Emilio Sosa designed costumes for an astonishing eight shows in the New York theater season just ended, including five on Broadway, that were striking from head to toe – from the hats in “The Harder They Come” (mustard cap, knit hat, newsboy cap, stripe tam, head wraps, white fedora and Rastacaps) to the startling scene in “1776,” when the female, trans and non-binary actresses of color who were dressed in contemporary clothes suddenly rolled up their white socks up their shins and became the 18th century white male characters who signed the Declaration of Independence.
And those weren’t even the two shows for which Sosa has been nominated for Tony Awards this season.
Since Sosa, 56, is also the chair of the American Theatre Wing, the producers of the Tony Awards, he seemed the right person, and this the right time to ask him about his season, and ours.
We met at Arel Studio, where Sosa gets some of his costumes made. The shop was founded some two decades ago by master tailor Ilya Fatakhov, and is now one of only some half dozen theatrical costume shops that remain in the theater district. That doesn’t include Grace Costumes, where Sosa had a summer job as a shopper while still in college, and stayed with them twenty years. He has been designing costumes on Broadway since “Topdog/Underdog” in 2002, the first of eight over the next twenty years – plus the five this season.
Jonathan Mandell: How do you look at the seasons just past? Please answer me first in your capacity as the chair of the American Theatre Wing.
Emilio Sosa: This was a very, very challenging season for many different reasons. It was also a hugely successful season; there was something for everyone.
We still haven’t gotten to a point where everyone is represented equally. That’s never going to happen until we start looking at producers of color. We need more Lee Daniels, who produced Ain’t No Mo.
Excuse me, but Lee Daniels is a millionaire Oscar-winning filmmaker! How many Lee Daniels are there?
[laughs] Well, we need more. We need those people who are not your typical Broadway folk, to see it in a different light. Another person who’s doing really well on Broadway is Kandi Burruss from the group Xscape, big pop artists from Atlanta. She’s super successful and just started producing about two years ago. She was on the producing team for The Piano Lesson. So she’s now a Tony-nominated producer, and so is Lee Daniels. So maybe they can open up their network of other people who have funds who see that there is a viable way to not only make money, but also expand the landscape of what stories are told.
I see your point about producers. But both Ain’t No Mo and KPOP arguably expanded the landscape, and yet they both closed alarmingly early. What explains this and what can be done about it? Or was it just about the quality of those particular shows?
It wasn’t about the quality. Ain’t No Mo was rewarded with six Tony Award nomination for a show that closed in December. To get nominated in a season where we had 38 eligible productions is a testament to the work.
The issue is: You have to reach the target audience. Marketing companies can’t just market to the same group that they’ve been marketing to. You have to expand the tent. If it’s a new show, you don’t have that audience base, so you have to create it.
So why didn’t they think of that when they created the show?
It’s always hardest to be the first. The first is the one that teaches the lessons to all of us who come behind.
Ok, now taking off your American Theatre Wing hat. You were the costume designer for eight shows in New York this season, five of them on Broadway. You received Tony nominations for two of them. How normal is it to be a costume designer for five shows on Broadway in the same season?
It’s highly unusual. I don’t think it’s been done before.
How did it happen, and how did you do it? Was the pandemic connected to it?
I think the pandemic had a lot to do with it: “1776” was supposed to run in 2020. When we first met about “Good Night, Oscar” coming to New York, you had to be tested, and show a little vaccination card. That show couldn’t find a Broadway theater until this year; they’re hard to come by. So everything came in at once.
How did you have the time to do them all?
I have teams of people who are super supportive, and brilliant, talented designers of their own. What I do is create separate little pods for each show. Each show has its own associate designer, someone who can make creative decisions with the director, and then it has its whole slew of assistants, its own shoppers its own production assistants. I bounce from show to show because they’re all going on at the same time.
So you’re like a CEO?
It’s a lot of people-managing, a lot of making fast decisions. I’ll say one thing about working that fast pace. It really really sharpened my gut reaction to my choices. I didn’t have time to flip flop. Ninety-nine percent of the time it was the right choice because it came from my gut.
Is there a show in which you’re involved more than the others?
All of them. I design everything. My teams come in once the designs are done. I’ve already have had conversations with the directors. I’ve sketched most of it already so I know what I’m doing.
Is this the way you’ve always worked?
No, when I started I was a one-man band.
How long did it take before you…
I’m still a one-man band, in a sense. I’m coming in here with bags of shoes and underwear and bras. I’m a professional bag man.
Let’s talk about some of your shows this season
“what the end will be…”
What I liked about that show was it had three generations of Black, queer men.
