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What's New on the Rialto

Paloma Young
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

Interview by Beth Herstein

Paloma Young
One of Broadway's newest hits, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, is not a new show. It just opened on Broadway on November 14, 2016, but the musical, based on a section of Tolstoy's mammoth novel "War and Peace," started in a critically acclaimed production at Ars Nova back in 2012 before traveling to Kazino, a tent created for the show in New York City's meatpacking district, and to the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Though this latest production is lavish and features a huge star, the singer Josh Groban, in the lead role, it hasn't sacrificed its feeling of intimacy. The theater has been reconfigured so the orchestra section and stage feel more like a café, the cast interacts with audience members from time to time and the ensemble hands out food and party favors to lucky spectators at various points in the action.

Paloma Young is the show's marvelously inventive costume designer. The California native, who earned a Tony Award in 2012 for Peter and the Starcatcher, another show that moved to Broadway after a successful Off-Broadway run, studied history and memory at the University of California at Berkeley before obtaining her masters in costume and sound design at the University of California at San Diego. In addition to Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and Peter and the Starcatcher, Young has worked on numerous Off-Broadway and regional productions, including at Lincoln Center, Playwrights Horizons, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

I interviewed the engaging, energetic Young at her studio in the garment district, where she was in the middle of preparing costumes for the upcoming Broadway musical Bandstand, a show on which she's worked since its successful production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2015.

Beth Herstein:  You have a very collaborative spirit as well as a fluid sense of style and possibility. How would you describe your approach to your job?

Denée Benton (Natasha) and Amber Gray (Hélène)
Photo by Chad Batka
Paloma Young:  I'm definitely making aesthetic decisions along the way, but as far as beginning to get into the piece, I really try and understand the mood of the show. I do a lot of research that is not clothing-based. I look at paintings, listen to music, or read about the social history of the time. I also see what my collaborators are doing. What does the music sound like? Great Comet takes place in Russia in 1812, but musically, Dave Malloy, the composer and book writer, goes to much more interesting places. I wanted the design to really absorb what Dave is doing, as well as what Rachel [Chavkin], the director, and Sam [Pinkleton], the choreographer, are doing, energy wise and shape wise, and play off that. I certainly bring my own ideas to the table as a designer, but I'm always looking for that to morph and be informed by my collaborators and what they're coming up with.

BH:  Great Comet and Peter and the Starcatcher started out in small spaces and with small budgets. Then you had to expand these shows to fill up Broadway stages. What kind of challenges did you face as designer?

PY:  When you have a show that's small, and then goes into a larger space, you're looking for ways in which you get the same story impact from a great distance. With Great Comet, and even with Peter and the Starcatcher to a lesser degree, you still have a fair amount of your audience that is very close to the costumes, so your range just has to expand.

When Great Comet was in a tent, I had to focus on how [the actors] could live in a space very close up to the audience. It was all very cinematic and detail oriented. Texture was very important. When we moved to Broadway—there were multiple stops to Broadway—I wasn't allowed to lose that texture and I didn't want to lose it. Our cast is still right next to the audience and it's constantly moving. So, I needed to maintain that detail and to make sure that our ensemble was a little brighter and bolder but still had the ability to sink into the set.

[The ensemble is] this bridge between our audience, who are in modern clothes, and our principals, who are living through the story. Their costumes are collaged out of pieces that you could buy at a thrift store or at H&M.

Anatole Costume
Sketch by Paloma Young
BH:  And for the principle performers?

PY:  For our leads, I sort of lucked out in that the original designs were really oriented to pop off Mimi's [Mimi Lien, scenic designer] dark red set. So they wanted to be this column of simple blocks of color that you could see from far away, but close up there are beadings and beautiful silks and that sort of thing. Their shapes and colors are simple so that everyone can really watch where they are in the space.

For Broadway, we have a partnership with Swarovski crystals. The audience is all around you, next to you, or in your peripheral vision. Bradley [King], the lighting designer, can move the lights across the space and have them land where you're supposed to be looking, but in this new location it's helpful to have a little more sparkly on the costumes. That helps our peripheral vision as an audience member, because it helps you know where to turn your head next. The audience may think of these as luxurious details, but it's also solving a physics problem that is unique to this show.

