“You don’t become a costume designer to become famous,” says Gregg Barnes. And yet, while Barnes may not be a household name, chances are, if you’ve seen any Broadway show (or touring production) over the past few decades, you’ve experienced his work.
And what work it is. The 62-year-old is responsible for the costumes in some of Broadway’s most popular hits — Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde, Elf, Something Rotten, the revival of Flower Drum Song and, in London, Dreamgirls. He’s been nominated for a handful of Tonys, winning for The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006 and again in 2012 for the Eric Schaeffer-helmed revival of Follies. And in 2016, he won England’s prestigious Olivier Award for Kinky Boots.
Barnes has designed costumes for The Radio City Christmas Spectacular and a multitude of ice shows. He has a thing for spectacle and larger-than-life flourish, and yet his work is replete with fine detail, nuance, and precision. His costumes are as much about the person wearing them as they are about the show he’s designing for.
“It’s rare to have someone care as much as he does,” says Signature’s Eric Schaeffer, who has employed Barnes several times, including for the 2006 revival of Mame at The Kennedy Center starring Christine Baranski, and Allegro at Signature, for which Barnes received a Helen Hayes award.
“What I love about working with him is that he is so dedicated to what he does and is so into the sense of detail,” says Schaeffer. “It’s not just the overall look of a piece. It’s every minute detail that he takes care in.
“And he’s the nicest man to work with,” the director continues. “I mean, I’ve never heard him raise his voice or anything. He’s just pure joy to be around. And his renderings are all like pieces of art that should be framed in a gallery. I have one hanging in my house that I look at every day.”
Barnes’ work is on “living display” in D.C. in Disney’s Aladdin, currently bedazzling the Kennedy Center Opera House through September 7. Based on the 1992 animated film, the musical is an exuberant creation, filled with eye-popping, spare-no-expense design, a handsome, massive cast, and genuine magic (you figure out how that carpet soars around the stage without the aid of visible wires).
“Disney really approaches their Broadway musicals with passion,” says Barnes. “When Broadway’s Aladdin came out in 2011, we were not nominated for any design awards. Not just the Tonys, I mean across the boards. Tom Schumacher [president of the Disney Theatrical Group] said, ‘You know, it’s just part of our destiny. We are here to do beautiful work.’ Disney celebrates artists, they celebrate storytelling. And, of course, it’s a certain kind of story that they’re known for telling. I can’t say enough about how much the experience working on Aladdin has meant to me.”
Indeed, Aladdin is something of a pinnacle achievement for Barnes, utilizing every bit of his design acumen, as you’ll see in the selection of original sketches that adorn the following pages. Barnes, who in conversation is breezy and infectiously joyous, will be the first to admit that naturalism is not his thing. He has an affinity for sparkle.
“It comes to me quite naturally,” he says. “Because of my literature background in college, I kept hoping that maybe the Guthrie would call and I would get to do Hamlet. But that never happened. It’s been all sparkle tights and showgirls. I haven’t ever done a proper ballet. A very little, small amount of work in the opera world, a very small festival in New Jersey. So my career has really been all-singing, all-dancing.”
Aladdin Costume Illustrations by Gregg Barnes
METRO WEEKLY: Before we get into the craft of costumes, let’s start with how you came to be in this career.
GREGG BARNES: I grew up in San Diego. My dad was an elementary school principal, and my mom was a mom — you know, a homemaker. They weren’t great patrons of the arts, for sure. We were a “little league family,” and I had a brother who filled that place. I loved reading, and I loved fantasy, and I loved stories. Stories have always been my passion, from the time I was a little kid. So I think my parents had a bit of a learning curve with how to nurture a child who didn’t fill the expected path in terms of their experience and history. And they were amazing at trying to get inside my little head. But I was a loner, for sure. Very much in my room. I loved to make things. It’s in my DNA to create stuff with my hands, so I was always up there making puppets.
I was shy, introspective, and fearful. I didn’t join the drama club right out of the gate. I didn’t want to be onstage. So I knew that there was that kind of push/pull. When I got to college, I was a lit major. I was not in the costume part of it at all. I had never drawn, or sewn, or done any of the arts related to being a designer. I thought I would teach. I didn’t really know anything else. I had a big, extended family, and they were all teachers. So I thought, well, I’ll teach. Maybe teach English and be the drama guy in a high school.
