“Who doesn’t like talking about what they do for love?” asked Tony Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long. “Of course, I’m paraphrasing Marvin Hamlisch.”
Indeed, Long’s resume is impressive. He’s racked up Tonys for “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” “Grey Gardens,” “The Producers,” “Hairspray,” “Crazy for You” and “Nine.” He also worked on the 1998 and 2014 revivals of “Cabaret,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” “9 to 5,” “Young Frankenstein,” La Cage aux Folles,” “The Boy from Oz,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” and “Contact.” His costumes for “Chicago” continue to thrill Broadway audiences as the show continues to break records.
He also made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera with the designs for “The Merry Widow,” starring Renee Fleming and Kelli O’Hara, and has designed for artists ranging from Mick Jagger, Joan Rivers and the Pointer Sisters to animal trainers Siegfried and Roy.
Long will discuss his distinguished career on March 1 at Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach as a part of that company’s “Dramalogue – Talking Theatre!” series.
“Oh, I’ll probably have a Powerpoint,” he said with his North Carolina drawl. “I still call it fondly a slide show because I’m of a certain age. You know a picture is worth a thousand words and when we’re talking about color and design it’s nice to have a picture.”
Long paused a second and then added another thought, “Then they’re not looking at me.”
He’ll talk about some of his favorite shows, like the Nathan Lane revival of “Guys and Dolls”: “I got to use every color in the crayon box on that one,” he said.
And “Hairspray”: “I just thought it was an amazing story from John Waters, who’s a great friend. The choreography, the movement, the direction were all perfect. The story, the story, the story. Harvey Fierstein was the most lovable mother in the planet,” he recalled.
And “1776”: “When I worked on those costumes, I would just go back and stand and look and think, ‘Hoorah, America.”
Actually, historical shows and revivals prove to be his biggest challenges.
“Been there, done that, seen that,” Long said matter-of-factly.
And even when he is asked to create an exact reproduction, like the revivals of “Cabaret” or “A Chorus Line,” he said, “Your eyeballs are in a different place and time. The challenge is to make a revival as exciting but no more than the original.”
Despite his awards and accolades, some shows did get away. He was not hired to costume the epic “Angels in America,” despite his best effort and four interviews. And he’s not sad that “Hamilton,” Lin Manuel Miranda’s rap biography of Alexander Hamilton wasn’t offered to him.
In addition to costuming the shows, Long is the godfather of sorts for the industry, serving his fourth and final year as the president of the American Theatre Wing. He proudly notes that Broadway shows generated $1.4 billion in ticket sales last year.
“We think that’s pretty neat that this art form is the biggest money market for the city of Manhattan,” he said, with a caveat. “The ticket prices are shocking to me. Unfortunately experimental, edgy productions will be off Broadway where it’s less expensive to produce.”
Long is far removed from his early years in North Carolina, but he credits his parent for instilling an early love of theater. They both came from Southern farm families but appreciated the arts. The local school systems offered theater courses and after they met in college, they “left the farm, so to speak, and joined the circus,” heading to Yale Drama School.
Long supports renewed effort to get the arts back into core school curriculums and even the effect of the media. He applauds shows like “Glee,” “Project Runway,” “America’s Got Talent,” and even “American Idol” for renewing interest in the arts, theater and performing.
He’s also thrilled with NBC’s commitment to bring live musical broadcasts back to network television: “All that live stuff is fantastic. You can’t poo poo 18.4 million people watching Carrie Underwood (in “The Sound of Music”).
In the meantime, Long stays very busy. Believe it or not, he said, “There are goals yet to be met.”