BH:  Now, a lot of the cast has been with the show for a while. How much have the costumes evolved for the longtime performers?

PY:  One example is Lucas Steele, who has been our Anatole since Ars Nova. He's always been fantastic, but he's really grown in his role. For me when I watch him—he is an insecure, selfish, secretly evil Disney prince. He had originally worn this silvery gunmetal jacket that felt militaristic, but also sexy and fashion-y and rock 'n' roll. I want to keep the sexy fashion-y thing but also support the two-faced nature of the character the way Lucas is playing it. So, when he meets Natasha at the opera, he's in this white silk wool straight up rock 'n' roll Prince Charming. That was very much getting to watch the performers grow.

Hélène Costume
Sketch by Paloma Young
We also wanted to connect Anatole and his sister Hélène more. Amber Gray who plays Hélène is mixed race, and Lucas is a very platinum blond white guy with bright blue eyes. They're playing a brother and sister. One of the things that helps solidify my story but also is useful for the audience is in the details of the costumes. Anatole used to have a burgundy grape coat that he wore in the second act, but Hélène is all in green and black. We took that green and made it almost part of the family seal, so it's an accent color for Anatole.

BH:  How is it working with Josh Groban (Pierre) and Denée Benton (Natasha), both of whom are new to the show? What adjustments have you made?

PY:  It's been great folding them into the preexisting design. There were just certain things about the fit we changed. I got a different shape of glasses for Josh Groban. He wears glasses in his everyday life. The glasses are still period, but they're larger and more open than [those worn by] our previous Pierres. There's a sort of bridge between what Josh's face is and his sweet, dorky intellectualness. For the most part, with the addition of a little padding, he really walked into the role in a surprising way. We [worked] with his hair and makeup to make him look as sickly as possible.

I was really inspired by [Denée's] bubbly youthfulness. The character of Natasha has always been very young, but when Philippa Soo originated this role, there was also a sophisticated beauty within her demeanor.

Watching her sing, even when I met her initially, I knew we'd be rethinking the dress she puts on for the ball at the end of act one. On paper it doesn't seem like that much different. Phillipa wore a white chiffon with a French-gold lace trim and little bits of green to represent Hélène's influence on her. But when I was choosing fabric for Denée, I found this amazing fabric that had these bright silver polka dots on it. I would never have thought of silver in the context of this show before, because there's so much gold. I was inspired by her. I also decided there needs to be more movement to the dress, so there are dangly, globe-shaped beads on the dress. She gets this fancy dress and puts it on and gets swept away—but it wants to feel light, like she drank too much champagne.

Natasha Costume
Sketch by Paloma Young
BH:  I read that you adapt the costumes when new actors come into the roles.

PY:  The principal characters have smaller tweaks, because their color story and shape relates to that of the other characters. But one exciting thing working on [the costumes for] this show is the diversity in our casting. We have a very pale redhead who is a Natasha cover, and Denée has a very dark skin. The way that a color plays in space next to those skin tones is very different. So [I make] macro choices that you're not necessarily going to see as an audience member. I'm not going to change the dress altogether.

The [ensemble's] costume track is really inspired by the particular strangeness of each dancer slash musician who comes into the show ... One of the newer swings in the cast walked into the room, and he has a Freddie Mercury meets Portland, Oregon, vibe to him. So, for the duel I gave him one of those crazy low-cut unitards. If you try to put something on a performer that doesn't relate to them at all, the audience is going to feel that. They will look like people who are in costumes and it creates a distance between them and the audience.

The story is a love story, and it's about burgeoning sexuality, and this show wants to highlight the sexuality of the performers. The men are in sexy, tight pants, and even the women who are in period clothes, we want to show a little more of their arms, and see their backs, and just open up their bodies a little more. It's a fleshy show, without being trashy.

BH:  So, to shift gears—you won a Tony!

PY:  I did.

BH:  How did that change your career trajectory, if at all?

PY:  I think it sped up the connections I was able to make. The theater world is close enough that even if my work on Peter and the Starcatcher hadn't won the hardware, I've met people who loved the design so much, and loved the play so much, and understood the way design worked in that play. I feel that my career would have taken the same trajectory but it wouldn't have gotten that adrenaline shot.