So I started to take these classes, because I figured the drama guy needs to know how to light a show, and figure out a set, and how to costume a show. And when I got into the costume part of it, it was just like — I can’t explain it — it was like a sponge. Every single thing that happened, every single thing that was said in that room, I just owned. Instantly. I didn’t really, at the moment, know that I was finding my passion. And it was not even a design class. It was a costume history class.
We’d been studying the 18th century, talking about Sheridan, and then we would go do research and make a costume plate. The teacher said to me, “We have a professional designer coming here to mentor and speak with our Masters’ students, and I think you should go talk to this guy.” This was about a week before I graduated with my BFA in Dramatic Lit. And I went and talked to him.
His name was Robert Morgan [The Full Monty and How the Grinch Stole Christmas on Broadway], and I owe him my entire career, and really life, in a way. He said, “You need to go to New York. This is extraordinary work. You have a gift.” Honestly, it wasn’t on my radar. But my friend Kathy Najimy — she also went to San Diego State — was waiting for me outside the door, in the hallway, during this interview. The door was open and she could hear what Bob was saying to me. And when I came out, she was kind of weepy. I said, “What’s the matter?” And she said, “That was incredible. That guy just painted a picture of a life for you that you can’t even comprehend, one that so many of us aspire to and want. We crave this other, professional life. And he thinks you could have one.” So, if it wasn’t for him and for her, I never would have packed up, moved to New York and went to NYU.
When I got to school, I thought, “Oh, my gosh. I’m a phony here. These students, this has probably been their passion for their whole life. And they’ve gone to art school.” But I got there and I thought, “No. I fit in. This is a home for me.” So that’s how I got into it.
MW: Your talent was instinctual.
BARNES: Well, I worked really hard at it, I have to say. But I did notice in the class that it came to me much easier than it did to most people. I always wonder, do we have the potential to be an incredible polo player, but never got on a horse? What if there’s something in us and somebody touched the right button to push us to our potential. I feel that way about this experience.
MW: It’s a challenge to break into theater and attain the level you’ve reached. What do you ascribe that to?
BARNES: I think luck plays a huge part in it. You have to be ready when your luck comes. You have to be fearless, and prepared. But so many people that I have known over the years, that were truly, just exquisitely talented, end up leaving because it is so difficult. I think one of my gifts was my work ethic. Also, I didn’t have any other passions. I didn’t want to be anywhere, doing anything else. I didn’t care about relationships. I didn’t care about travel. I didn’t care about partying, or all the things when you’re young. I wasn’t out raising hell. I was honing my drawing skills.
MW: When did you come out?
BARNES: I didn’t explode out of a closet. Actually, I’ve only had two partners in my life, one female and one male. Sort of a late bloomer. I probably didn’t kiss anybody until I was 21, which is sort of shocking. I’m kind of proud of it. I’m sure I was home drawing. I should have been out kissing.
But I always knew. I didn’t have any question mark about it. And when I finally came to terms with it publicly, I didn’t make a lot of thrashings around. I knew who I was when I was 12.
MW: You said one of your partners was a woman, and one was a man. Do you consider yourself bisexual?
BARNES: Not now. I hope she doesn’t mind my saying, because my first partner was Kathy Najimy. Such a funny thing. She is so extraordinary. I’ve never loved anybody in the same way. We just clicked on every level except for the sexual part of it. That was fine, too, but I was always worrying about “What if?” I kept thinking, “Well, what if I actually take this to its ultimate, stereotypical goal, and we get married and we have kids, and then I am the one who goes outside the relationship because I have this other thing that is so important to my identity.” But she was my first partner, and I have to say I’ve never loved anybody like I loved her. And still do. She’s an extraordinary, inspiring person.
MW: She is a force of nature, and so warm and giving. She told a story in a recent interview we did about how she coerced her way backstage at a Bette Midler concert posing as a singing telegram in a bunny costume.
BARNES: Here’s a fun fact: That rabbit suit that she wore to give Bette her singing telegram? It was a costume I had designed for Alice in Wonderland at the local community college. And she nipped it up at the end of the show.
MW: You’ve worked a lot of ice shows and glitzier productions. Do you think there’s a gay sensibility to these types of show costumes?
