The Costume Design of Something Rotten! on Broadway

By Joe Kucharski - May 13, 2015

Gregg Barnes is one of the most prolific costume designers on Broadway today. He currently has three smash hits running on Broadway, Kinky Boots, Aladdin, and the recently opened Something Rotten! Already nominated for multiple awards, including a Tony Award nomination for Best Costume Design in a Musical, Something Rotten is a spectacular feast for the eyes. Set as a comedic hybrid of Elizabethan period piece and musical spectacle, the show is the perfect piece to show off Barnes’ expert use of silhouette, and absolutely brilliant way of combining a myriad of fabrics, textures, and patterns within a single costume. I recently had the opportunity to find out more about Gregg’s vision for this production, and received a slew of construction photos from many of the skilled shops that helped produce it. Enjoy this rare look into a true master’s process!

Something Rotten! - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Tyranny of Style: Can you tell us about when you first got involved in this production, and about your initial vision for the show?  

Gregg Barnes: “I was on board to design the show from the first reading. Casey Nicholaw (my dear friend and often-time collaborator) invited me along for the ride. The show is produced by Kevin McCollum who I had the honor of working with on The Drowsy Chaperone. Casey and I had many discussions about the tone of the piece and how the costumes fit into that vision. We ultimately decided to play it pretty ‘straight.’ In the tradition of designing a farce you keep the people ‘real’ and let the ‘funny’ evolve out of the absurdity of the situations. My undergraduate degree was in dramatic literature so I have always wanted to design the ‘classics,’ Shakespeare most of all. Most of my career has been focused designing musicals and spectaculars (which I am exceedingly grateful for) so this job unites my two passions. In essence we began with a palette and shapes that would be at home in a Shakespearean comedy, and then let the story tell us where to veer off into a heightened musical world.

Something Rotten! - Costume renderings for Prolouge Men - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume renderings for Prolouge Women - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume rendering for Prolouge Woman - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume process for Prolouge Woman (mock-up, first fabric, final) - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

The cast of Characters in Something Rotten are named after Shakespeare’s characters (Shylock, Portia, Beatrice, the Bottom brothers troupe are named for the rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sir Toby Belch, etc.) so that was a key into how to begin the research process. I’ll use Shylock as an example. I Goggled images of ‘Shylock’ and up come hundreds of versions of how the character has been costumed. I took Al Pacino, F. Murray Abraham, Henry Irving (and many others) and mix-mastered those details into our Rotten Shylock. Knowing that the brilliant Gerry Vichi was playing the role gave me license to add a bit of old vaudeville veneer to the package and suddenly there he is!” 

 Something Rotten! - Costume renderings for Bea - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume renderings for Brother Jeremiah and Shylock - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

 

T/S: Can you tell us about your inspiration, research, and design for Nick and Nigel Bottom?

GB: “The Bottom Brothers are the anchor of the evening. It is their story and my job is to help make sure that the audience is focused on them in the crowd of crazy that surrounds them. I knew that the characters surrounding them would mostly be in a palette of rich warm colors so I started there. Nick Bottom is played by Brian d’Arcy James and he is wearing a grey-blue leather doublet with moss green accents. Nigel, his brother played by John Cariani, is in a rust doublet with brown accents. The palette isn’t that different from the rest of the company but the details are simplified. I find that often times if your Principal Actors are designed simply that it gives you the equivalent of a ‘close up’ in a genre where there is no lens to help you. The brothers don’t have any money and consequently have primarily one costume. To be honest, with these two actors and the performances they deliver every night it isn’t difficult to know where to look.”  

Something Rotten! - Costume rendering for Nick Bottom - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume process for Nick Bottom (mock-up, first fabric, final look) - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

 

T/S: Can you tell us about your inspiration, research, and design for Shakespeare, and his crew?

GB: “I ran across a website called ‘Deviant Art’ and there is a company that creates custom appliqued leather jackets using Celtic and Baroque motifs on the sleeves and backs. The jackets on the website aren’t doublets but I used them as inspiration for Shakespeare and his posse. The doublets worn by the ‘back-up’ boys are traditional shapes but they are fit like something you’d see at a Billy Idol concert. We used black stretch leather (Barak Stribling made them and he is a genius at this kind of thing) and mix mastered details from the Deviant Art website with motorcycle jacket details. Shakespeare’s costumes were made by Eric Wintering’s shop and we used the same approach in pewter and brass metallic leather.” 