BH:  What other changes did it bring about?

PY:  I had a day job, a part time job, that allowed me to take off big chunks of time if I had a big project, but if I was doing a tiny show I could do double duty. It was at a financial consulting firm, not even in the theater world. I had taken time off to do Peter and the Starcatcher when it went to Broadway, and then I went back to work. If I didn't go back to work, I was going to lose my healthcare. So, I got nominated for a Tony Award when I was still at that office. I came into work the next day, and they had gotten me a banana pudding. They were like, "Congratulations! You are disqualified from the office Halloween contest." It was very, very nice, but they had no idea of the significance. Then, I started getting design jobs very quickly, and I told them I couldn't work there anymore. I was pretty good at that job, and so they told me, "We think we could make it work, you could balance it."

BH:  You majored in history and memory in undergrad. What was your focus?

PY:  I studied the way in which we write history and the firsthand accounts, and how memory and perception can vary. Perception can change into fact, and relates to the way we view history over time.

BH:  That sounds relevant to the work you do today.

Josh Groban (Pierre)
Photo by Chad Batka
PY:  It does relate very much to my design work. If you think about the way ... if someone in 1812 was looking at one dress, that person might think it was really sexy; but we look at that dress and are like, "That is such a dowdy immature marshmallow." We want our audience to register the costumes the way the other people in the room with that person would register them. It's understanding history in the context of the contemporary eye and the contemporary sensibility, and tweaking period [dress] in order to not let old-fashioned norms get in the way of the character.

BH:  Once, talking about one of the costumes, you said that even though it didn't entirely reflect the period, people would accept it as a period piece.

PY:  I don't know which costume I was talking about. There are a lot of those! [Natasha's godmother] Marya D's [clothes] have a much more Victorian feeling, but they have a strict godmother type feel to them that contemporary audiences would accept. I thought about the stepmother character in Cinderella and the way that she has a very tall but stiff and shoulder heavy presence to her. So, I took those shapes, used a lot of Regency details, but also incorporated a little bit of Yves St. Laurent.

BH:  When you won your Tony, you mentioned your dad. You've said he raised you as a single father, and your upbringing was unconventional in many ways.

PY:  Yeah. My father was a bit of a bohemian—sort of a square bohemian. My father is a photographer, and he taught photography at a community college in southern California for most of my childhood. He loved fixing up houses, so we would move from one house to another. Then he would get this idea in his head that we were going to sell all of our possessions and sail around the world. We moved into a tiny apartment while we were getting ready to live in a ship for three years. My mother found out about it and said, "Absolutely not." But, I did learn how to sail. We made photo trips where my dad would teach workshops—out in the valley, or in the dunes, up in Yosemite. I got to go to these beautiful places and meet these amazing artists.

Pierre Costume
Sketch by Paloma Young
One of the things that was a constant when we went to these places was that my dad read books to me. Also, he would make up stories about our day. It would be a story about a princess, and her single father the king. It was a very barely masked version of my father and me. He'd incorporate places where we'd been during the day. For example, we were in the Caribbean on a ship one summer, when my dad was teaching a workshop. If we went to the baths one day, that would get incorporated into the bedtime story—like, that was where the treasure was hidden. Just that sense of play and freedom—that the story is not just what is in the book that you love, but that you also can make your own story.

BH:  Another way that's influenced you is that you also create backstories for your characters.

PY:  I do, and I share them with the actors. If the actors want to add something they can, or if they find an element off-putting I will pull it away. Again, it will just feel like a costume and not part of the character if there's not a reason to be on the body.

There are exceptions to all these rules. I just did a version of Frozen on a cruise ship. There were these sunflower backup dancers, kind of an awkward Busby Berkley sort of dance. There's no backstory for the sunflowers, and the reasons for my choices had more to do with the music and other aspects of the show.

BH:  You're very selective about your projects.

PY:  I feel very lucky that I get to have some sense of choice in the projects I do. It's not that I look for the same type of show. Instead, it's like, "Well, I've been doing a lot of this, why don't I take a break and do some of that," and vice versa. Also, unconventional shows, collage shows like Great Comet and Peter and the Starcatcher just sort of find their way to me.

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