BARNES: I wonder. There are times when either a woman or a straight man will have designed something, and you’ll hear somebody say, “Well, they needed a gay man to do this. That wasn’t the right person.” I think it irks a lot of people that I laugh at that.
I think when you’re a little kid and you’re gay — maybe in my generation — you are fascinated by things that are fantastic. And things that are pretty. Things that you’re not supposed to be drawn to. You are supposed to be thinking about baseballs, and mitts, and footballs. And then you watch The Wizard of Oz and there’s Glinda the Good Witch, and you think, “That just speaks to me. It’s so beautiful. It glitters, it shimmers, and she’s strangely maternal. And yet she’s all dressed up like a fairy.” I think those things get imprinted.
MW: Let’s move to Aladdin. I saw it for the first time the other night, and wow, those costumes are — really, there are no words for what happens on stage costume-wise in this show. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. From a costume designer perspective, how do you pay tribute to both what they did in the original animated movie, but also make it work for a stage production?
BARNES: When we began the process of working on the show, Tom Schumacher, the head of Disney Theatrical, made it clear, very generously, that he wanted us to open the box up, to not put the animated film strictly on stage. We had a lot of discussions, in this case, with Casey Nicholaw, who directed and choreographed it, about exactly where we would honor the animation and where we could have license to run. Of course, it’s helpful that it’s a beautiful film. It’s so beautifully thought through and beautifully designed.
One thing that Casey said early in the process was, “Why don’t we honor the spirit of animation in general,” meaning that often in animation, the backgrounds are always very complicated, because they only have to paint them one time, and then the characters tend to be simpler and more color-blocked in their essence. So when you see the marketplace, for instance, there’s a yellow guy, and a turquoise guy, and a green guy, and a squash-colored female, and a raspberry female. In essence, they sit against the backdrop in the way that animation does. And within those colors I plowed in as much texture and interest as I could.
Then I thought, “If I was a 7-year-old, 10-year-old, 100-year-old who loved this film, and I came to see the show, when Aladdin appears and when Jasmine appears, I would want to have that thrill of recognition, like ‘There’s my Disney hero. There’s my Disney princess.'” Those costumes are true in spirit to the animation. And yet I hopefully elevated them in a way that made them carry a lot of extra storytelling and kind of an old-world Hollywood glamor.
MW: You pack a lot of different styles into the show — everything from Bollywood to glittery chorus-line style outfits to feathery showgirls to Zoot Suits. It feels as though it encompasses almost every possible genre.
BARNES: It’s true. Aladdin‘s costumes are like a complicated stew. When we started doing the research part of this, I made folders. We had Orientalism — which is kind of a Victorian’s view of the world, this exotic world of the Middle East. And then we had Hollywood Kitsch. And we had the Cotton Club. And we had belly dancing. We had every single thing you could imagine. It was a little bit schizophrenic.
Somebody said, “Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if at the opening of the second act, the Genie was sort like from the Cotton Club?” I had this piece of research on Zoot Suits. We looked at it. We thought, “Ironically, the pants look like the Genie’s pants.” We can introduce him in a way that sort of honors this anachronistic spirit of the film, where Robin Williams brought his amazing imagination to the film. Hopefully, we’ve achieved that, but it took a lot of different paths to get to a single road.
MW: The color of that suit in particular is sublime. A lot of these costumes look like they’re very substantial, but they’re much lighter than what we would imagine, I’m guessing.
BARNES: Yeah. Whenever there is dance in what you’re working on, you want to have the clothes be able to catch the wind, and to be a partner in the dance in some way. Early in the workshopping process, we built a series of skirts in different shapes, with different volumes, and different patterning. Even maybe more unusually, we did a lot of men’s harem pants in different shapes. We found that if you spin, the pants catch the air. They fill with almost like a kind of buoyant life. We tried to always keep in mind that the clothes don’t exist in a museum or on a runway. They exist to tell a story, to help the actor, to be a companion to everybody’s collective vision. A lot of experimentation went in.
Truthfully, some of the heaviest parts of the costumes are those that are laying on the body, like a corset or a beaded bra or beaded belt, things that don’t depend on movement. If it’s a palace costume, for instance, you want it to have this sparkling kind of rich texture, but the skirts are always very, very light.
