A Conversation with Costume Designer Jess Goldstein

by Howard Sherman

Jess Goldstein’s work in costume design is perhaps most familiar from Jersey Boys, which has been playing around the world for the past 14 years. His Broadway credits include Tintypes (1980), The Most Happy Fella (1992), Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995), Take Me Out (2003), The Rivals (2004), The Merchant of Venice (2010), Newsies (2010), and On the Town (2014). His roughly 90 Off-Broadway credits include the original New York production of Buried Child, as well as multiple plays by Jon Robin Baitz, Terrence McNally, and Donald Margulies. He has also designed extensively in regional theatre and opera, and has been on the design faculty of the Yale School of Drama since 1990. He retires from Yale at the end of the current academic year.

Jess Goldstein (photo: Howard Sherman)You were involved in a fairly high-profile production almost immediately after you finished grad school at Yale, namely Buried Child off-Broadway, which won the Pulitzer Prize that year. How quickly were you getting work, or did you have to scramble? 
Those were the first days of the portfolio review that would present students from about a dozen different schools in New York City to other professional designers who would come and look at the work and critique it for you, and they also would invite producers, directors, and artistic directors. I actually got some work right off the bat from that. I got a couple of shows at Indiana Rep, and I met Irene Lewis, who was at Hartford Stage then, and a couple of other things too.

Buried Child came about because a good friend of mine, David Gropman, was a set designer at Yale a year ahead of me. He had been asked by his old San Francisco buddy Robert Woodruff to design this off-off-Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s new play Buried Child. We did that initial production and I was paid I think $100. I think the budget was $100. It was hard – then, and probably now, as a young designer you have to do everything yourself. That was a big hit, won the Pulitzer Prize, won a lot of Obies, and then went on to a commercial run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, which was then called the Theatre De Lys. From that I got my first agent. 

Did you ever think when you designed Jersey Boys back in 2004 that it would still be part of your life so many years later?
Oh, no, no, no. Jersey Boys really was an incredible moment for my career, something that I never saw coming, and will never be repeated probably. It came about in a very funny way. I was asked to do a new play at Classic Stage Company, this must have been around 2001, 2002. It was a play called Monster by Neal Bell, directed by Michael Greif. I’d always wanted to work with Michael Greif, I’d known him for a long time. I wasn’t going to get paid a lot, there wasn’t going to be a lot of money for it. I thought, ‘This is a good thing to do, to work with Michael’.

Jersey Boys (photo: JOAN MARCUS)We did the play and it went okay. The set designer for it was Robert Brill. I got to know him on the show and really liked him, and he said, “Oh, I’m doing this production of Tartuffe out at La Jolla Playhouse with Des McAnuff and he’s looking for a new costume designer. I wonder if I could recommend you for it?” And I said, “Oh, I’d love to do it.” I hadn’t worked with Des, hadn’t met him, but felt this would be a good thing to do. So, I went off and did this production of Tartuffe, and it was a really wonderful production. 

Then the next thing that Des did was Jersey Boys. It’s the kind of thing that just shows you that if I hadn’t done this little show at Classic Stage Company it wouldn’t have led directly to my doing Jersey Boys. I tell my students all the time that you just have to be so ready, that things come to you when you’re not expecting them, and come from odd places. One thing just leads to another thing in such a fateful way in the theater. It’s something that I always remember about Jersey Boys

What was the scale of Jersey Boys compared to most of what you had worked on previously, did you have to think about how you worked in a different way?
The scale of it in terms of the number of costumes, or the number of actors, is not particularly big for a musical. It’s maybe on the medium to smaller size because except for the four guys who play the Four Seasons; most everybody else is double, triple, quadruple cast in the show and play many roles in it. There are three women in the show that must play at least half a dozen roles a piece. So, there aren’t a lot of actors really to deal with, and also it isn’t a big dance show which is a whole other thing that I got into later with shows like On the Town and Newsies. Not being a dance show it’s a little bit easier than some musicals because dance creates such a rigor. You need to know a lot about how to create costumes for that kind of situation.

Jersey Girls Sketch ©Jess GoldsteinThe hard thing about Jersey Boys was because of all the double casting, you have all the quick changes but it was written without any of the quick changes really taken into consideration. It was up to me to figure how do they go from this scene to this scene; never leave the stage and yet you feel that months or years are passing, or locations are changing. I felt I was prepared for that because the playwright just needs to worry about writing the play and it’s up to the designers to figure out how to create the constantly changing world within the play.

