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Behind the Seams, Velcro Packs ’Em In

March 15, 1989

NEW YORK (AP) _ If one had to sum up the quick-change artistry of ″Jerome Robbins’ Broadway″ in one word, that word might be - Velcro.

The way Velcro opens and closes at a touch helps make it possible for two dressers to whiz actor Jason Alexander through a 10-second costume change. That’s all the time it takes for him to turn from an ancient Roman in ″A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum″ into a 1912 dandy for ″High Button Shoes.″

One of the secrets of how Alexander, who has the lead role of The Setter, can change so fast is that his high-button shoes don’t button. To save time, they’re rigged with zippers.

″I think the audience loves quick changes. It’s like magic to them,″ said Barbara Matera, owner of Barbara Matera Ltd., the shop that made the costumes.

Velcro, a fabric with a surface of clinging pile, is ″a very big word in our vocabulary,″ said the show’s supervising costume designer, Joseph Aulisi.

With nearly 400 costumes in the show and with a cast of 51 performers and 11 understudies doing production numbers from 11 musicals, there are lots of magical quick changes every night. In fact there are so many of them that sometimes the entire cast is backstage whipping clothes off and on, he said. Twenty dressers help.

Because the critically-acclaimed show is a pastiche of old Broadway musicals that Robbins has either directed or choreographed or both, there’s enough variety to send a costume maker reaching for a headache powder.

The musicals are as disparate as ″The King and I,″ set in Siam in the 1860s, and ″West Side Story,″ set in Manhattan in the ’50s.

Matera recently talked about some of the quick-change tricks besides Velcro and zippers she and Aulisi employ to help the singers and dancers assume identities from 11 different times and places.

One trick is to dress the cast members in layers that peel off to reveal the costume for the next number. But for dancers, it’s not too comfortable to perform under bright lights as well as layers of fabric.

Another ″behind-the-seams″ secret is to line clothes with a slippery fabric so they slide easily on and off.

And some belts aren’t what they appear to be on stage. They’re not threaded through belt loops, but sewn right onto the pants. ″If a costume consists of various parts you have to sort of bash them all together,″ Matera said.

Barbara Matera Ltd. has about 30 employees most of the time, but has given work to as many as 100 people at one time when there’s a lot to do.

While the company was costuming ″Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,″ it also did a full-length version of ″Swan Lake″ for the American Ballet Theater, and the road company versions of ″Anything Goes″ and ″Into the Wood.″

Costume work is seasonal and year-round jobs are few. ″The New York Theatrical Sourcebook″ lists 55 costume craftsmen and 20 costume shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn. However, only four or five of the shops are highly regarded mainstays, said Carrie Robbins, master teacher of costuming at New York University and a free-lance costume designer.

Most costume shop employees are drapers or a designer’s assistant, tailor or finisher, and do not make much money. If they land a full-time job, they make about $18,000-$26,000.

″They do it because they love theater and love making costumes,″ said Robbins.

It’s not a soft job, either.

″You go to sleep with bloody hands. It’s very tiring on your hands and your arms and your shoulders,″ said Maggie Raywood, the workroom supervisor at Parsons-Meares Ltd., another of the top costume shops.

Parsons-Meares employees should know. They’re the ones who made the costumes for the Broadway musical, ″Starlight Express,″ in which the train- car costumes starred as much as the cast did. Parsons-Meares found unusual fabrics and invented new constructions for the costumes, which looked like metal but moved like leotards.

The getup for one ″Starlight″ character even incorporated a strobe light which the actor could flash by bringing together his forefinger and thumb. The back of the glove was made of rubber to protect him from shock.

The designs were worked up from scratch.

However, in the case of ″Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,″ the designs already existed. Aulisi said he recreated the originals as faithfully as possible. Matera said in some cases they were aided by the discovery of the designers’ old renderings with swatches of fabric still stapled on.

However, Aulisi said, ″Jerry was quite concerned that the show be relevant to the ’80s.″ So some stretch fabrics were used to give an ‘80s fit and style that emphasized the dancers’ bodies.

One thing that didn’t change from the original show was the beaded silk organza butterfly that decorates the crotch of a stripper, Tessie, in a number from ″Gypsy.″

Matera went to some lengths to recreate it, even calling upon the actress who originated the role on Broadway, Maria Karnilova, for advice. Matera wanted to make sure it flapped the way it did in the 1959 production. Like Karnilova, the actress now appearing as Tessie, Faith Prince, makes the butterfly move with a grind of the hips.

″It’s weighted in a certain way,″ Matera said. ″It doesn’t exactly flutter. It sort of bumps.″

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