MW: There are 337 costumes in the show, based on 137 original designs by you. Is Aladdin the biggest challenge you’ve ever had to meet?
BARNES: In many ways, yes. It was about a four-year process, even though, of course, I had other irons in other fires that I was working on, but Aladdin was an epic undertaking. Every show depends on the collaboration and the elements hopefully being in harmony, but this one was particularly vast, just because of the numbers of things.
The props guy came to me and said, “We want to build some racks to put in the wings to hold the turbans as the guys are coming off in the Prince Ali parade number, so that they’re not being thrown into baskets. How many turbans are in the parade?” I said, “I think there are about eighty.” He said, “No, no, no, no, not in the whole show. I just mean in the Price Ali parade.” I said, “Yeah. I heard you. I think there are about eighty.” He was gobsmacked.
That one moment at the start of act two is about a three-minute number, and there are eighty costumes in it. As the actors go into the wings, they have about nine-to-fourteen seconds to change and get back onto the stage in a new color-palette costume. If you look at it carefully when it all starts, you can tell they look a little puffy at the top of the number, and then they get thinner as we get to the finish.
MW: You’re stripping away costumes as they go.
BARNES: Yeah. They layer up, maybe four different costumes. It’s funny, because I think in some subliminal way the audience thinks, “There are eighty people back there,” because we don’t really reveal the quick changes on stage. In, for instance, the recent Cinderella, you see her spin and the dress changes, and you know that you’re witnessing a tour de force moment of costume quick-changery, but with us, we do it all in the wings. It’s quite a feat, it takes a huge amount of coordination with the dance department, the dressers department, the financial department. All of those things have to get together to figure out how to do this in the most elegant way.
MW: There are some visible quick changes in the show. The transformation of Aladdin into Prince Ali — that was a neat little trick.
BARNES: I have to just say, “Disney Magic,” because I can’t reveal my methods. Also, Jafar changes two times right before your eyes. That was a nice little moment.
MW: The stats also note there are 8,644 Swarovskî crystals on each of the chorus men’s gold outfits in the “Friend Like Me” number. That’s astonishing. Isn’t that a ton of maintenance?
BARNES: It is a ton of maintenance. The show is very, very complicated and in part, it is hard to maintain it, because the nature of a bead is that it’s a piece of glass. You’re putting it on with a piece of thread, and the glass is rubbing against that piece of thread. But, for instance, on that statistic, which I think is for the trousers on the men in the Cave of Wonders, we do a combination of things. Those are crystals — rhinestones — from Swarovskî that are applied with a glue with heat, and they really don’t come off. In the center of that big starburst of stones, there is a custom-beaded side stripe. And that is the thing that takes the maintenance.
MW: I would imagine using name-brand crystals like Swarovskî is more expensive than your standard-issue rhinestone. What does that choice mean artistically?
BARNES: You always work within the box you’re given, conceptually and economically. All of those things come into play. If the choice was to use a lesser quality product, I might think of the garment in a different way. I maybe wouldn’t depend on the beautiful flash that a Swarovskî rhinestone brings to the table. I might do a different approach. But that was within the box that I was given to play with, and so you make choices. As with any business, really, there’s a give-and-take to where the story is asking you to pull out all the stops. And that number is the place where you want to pull out all the stops. Swarovskî will love me saying this, but you’re not going to get that flash and that beautiful shine from anything else.
MW: Let’s be clear, when we say crystals, we’re not talking about incredibly valuable crystals.
BARNES: [Laughs.] No, no, no, no. It’s not that precious a thing. I mean, the funny thing is the real cost with any costume is always in the labor. If you have a garment that cost — I’m going to just throw out a $5,000 figure, but it can be a $10,000 figure, it can be $20,000, sometimes costumes cost as much as a car — if you look at the materials that go into making the costume, that might be not even ten percent of that. Basically it’s the labor. Worldwide, every shop has health benefits, and rent, and garbage pick-up, and electrical bills. Maintaining these huge spaces, a single costume shop may have maybe the entire floor of a building with eighty people working in it, so all of that is spread out over the cost of making a garment.