People say that it’s the influence of television and film; people are writing shorter scenes, or interwoven scenes.
Yes, and the way one scene bleeds to another scene. Transitions now have to be kind of seamless. What it means in the end is that you learn how to simplify and to prioritize, what’s important to the look of a character. Can they go from scene to scene to scene and barely change or they add maybe a jacket or a cardigan and yet still let you feel the audience is able to follow that time is moving on, or the mood is changing. 

You mentioned On the Town and the different demands of that kind of musical—what is required as a designer when you’re doing a heavier dance show?
It’s the most exciting kind of piece to work on I think just because of the dancing. It means that the costumes have to have this muscle and flexibility that allow the dancing to really happen. I love being a part of that, even though it does sometimes mean maybe comprising in the way a time period is portrayed because you have to make something less authentically period but more danceable. The costume has to be able to move more. All the shoes usually have to be created for the piece, they can’t just wear street shoes. So, you get to design everything from head to toe in the costume. Again, what I love is that it enables the dancing to happen really, and hopefully it enhances the dancing. 

I remember as a kid when I went to see Broadway musicals I didn’t realize it at the time, but now when I look back on that, I realize that I was really looking at the clothes so much, and the way a skirt would move on stage, or the way fabric would move, even though I wasn’t thinking of it in technical terms. Watching an old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, I would just watch her costumes and the way they moved in a dance. It inspired me, but I only see that now in hindsight. 

When you have opportunities and have to choose between them, what drives your choices?
It’s very hard because you don’t really have that much choice. Sometimes the most viable choice that you are given is not necessarily the most exciting thing to design, but it may pay the most money. Or, it may be that it allows you to work in New York and you can stay home. As a costume designer, so many new plays are contemporary, so it means that you won’t probably be making the clothes you’ll be shopping the clothes, which isn’t always necessarily as interesting as making the clothes. 

Sometimes people ask me what would be your dream project? What show have you always wanted to design? I don’t really think in those terms. I’d like to do A Little Night Music. But it depends who is directing it, and it depends on what theater is producing it, or it depends on what the budget is. It’s much more about the people that you would work with on a particular show than the show itself. There are all kinds of beautiful period shows that I’d love to do, but it involves a lot of other factors besides the script.  

Does who is in a show ever become a factor? Can you say what it means to collaborate with an actor on a costume?
Often when I start designing a show, the play isn’t cast. So, I don’t necessarily even know who the actors will be. It’s a very funny thing that I’ve noticed but it’s very hard for me to get a director to say who they are considering for the part. They seem to consider it bad luck to talk about it.

Sometimes it just helps me to even know who they’re thinking of, to know how they see the role. But in any case, I often have to start sketching a show before a role is cast. I just did a play at the Roundabout, Skintight, with Idina Menzel and she was cast right from the beginning. That helps inform me, so even when I read the play I see her doing it. It helps me to think about the look of it because I know that she’s going to be in it.

Working with actors is really the best part of designing for me. I find that I usually have a much closer relationship with an actor than I do with the director, because I have found that as a costume designer that directors are never ready to talk much about the clothes until dress rehearsal. This is not true of all directors, but most of the directors that I work with. Maybe it’s also because I’ve gotten to a point where they just trust me to do it. 

Henry IV (photo: Paul Kolnik)They don’t want to have to worry about it and they don’t want to get in the way of what I want to do. Which is lovely in a way because it’s this trust I guess that’s just inherent and which is nice. But it’s hard also, because to sit at my drawing table, like if you’re doing a Shakespeare or a musical, something like that and you have to do 50 sketches but you’ve gotten so little input from the director, it’s a lot of responsibility. I find that usually these days too, because people are off doing their own things, it’s very hard to get all the designers together to talk about a show before rehearsals. They’ll try and organize a meeting through Skype; I hate, all these things. You’re doing so much of the exchange of ideas online which is just not very useful. 

I think that’s why I find when I get to work with the actors, to me, it’s finally then it becomes very collaborative. Because now you’re really dealing with people and talking to people who are very invested in what they’re going to wearing, very invested in the character, have a lot to say, and usually are very interested in what you have to say. So that begins a wonderful dialogue that has been missing until we get to that first rehearsal. 

