Dress up ‘West Side Story’ for a new era
He’s dressed Lin-Manuel Miranda, Oprah Winfrey, and even Jesus Christ in a way, but Paul Tazewell took on his biggest project of all time when he signed on as a costume designer for the movie remake. massive from director Steven Spielberg of “West Side Story”.
For nearly 30 years, Tazewell has racked up dozens of costume design credits and awards for theater, film and television, including a Tony for “Hamilton” and an Emmy for “The Wiz Live”, as well as nominations for “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert!” He’s not just a fan of colorful musicals; Tazewell also costumed Winfrey for the HBO drama “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.
In “West Side Story,” Tazewell constructs a visual story that contrasts hope and hardship amid the physical and personal wreckage forged when a section of the West Side of Manhattan was cleared to build Lincoln Center. Just minutes after the first act, the warring gangs of the Jets and Sharks bombard each other with buckets of paint, trash cans, and a truckload of watermelons. This is the first clue that this “West Side Story” is getting real, very fast.
âSteve was looking for an authentic, plausible version of ‘West Side Story’ and our reflection of 1957 in New York City,â Tazewell said. âYou have to make room if you want to have that kind of gentrification. The ramifications for these communities can be very disastrous. It shows in the clothes.
Virtually all of the elements of this more disturbing and visceral “West Side Story” do the heavy lifting to correct the historical record that had, for example, chosen white actors as Puerto Rican characters. Costumes are more often drenched in sweat and grime, their seams ragged with wear and tear and, in Tazewell’s hands, designed to capture immigrant pride and social strife.
âPart of my initial visual inspiration was Bruce Davidson’s 1950s gang photos in New York City and also in Brooklyn. He integrated into these gangs, âTazewell said. Davidson has spent years photographing East Harlem, and his stark black-and-white images share the grim vibe and demanding detail of the film.
Tazewell also improved the differences between the Jets and the Sharks. He chose distinct color palettes to help audiences keep up with the different groups, whether they’re dancing in the school gymnasium or fighting in the streets – sort of a 1950s version of Crips and Bloods. He assigned cool hues of blue, teal, and gray to the Jets. For sharks, it’s warm golden tones of red, yellow, orange and brown and, often, tropical prints that reflect their Puerto Rican heritage.
âThe dynamics of these two worlds meeting and the way they clash were important to the storyline,â Tazewell said. The gymnasium dance scene divides visually but also psychologically.
âI was thinking of the contrast in the aspirations of different communities,â he explained. âWith the Latinx community, they dress more consciously in fashion than the Jets. The Sharks have to try harder. It’s part of feeling like being an outsider in America. You try harder to represent yourself. [to be] as assembled as possible, so that you gain respect. This connection to clothing and dressing well was familiar to the designer, who said he also absorbed these lessons from his South African-American migrant family.
The Jets, which boast white European heritage, âare more comfortable and relaxed in the way they dress. This is the only group I have dressed in denim and jeans. He is an icon of America. The Jets women favor sleek, fashionable silhouettes that required “very delicate costume geometry” to open up to the kicks and spins of the dancers, Tazewell said.
Tazewell needed less intelligent costume engineering for the Sharks’ âAmericaâ dance number, which highlights the designer’s use of color. Now installed on the street instead of a compact roof, the stage is a kinetic whirlwind of vibrant colors, frills and petticoats that practically explode with athletic choreography.
âAnita is the center of attention for this issue,â said Tazewell, who dressed actress Ariana DeBose in an off-the-shoulder dress as bright yellow as her petticoats are red.
“It reflects the joy and hope of the Latinx community at this time,” Tazewell said, adding that he hopes Anita’s dress will become as iconic as the virginal white dress Natalie Wood wore as Maria in. 1961.
In a nostalgic tribute, this white dress returns. Anita now gives Maria the symbolic red belt, almost like a rite of passage. Maria’s later costumes are more fitted, “so you feel like this is a young woman bursting with self-realization as a mature woman.”
There’s a lot of that kind of tension in this “West Side Story,” where the daily grind of immigrant efforts is both a burden and a catalyst for gaining a foothold. Spielberg, Tazewell and production designer Adam Stockhausen express these sentiments in a redesign of âI Feel Prettyâ. The original setting in a modest boutique has changed to upscale Gimbels, where Maria imagines herself wearing the evening dresses from the department store instead of working on her cleaning crew. The update allowed filmmakers to showcase how “we are working to make the Latinx community feel ambitious and make choices that help build self-respect,” Tazewell said. “It reflected their desire and what they wanted to become.”
Even in her simple apron, when Maria sings that she feels pretty, oh so pretty, you believe her. It is the power to dress well.