and easy. Anybody who is sweet and charming has sweet and charming friends, so that adds to the pleasure of it all. They’re usually all so wowed seeing their friend knock it out of the park! He visits his pals [and] he does the stage door; he’s a trooper. And I’ll go downstairs and help with whatever they might need [for wardrobe].”
Lights out at Hamilton, and Hohn waits in the dressing room for Miranda and Groff to undress so she can collect their laundry. “They’re paging ‘Lin’s got guests at the stage door.’ That’s when I start running back and forth. That’s the busiest time for me, at the end. [Along with] Lin’s guests, we have ‘fancies’—the big names in the audience.” You know, Oprah, Beyoncé, Lenny Kravitz, Katy Perry, Alicia Keys.
Final applause at The King and I. Curry and O’Hara head to the quick-change booth. O’Hara removes her costume and slips into a robe so she can head back to her dressing room. Curry clears up the space and brings the laundry down to the laundry room and then escorts O’Hara’s guests through the backstage maze at the Beaumont.
Havard exits the theatre.
Hohn heads home after all the “fancies.”
Curry exits the theatre.
Lights down. “Curtain clothes-ed.”