Is the fact that they were black or queer, change what they wore?
Yes, because clothing is a reflection of who you are.
So can you give me an example of something they wore that conveyed tone or meaning
it’s hard when you do contemporary clothing to attach some kind of deep meaning to it. You can resource the look right in the news; there wasn’t a lot of heavy lifting for these costumes.
There is a generational difference. The kid is wearing skinny, skinny jeans. The man in his 60s is not going to fit into those jeans, literally, psychologically and visually.
But the show was more personal than just what they wore. I’m of a certain age, where a lot of my peers and the generation above me, was decimated by the AIDS epidemic.
“As You Like It”
Did you design all the costumes for those hundreds of community members?
We have community leaders that we would work with. We told them the theme of the show. We gave examples of the looks we were going for. The director, Lear deBessonet was very specific on how she wanted to divide the community color wise. So we had the red group and the blue group. We asked them: Do you have a red shirt? Do you have a red tie? Do you have a red pen? Do you have a blue sweater? They brought a lot of it from home. We designed the lead characters (costumes) but the director .had a very, very clear vision of what she wanted to see and we just had to show her enough options so that she could make a choice
Sosa’s three sketches showing the transformation in 1776 from modern dress to colonial outfit: first the jacket, then the socks and knickers:
“1776” was a challenge. How do you translate a piece of clothing that was never made to fit that specific body type? And that’s where my fashion experience comes in. Because I know how to make people look good regardless of who they are.
They don’t’ have to be models
Not at all. So, how do you make everyone feel comfortable, but still be able to portray the period as close to realistic as possible? You do it by dressing a person, not a character. Crystal Lucas Perry played John Adams. John Adams was a man. Crystal is not a man. So I’m not dressing John Adams I’m dressing Crystal Lucas Perry. We had to account for the bust.
I’m sure we never received a letter saying that the cuff on Crystal’s jacket should have been four inches versus three and a half.
Have you ever had an experience where someone complained about the inaccuracy?
No one has complained. But we always take really, really careful care when we’re depicting military uniforms. This is not just a costume. This is a uniform that has so much weight to it.
“Ain’t No Mo'”
What was challenging is how quickly we had to make these actors change from one character to another. And these weren’t subtle changes, like change the jacket and go back out. These were head to toe: wig, makeup, costumes and shoes. And sometimes we had maybe 30 seconds to do all of that.
For example:there’s this character in one of the scenes
Here’s what she needed to be thirty seconds later
Most of this body suit was under the jeans, the jacket and the t-shirt, which was split down the back. That hair was under the bonnet. With two dressers, the shoes, the boots went on and the jewelry went on — and the show went on.
That was just one character. There are a group of five people that are changed at the same time. And this was about every ten minutes throughout the show, because there were six vignettes.
The longest time we had to change was forty-seven seconds.
Clothing telegraphs who you are for the moment you walk into a room. You don’t even have to say a word. People are going to make assumptions by the way you look. I learned that with Spike Lee, when I worked as a stylist for his commercials. He said the minute the actor steps in front of the camera, the audience should know what they’re about. You only have 15 seconds to tell that story.
Another thing about the show was that it could easily have become more of a parody, but these are real people.
“A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical”
The “mood board” (sometimes called an inspiration board) that Sosa put together at the start to inspire the costumes for the young Neil Diamond:
It’s a show that I love on many, many, many, many different levels. It goes back to being a college fashion student. When I used to work late. I ‘d listen to 106.7 Light FM, and Neil Diamond was on heavy rotation. Michael Mayer, the director, called me. He said:I know you’re good at doing big shows with a lot of changes. When I started doing my research, I found out that Neil’s costume designer was this man called Bill Whitten. Neil was a clotheshorse. He loved beads. He loved sequins. To find out that all of that stuff was designed by an African American man. And now me, an African American man — or Black Latino man — designing the theatrical version of that stuff was full circle. That was a lovely moment I could share.
Did he run into some problems?
He was super successful. He went on to design for the Commodores, Earth Wind and Fire. The Jackson Five
So there’s something specific about rock concerts, the fashion of rock concerts that’s different from anything else?
It’s about sex and shine, glitter and sexiness. That’s what people love to see on stage. Reflective stuff that moves, over the top. Imagine if you’re at an arena, and you’re this little, you want something that people can pick you up. Now you have Jumbo Screens and all that, but still you want something that everyone is going to be able to focus on.
Did you have to translate that for the smaller Broadway stage?
I think we did it just as bright and shiny.
That didn’t blind people?