Something Rotten! - Costume sketches for Shakespeare - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume rendering for Shakespeare's Back-Up Boys - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume process for Shakespeare's Back-Up Boys (mock-up, final) - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

 

T/S: Can you tell us about your inspiration, research, and design for Nostradamus?

GB: “I tried to make every Principal Character in the piece visually relate in some way to a character we know from Shakespeare. Nostradamus isn’t found in any of Shakespeare’s plays, of course, but I started with the idea that he might have been. So (hopefully) he conjures a bit of Falstaff or any of the comic clowns from the plays. After we made the doublet and breeches (selecting fabrics that we knew distressed beautifully), we took the finished costume out to Jeff Fender’s amazing studio and he took the brush (and rasp) to it to create the effect that the character has come out of a dustbin. He ended up looking like an Elizabethan Oscar the Grouch paired with the Ghost of Jacob Marley. He has several pouches on his belt and on the flap of one of the pouches Jeff painted Ethel Merman’s star chart. Nostradamus sees into the future and the ‘invention of the musical,’ so Jeff’s brilliant idea adds a bit of wit to the costume. It is the kind of detail that the audience doesn’t see but that helps the actor (and amuses us).”    

Something Rotten! - Costume sketch & rendering for Nostradamus - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume aging and painting for Nostradamus by Jeff Fender Studios - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

 

T/S: I cannot get enough of your design for Portia! Rarely has a conservative puritan woman looked so gorgeous! Can you tell us about your inspiration, research, and design for Portia?

GB: “I learned in my research that the English Puritans (at least those wealthy enough to have their portraits painted) didn’t resemble our American Pilgrims.  They (mostly) wore black and dressed conservatively, but their collars and ruffs were spectacular. Portia’s dress is modeled on a portrait I found on Pinterest. In fact, in the painting the details of the costume are more elaborate than where we ended up. Ironically at the end of the show our heroes find themselves banished to America so we had Puritans and Pilgrims both. Late in the preview process we discovered that the American Pilgrim’s (conceived originally to look something like a scene from The Crucible) needed to be ‘musicalized’ for the Finale. So we deconstructed them, adorned them with gold leaf and stones and built cornucopia headpieces! THAT is what happens when developing a new musical!”

Something Rotten! - Costume renderings for Portia - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume renderings for American and British Puritans - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume sketches for British Puritan doublet variations - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

 

T/S: Can you tell us about some of the big production numbers, and about your inspiration, research, and design for them? 

GB: There are several big production numbers in Something Rotten. The ‘Musical’ number in the first act probably went through the most changes. The Ensemble is ‘conjured’ to the stage by Nostradamus from the vagrants we meet before the number begins in Soothsayer Alley. We tried many approaches (always knowing that we would use red as the primary color). We simplified the details from my original sketches and toned down the amount of red by adding halftones and dark accents. We tried prosthetic noses (eventually cut) and played with how the hair design would correlate. It’s interesting when developing a new musical how difficult it can be to get the tone right. And it’s very expensive when you misstep, to say nothing of the logistics of something crashing and burning. We were on a very tight schedule so we tried to get back and forth to rehearsal as much as possible so that Casey could help guide us on our way. The Act Two ‘Omelette’ number also went through extensive changes. Doing a new musical is not for the faint of heart!”

Something Rotten! - Costume renderings for 'Musical' Men - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume renderings for 'Musical' Women - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume process for 'Musical' Woman (mock-up, final look) - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

T/S: Let’s talk codpieces! Many productions shy away from them, but you’ve obviously run wild with them. Can you talk to us about codpieces- how you approached them for the show, why the scale and pattern you’ve used, and what they mean for this production?