In the case of rhinestones, I don’t know exactly what the cost would be per unit of costume. Sometimes, too, we get a deal. Like Swarovskî will sponsor. I think in London they sponsored Aladdin. When I did Dreamgirls there, the same thing happened. They gave us $100,000, basically like a gift card. I could buy that much of their product with this card, and in turn they get sponsorship. They do special events, and they film you working on things. They show how you’re using the product, hopefully in imaginative and different ways.
MW: Your drawings for Aladdin are gorgeous. I’m curious, are you ever surprised by the tangible results either in a good way or in a bad way?
BARNES: Both, truthfully. I mean, of course, the hope is that when the actual costume comes out for the first time you will be delighted, and it will be more than you imagined. But there are times when it comes out, and you want to put a leash on it and walk it around the block. You never really know. I think it’s why, when you look at any program, you’ll see that the director very often works with the same team, because they have a history. You become like a family. They’re hoping that you will deliver what you promised on that two-dimensional piece of paper. I take the sketching part very seriously, maybe in some ways too seriously, because nobody ever sees those. They’re really there to inform the director what you’re up to.
MW: I’m glad you adhered to the original cartoon and allowed Aladdin to be shirtless under the vest. One of the problems I had with the recent live-action movie was that they stuck him in like a Brooks Brothers shirt under the vest. I’m thinking, “This makes utterly no sense. He’s in the desert!”
BARNES: We never considered for a second putting him in a shirt. I read a little blurb about that exact question, the decision to put him in a shirt in the movie. Somebody — I don’t think it was even the designer — said that they thought it would be distracting for somebody to look at a naked torso for the arc of the film. I thought, “Wow. That never came up for us.” We did have discussions about belly buttons, like how much belly button, especially on the women, should we show? Again, Tom Schumacher, in his wisdom, was like, “You know, if we have an issue, and somebody is picketing the theater because we’re exploiting something, we’ll deal with it then. But why don’t we just make it beautiful?”
MW: With all the shows you’ve done, is there a “favorite child?”
BARNES: Oh, my God. It’s like Sophie’s Choice, isn’t it? It took fifteen years to get my first Broadway show after leaving NYU. And then it took another six to get my second one. Not to say that that’s everybody’s goal, but for me, that was always kind of one of the things that said, “You’ve arrived.” So that first Broadway show was the original Side Show in 1997, which was not a commercial success at all. It only ran three months. But I remember I started weeping the morning of the opening night of that show. I’ve never cried that much — it just was so overwhelming. I had worked so hard to get to that night. And my family was there and they understood what a momentous thing it was that had happened for me. So I’ll say Side Show, just because of the emotions, and the feeling like I finally feel like I maybe am starting. It was the first rung of the ladder.
MW: Now you’re pretty much the top of the ladder.
BARNES: I always feel like I’m hanging on to somebody’s shoe! But I bet everybody would say the same. I’m just thrilled to get to work at this level, when you’re getting to work with the most incredible artisans.
MW: You’ve been nominated for several Tonys and have won two for your work on Follies and The Drowsy Chaperone. What did it feel like to win?
BARNES: Well, you know the first time I went, which was when I was nominated for the revival of Flower Drum Song, and when the moment came, I prayed not to win. “Please God, don’t make me get up, and go up there on that stage, at Radio City, with 6,000 people.” And at the time, they televised the design awards, which they no longer do. I was just so terrified of it. I’m not good at receiving awards.
But I have to say, once you get through the horrible minute of saying everything you didn’t mean to say, it is a sort of a — I don’t know — it’s like a lot of things in life, there’s a ying and a yang to it. I don’t do it to get awards, but when you get one, you think, “Attention was paid!”
And sometimes, of course, you can sit and think, “Oh, I don’t think that deserved it.” Obviously, the flashier the project, the more likely it is to win. They’re not going to give a Tony to something that was modern dress work, even though that’s so difficult to do. But in the big picture, I certainly love my Tonys. I have two of them, and I’m so honored to have them. You know, costumes are not acknowledged much. Nobody knows your name. I think maybe Edith Head, people know that name. But you’re sort of an invisible part of the story, and yet, I think, a very important part of the show. And when anybody else wins a Tony for costume design, I always think, “Oh, this is a good deed in a naughty world.”
Disney’s Aladdin runs through September 7, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $39 to $179. Call 202-467-4600, or visit www.kennedy-center.org.