No. People love that. Some come to the show dressed in sequins. The Neil Diamond Show is a feel-good party.
“The Harder They Come”
I’m Caribbean so I know how the Caribbean feels – the colors, and depending on the social-economic standing… I’m speaking from the experience in my family: We would send to the island a lot of the stuff that we had outgrown. So everything people were wearing might be two seasons behind.
You’re from the Dominican Republic, right?
I’m from the Bronx.
But you were born in the Dominican Republic?
I was born there, but I came here really early; I was three years old.
But the play takes place in Jamaica
We’re all one people; we just had different colonizers. The French colonized Haiti; on my side of the island, the Spaniards colonized the Dominican Republic.
And the British colonized Jamaica. So doesn’t that suggest different cultures?
But basically we all came from the Motherland.
So how is that reflected in The Harder They Come.
It’s how we interpret color. People of color are not afraid of color. We’re not afraid to show our bodies.
I loved the hats.
Hats are so important. Hats are personality. That’s where people tend to have a little bit of fund. For The Harder We Come, the hats had to accommodate the dreads.
Were they the actors’ dreads or wigs?
A combination. Some were the actors’ read dreads. We created Afro wigs and cornrow wigs
Oh my god what there’s so much to say about Sweeney Todd. I felt heard, protected. valued. I didn’t have to try to change who I was to fit in to fit into a new group of people… I’m not saying that I didn’t have that in other shows; is a version of that in every show, but this one was collectively felt from day one, even during the most challenging days. It was a huge show to put together under the time that we had.
I worked closest with Natasha Katz, the lighting designer, because we wanted the show to have a certain look. And that meant that I couldn’t rely just on the touch of lights. I had to paint into the costume what I wanted, the shadows, the age, the dirt, the wear and tear.
The beggar woman’s costume seemed quite unusual.
The concept was that that was a dress that she’s had for a long time. So what we did was we designed a beautiful brand new dress and then we tore it up. The costume makers were being really sad because they had just spent weeks making that dress, and we spent a week to distress it.
Ruthie (Ann Miles) wanted to play beggar woman having multiple personalities; that the trauma had broken her into these different personalities. We gave her a shawl so she could use it one way for one character. She used the shawl another way for another
Good Night, Oscar
Mood board for Oscar Levant
I got a call from Lisa Peterson, the director when I was driving across the desert from Las Vegas to LA and I was working with Usher. She asked me a question. How do you make five men in suits interesting? I was like well, there’s texture, there’s shaped, there’s silhouette.
When she explained the show to me, it was a period that I love — post World War Two, nostalgia for the Greatest Generation, the Golden Age of Television. I love the transition that Sean Hayes makes to Oscar Levant; there’s no padding and no nothing in his costume. That’s him and how he moves his body to create that shlump – what’s the line; “a body like challah bread.”
Men in suits look the same from the beginning of time until now; maybe the lapel is a little different. There’s only one woman in the show, and there’s only one dress in the show. So that one dress had to represent the entire period; that dress was the period-setter for us –everybody recognizes the big skirts and petticoats, the little waist and hats and gloves.
Even that bit of color disappears when the characters are “on air” in the TV studio.
The TV scenes when he was on live with Jack Paar, everything is black and white. Even the Mondrian inspired set for that scene is all grayscale, the chair of the black, the ashtrays, or Crow, Jack Pars and black or white shirt black tie, Oscar Levant is in gray flannel with a stripe black and white tie.
Oscar’s in a cheap suit but it’s better from the outfit that he’s wearing when he arrives from the hospital – a shlumpy jacket with slippers, high waisted pants.
To put you on the spot a tiny bit: Why do you feel that you were nominated for that show and for “Ain’t No Mo” in particular?
Because they were both at the Belasco? I don’t know why. It was a complete surprise. I was floored that they singled those shows out – that they remembered “Ain’t No Mo” when it was so early in the season, and that they responded to “Good Night,Oscar” when it’s men in suits and one dress
Have you had a chance to see the costumes at the other shows?
That’s part of my duty as chair. I have to see everything.
Oh. Is that awkward at all?
No. When I’m chair it’s about supporting the industry; it’s about everyone. When my show does well, then the industry does well; that means everyone does well.
I guess the odds were in your favor to get recognized, given that you designed five of the thirty-eight eligible shows.
I had one of the most amazing seasons that any designer could ever imagine. I showed every color: Contemporary fashion – “Ain’t No Mo”; period.Hollywood TV — “Good Night, Oscar”; 1840s Victorian London – “Sweeney Todd.” I don’t think anyone can say now they don’t know what I do.