GB: “When I was a teenager I saw a production of The Taming Of The Shrew at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. I can’t recall who designed it (apologies) but the codpieces were featured in a very witty way and I remember how brilliant I thought it was. Grumio’s codpiece was saggy and lopsided, Biondello’s was pert and sassy, Petruchio’s colossal. You get the picture. They were VERY character specific. Casey (our director) and I had a good laugh about this approach, which we didn’t follow, but I would say that it cleared the way to be fearless with the codpieces size and shape. We did cut some of them down in previews (to the horror of the cast). The clothes were made in many shops (and in many states) and everyone has a different codpiece pattern they favor so we didn’t try to standardize them. I think part of why they demand attention (other than the obvious) is that they aren’t cookie cutter. In technical rehearsals Ryan (one of our brilliant dancers) was getting acquainted with his codpiece and I asked him if it felt awkward. I hope he doesn’t mind me repeating his answer ‘Hell no. I feel like I’m two years old again and discovering myself for the first time.’”

Something Rotten! - Costume rendering for Fancy Man - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume process for Fancy Man (mock-up, first fabric, final look) - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume construction for Fancy Man by Cygnet Studio, Inc. - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume rendering for Fancy Man - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume process for Fancy Man (mock-up, first fabric) - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume process for Fancy Man (final look) - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume construction for Fancy Man by Cygnet Studio, Inc. - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

T/S: Your use of bold and unique fabric combinations is what really sets your work apart from other designers. Can you give us a little insight into your perspective and process in selecting fabric- juxtaposing so many patterns and textures- both within a single character and in setting the world of an entire production?

GB: “I have to say I do exhaust myself (and everyone around me) when the fabrics are sourced and selected. Recently I did a video interview for Broadway.com and I started counting the number of fabrics used in just one dress. I stopped at 8 and there are at least 4 more as you go through all the layers and edgings and so on. Ironically the dress is essentially color blocked and mostly registers as one color. I love clothes that are rich in detail. I find that even if a garment appears ‘simple’ in fabrication that by using many elements you add a visual richness and texture that wouldn’t necessarily be present with a single fabric. Obviously it can work brilliantly both ways, but in the theater we are always trying to focus the audience’s experience. We direct the eye to where the story is featured so I always choose EVERYTHING at arms distance or from across the room so that I get the clearest sense of how the finished costume will read to the audience. When I draw and paint I work out where I want shifts in texture, color and detail. I take the rendering part of the process very seriously because it answers a thousand questions and hopefully let’s the shops know just what they are in for.”

Something Rotten! - Swatch Chart for Fancy Men - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume rendering for Fancy Man - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume process for Fancy Man (mock-up, first fabric, final look) - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume construction for Fancy Man by Cygnet Studio, Inc. - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume renderings for Fancy Women - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

 

T/S: Can you tell us a bit about the construction process? What were some of the techniques that went into these great structured costumes and shoes?

GB: “The dressmaking in the show is pretty ‘old world’ I have to admit and I love that. There’s hardly any sparkle and not a ton of hand painting (which I often favor). We tried to let the textile’s ‘speak for themselves.’  A lot of the surfaces were blended or distressed by Jeff Fender after the clothes were finished.  It’s funny that you ask about the shoes!  On my last two shows (Kinky Boots and Aladdin) the shoes are very complicated. Many leathers combined in elaborate patterns. Those shoes took weeks just to draw. On Something Rotten most of the boots (I believe there are around 95 pairs of men’s boots in the show) are fabricated from a single leather and I think I drew all of them in the course of 2 days. Making that many pairs of boots is an enormous undertaking and we were on a very tight schedule (many of the boots are duplicated- one pair plain soled and a version that is tapped) but the aesthetic of a single leather seemed ‘right’ for this show.” 

Something Rotten! - Corset & petticoat constrution by Redthreaded - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Corset & petticoat constrution by Redthreaded - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Sketches for Women's Shoe Variations - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

Something Rotten! - Sketches for Men's Boot Variations - Costume Designer Gregg Barnes

 

A huge thanks to Gregg Barnes and everyone involved that helped open a beautiful window into all that goes into producing such a dazzling work of art.

Barnes’ stunning costume design for Aladdin was overlooked last year for even a Tony Award nomination due to NYC theatre politics (read anti-Disney snobbery). Here’s hoping that the voters make up for that with a big win for Gregg Barnes for Best Costume Design of a Musical for Something Rotten!

 

Make sure to check-out Something Rotten on Broadway now!