It's been a triumphant year for costume designer Gregg Barnes, who won the 2023 Tony Award for Best Costume Design of a Musical for his work on the Tony-nominated Some Like It Hot, which continues at Broadway's Shubert Theatre through December 30. Barnes, it should be noted, previously earned Tonys in 2012 and 2006 for his costume designs of, respectively, the revival of Follies and The Drowsy Chaperone.
Barnes—also Tony-nominated for his work on the musicals Mean Girls, Tuck Everlasting, Something Rotten!, Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde, and Flower Drum Song—is currently represented in Chicago by his designs for the world premiere of BOOP! The Betty Boop Musical, his latest collaboration with Tony-winning director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell.
Jasmine Amy Rogers stars in the title role of that David Foster-Susan Birkenhead-Bob Martin musical, which is based on the characters created by Max Fleischer (read reviews here). Performances for the pre-Broadway run continue through December 24 at the CIBC Theatre.
In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Barnes reveals the show that inspired his career in the theatre, a favorite design that may have gone unnoticed, and how a costume designer tells stories through clothes.
Where did you train/study?
Gregg Barnes: I have my BFA in English Literature from San Diego State University and an MFA in design from New York University.
Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
My first design teacher was an amazing artist and mentor named Clark Mires who I met at Grossmont College. I was a literature major but was hanging around the costume shop because…wouldn’t you?…and he saw something in me and encouraged me to explore design.
What are the duties of a costume designer before the show opens? What are the responsibilities after it's running?
The costume designer is first and foremost a storyteller even though the job requires a lot of disparate skills. Script analysis, research, envisioning worlds for the characters in the story to inhabit and rendering those specifics, budgeting, assembling a team, interacting with the actors in the fitting process, staying flexible in the tech, and facilitating necessary changes that arise when the work of all of the other collaborators get the physical production on its feet. After the show opens, it calms down, but you are responsible for helping to maintain the design as established—and quite often to tweak things as casts change to suit the new company members and vacation swings. The head of wardrobe is your lifeline and long-term collaborator along with a team of assistants called upon as required.
What were some of the challenges of designing the costumes for BOOP?
It’s a wonderful project, and the challenges feel like playtime in a sense. You are responsible for helping create a three-dimensional portrait of one of the most beloved characters of the past 100 years. You don’t do it alone, of course…along with Jerry Mitchell’s vision and the stunning Jasmine Amy Rogers, who is cast as Betty, I tried to enhance the magic they were creating in the rehearsal room using what I know and the tools that I have to work with: shape, color (or lack of it!), and movement.
What made you decide to become a costume designer? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
I feel like my career found me, almost in spite of myself! I was planning on being a high school English teacher, but I was blessed by a series of mentors who saw something in me and inspired me to pursue a career in design. The production that inspired me to commit myself to designing was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Jack O’Brien and designed by Robert Morgan at The Old Globe theatre in San Diego. Breathtaking.
Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t.
I hate to say it, but I still think about this! I’m hard on myself and critical to a fault. Maybe that’s the thing that keeps pushing me forward though. There are so many designers that inspire me. So many that have the ability to conjure magical worlds or illuminate a story with their imagination and insight. It’s a business where you are tempted to compare yourself with the other folks who you work across the room from, and let’s face it, we all want to be Ann Roth. My plan is to embrace my strengths and to try and develop the things that I consider my weaknesses and to become the best version of myself.
What do you consider your big break?
Meeting Robert Longbottom, who brought me to Broadway with the original production of Side Show. I’m forever grateful to him.
How did you get your first job in the theatre? How did your current work with The Betty Boop Musical come about?
My first job was designing a production of The Madwoman of Chaillot at a community college. Life-changing. For Boop, Jerry Mitchell brought me on board. I’ve never counted how many productions we have collaborated on, but it’s a long list of career highlights.
Tell me about a job/opportunity you really wanted but didn’t get. How did you get over that disappointment?
There have been too many to count! It’s not easy when you feel rejected, but I’ve learned that if you aren’t the first choice, it’s best to wish the project well and to move forward and make peace…with yourself…to realize that not every job is for you. It’s not necessarily a comment on your talent, and that the struggle is real for everyone walking in your lane. I’m not saying I am always gracious in the face of disappointment, but I try my best to be a generous player in our community.
What did it mean to you to win the Tony for your designs for Some Like It Hot?
I’m a very anxious award winner. Grateful but awkward! I’m so grateful to Casey Nicholaw for bringing me on board. Some Like It Hot was pure pleasure from the first time I read the script to opening night. I love the cast and the other artists who made it happen with all of my heart.
What is the most memorable day job you ever had?
I’m going to say working behind the counter at an Arby’s in San Diego, California.
Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
I mentioned Ann Roth earlier, and she is at the top of my list….but so many others! In no particular order, Paul Tazewell, Robert Morgan, Bob Mackie, Irene Sharaff, Martin Pakledinaz, Robin Wagner, Desmond Heeley…this is a crazy mission because there isn’t enough space to mention them all! I’ll just say that anyone who takes on the challenges that come with being a designer in the theatre has my respect and admiration.
If someone were to ask you to choose one costume to put in a time
capsule that is representative of your work, which costume would you
pick and why?
Hmmm. Tough question! I’m sure my answer could change daily depending on my state of mind. I’m going to choose a costume that I designed for Beth Leavel for The Drowsy Chaperone. It flew under the radar a bit because it was a design created for Sutton Foster's “Show Off” number where Beth wasn’t the focus. The costume was a sheath dress and coat in cream silk hand-painted in the Egyptian revival style…the twist being that the characters were drinking High Balls and smoking cigarettes in long cigarette holders. It was painted by Jeff Fender, who recently passed away, and his wit and incomparable skill made it the stand out in Beth’s backstage tours.
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
Stay flexible, but know your worth. Be a generous collaborator.
What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
A career is not something that you can depend upon flourishing at your beck and call; it takes its own good time. Enjoy the ride because the journey is everything. Stay grateful and protect your inner child from disappointment.
What is your proudest achievement as a costume designer?
Doing the work!