Our Buzz Extra writer, Alicia Hansen had the exciting opportunity to interview Jess Goldstein, the costume designer for our upcoming Broadway Series show Newsies. As part of our Broadway Buzz program, Alicia will take you behind the scenes of each KeyBank Broadway Series show and interview a member of the show’s cast, crew or creative team.
An Interview with Jess Goldstein from Newsies
by Alicia Hansen
Jess Goldstein formally started his journey as a costumer designer in college, but was influenced by the stage at an early age. As a child, he grew up seeing the Broadway musicals in their heyday of the 1960s, yet knew he didn’t want to be a performer. With a talent in the visual arts, he started as an art major as an undergraduate at Boston University. Once he discovered the theater department had a design major, Jess changed his major and never looked back. After completing the graduate program at the Yale School of Drama, he moved to New York City in 1978, and since has had a vibrant career designing professionally for more than 35 years. In this interview, Mr. Goldstein gives us a glimpse into bringing alive the next offering the 2014-2015 KeyBank Broadway Series, Disney’s Newsies.
When you were brought on to bring this movie musical to life on the stage, what were the first steps in your planning process?
Since I’m a bit older than most Newsies movie fans, I had never seen the movie before. It kind of went over my head because I was too old for it! Once I did watch it, I saw all the possibilities in doing it as a stage show. It was nice to see what the movie provided, then go ahead, run with it and do my own version.
Newsies’ scenic design is an abstracted industrial view of New York City at the turn of the century. With that design choice, Jeff Calhoon (the director) and I felt that the costumes had to be the one element that brought some reality of the period to the visuals. The costumes would be something that would anchor the show and represent the period of the city.
From there, I was able to do a lot of research. It’s a period I’ve worked in a lot over the years because there are so many classic plays that were written at the turn of the century. As the story is actually based on a real event – the News Boys Strike of 1899 – there were many photos of boys working in factories and hawking the newspapers out on the streets of New York City. Then there are characters like Teddy Roosevelt and Joseph Pulitzer who were real people, so I studied specific images of them. It’s a quite fascinating, rich period to research.
With all of that, I wanted to heighten the look for the stage. I started with the original material and worked in terms of controlling the color palette and the fit of the clothes. It’s all a little bit prettier than what the real period actually was.
In knowing this show won the Tony Award for Best Choreography, the performers have to be ready to move comfortably while in period costumes. What did you have to keep in mind when designing these costumes?
Not only do the actors have to move in it, they have to be able to do all this extraordinary choreography that is extremely athletic. The clothes have to have a certain kind of fit that allows them to do these leaps, high kicks, splits and things that the real historic clothes were not designed to do at all. In the fittings, we make them do their kicks in the fitting room to make sure they are not inhibited by the clothing in order to do the choreography. It’s really just a matter of choosing the kinds of fabrics that have a little bit of give to them even though they don’t look like it. Many of them have a little bit of stretch in them – like 1% of Lycra in the wool – that allows them to move with ease.
From there, the actors are fit in the costumes within an inch of their lives. You discover that when designing musicals, the clothes need to be able to move and have to be close to the body — much like a leotard, but of course not look like a leotard. But that fit of that period – wearing those knickers and the trousers up on their waists — is not what kids do these days! I was a little concerned the boys playing the newsies were not going to “get” it. But when we started fitting the clothes, the actors all would get into the costumes – into the vests, in the knickers and the caps – and they all really loved the look of it. It made them all very happy to be dressed appropriately. I feel the boys respect the fact that they are being dressed appropriately and still are able to do what they need to do in the clothes.
Was there any one character you especially enjoyed crafting a costume for in this production?
One of the fun characters for me to design was certainly Medda Larkin, the African American performer who owns the Vaudeville house where Jack (our lead newsie) paints scenery and hangs out. Even though I couldn’t find very specific photos of that time of that kind of a vaudeville house, there’s a lot of material out there of the Ziegfeld Girls and vaudeville clowns from the period to be inspired from.
Medda’s costumes and the costumes for the Bowery Beauties are certainly some of the most colorful and certainty most theatrical of the show. So much of the show is in earth tones and industrial colors – browns and greys mostly. Medda and her girls are very much in their own color palette. Medda is in this vivid hot pink Victorian gown and the girls that back her up are in periwinkle showgirl costumes with accents of pink and lavender. Medda also wears a dressing gown in a teal, turquoise silk, and then later in the show, a beautiful Edwardian walking suit. She also has these extraordinary hats that are enormous!
As this show moves from being on Broadway to on tour, are there adjustments need to be considered to ensure the costumes survive being on the road?
Nothing changes in terms of the design itself – at least it shouldn’t. Audiences across America should be seeing the show and the costumes designed for Broadway. A whole new set of costumes for this tour were constructed for this new cast, but it is all very much about keeping the original designs consistent. So in the best situation, nothing changes.
The up-keep is immense because there is a lot of wear and tear on the costumes. Obviously everything is laundered and cleaned quite often. The parts of the costumes that are worn close to the body – the boys’ shirts, their Henleys, etc. – those are all bought in triplicate or more so they are able to change them quite often. In the up-keep, there’s a lot of work to do, but it’s all about keeping the look and keeping it the same – not only when we started the tour, but when we opened on Broadway.
Something people probably don’t realize is that when a show tours, the wardrobe supervisor who is in charge of keeping this look consistent is the only one who tours with the show. Each city has a brand new crew of dressers who have to learn the show overnight. They have to learn where the quick changes are in the show and what has to happen in each. There is a lot to learn overnight! And then the show moves on to a new city and the wardrobe supervisor teaches all those quick changes to a new crew in each city. That alone is a huge undertaking!
What makes this show stand out to you from the others you’ve worked on over the years?
There’s just nothing like a new Broadway musical. Even though we originally produced it at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey with no intention of moving it to Broadway, I always kind of knew that it would end up there.
From the very first rehearsal, there was just so much joy in the room from everybody involved. Thomas Schumacher (president of the Disney Theatrical Group) was such an inspiration, but also was Jeff Calhoun (director), Christopher Gattelli (choreographer) Harvey Fierstein and Alan Menken (who wrote the book and music), and of course the cast members. You don’t always have that on a show where there’s just a family atmosphere amongst the cast and the crew. That happened very quickly on Newsies.
You could tell from that first rehearsal that it was going to be something special. Broadway musicals are like that – there’s an energy you don’t quite see in a play – and I’ve done a lot of wonderful plays! But there’s an energy that needs to be summoned every single night to do those numbers that is unbeatable. The energy has to be there in order to work. Newsies never disappointed. This show never let up its energy and its warmth.
Disney’s Newsies comes to Cleveland November 4 – 16 as part of the KeyBank Broadway Series at PlayhouseSquare. For more information, please visit the show’s page on the PlayhouseSquare website.
Alicia Hansen is the writer behind Poise in Parma, a healthy balance blog for Clevelanders. A graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College’s theatre program, Alicia is an events and marketing professional, a yoga teacher and proud Cleveland arts supporter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.