If it’s a new play, or a play without a huge cast, I try and meet with each of the actors on the first day and talk to them a little bit about, “How do you see the character? What do you think?” And if there are sketches then we look at the sketches together. If I can, I get the director to do it with me, which I often can do at that point, and that’s great. Usually, it’s the first fitting that is the most exciting and creative part, because then you have the actor in the costume looking at themselves in the mirror with you. You are watching them look at themselves become this character that you’ve created, and you get so much from that as a designer.

I’ve learned as a costume designer you have to be very observant. Costume designers have to be observant anyway because it’s all about the details; about how people live, and how they choose things for themselves, and whatever. But it’s important I think as a theater artist to observe the temperature of the rehearsal room, who’s in charge, and who is setting this and doing that, and making the decisions. Because sometimes directors really just want the actor to be happy, and it’s not so much about what they want, it’s that if the actor is happy then they’ll be happy.

Sometimes there are directors who, “No, it’s what I want. I don’t care what she wants.” It has to be what we want, so you learn how to make all that come together. On the positive side of things, it’s collaboration, on the negative side of things it’s compromise, and either way you have to make it work. My name is going to be on it, it has to be what works for me as well, and that is very much a part of the challenge of designing costumes.  

Has technology evolved around costumes and what have the changes been?
In the costuming world, technology has not changed nearly as much as the other disciplines, because the making of the clothes is still the way it was done 100 years ago. There’s no new technology about how clothes are made, and about how fabrics are found. There may be some new ways of how the fabrics are painted and dyed, but for the most part things are still made the same. 

In terms of the way costume designers now do their sketches, that’s changed a lot. Most designers now use some form of Photoshop on their computers. I still do my sketches pretty much the same way I always have. In some ways I wish I was more computer savvy because I could do sketches faster. I don’t know though if I could do it faster if it would be as well designed. I need the different versions that I go through to get to where I want it to be. I don’t know if I did the different versions on the computer if that would quite give me the same quality that I’m looking for.  

If you are doing a period show, certainly the way people dress 100, 150 years ago, the nature of what the fabric was, what it looked like, do you need to use the same materials to achieve the same look?
For the most part you need to stick pretty close to what the original clothes are made of, because that is what gives the clothes the look that they have. You do need to compromise a little bit just for the comfort of the actors. If you were doing a play that was set in middle ages like The Lion in Winter, or something, you probably wouldn’t use quite so heavy wools that they would have worn then, or the fabrics wouldn’t be as primitive. But again, you can’t veer too far away from what they were because that is what gives you the essence of those clothes. There are some ways, like with period corsetry for women, that you can do a slightly modern version of what a period corset is. But you can’t go too far away from what it really was because you won’t get the right shape underneath it. 

What makes successful costume design for you? 
I think it should look effortless for one thing. That kind of goes against what a lot people think, because I think for a lot of people if they don’t notice the costumes then they can’t be very good. I think it’s the opposite of that. Costumes have to tell a story, they have to tell you who the character is as soon as the character walks on stage, and they reveal things about the character. My aesthetic is a little bit minimal, I suppose. I don’t like a lot of stuff on a costume, unless it goes against who the character is. I like to do things with less. I love color, I love working with color and using it emotionally on stage. I think I have very good control of color, so that I can use a lot of different colors on stage. I seem to be able to do this fairly intuitively. 

What do you mean by using color emotionally?
Maybe emotionally is not the right word. I think what’s fun in a musical is, you have different numbers and different numbers can have different palettes. I’ll just use an example, Newsies. Newsies (photo: Deen Van Meer)Most of that show is about the newspaper boys. Their palette for the show we decided would be earth tones and kind of grayish blues. That was the palette for them, and then whenever we had a female character come on the stage, I would use extremely feminine colors just to get away from that, because it was a chance not to have all that masculine color on stage. 

It’s just changing the mood of what happens when a different character comes on stage, to change the mood of the scene I suppose, or the mood of the number. Katherine, the reporter, wore very feminine colors like these deep fuchsias, pinks, and lavender. Then in her big number with the newsies, I put her in earth tones. It was about her becoming one of them. 

It’s the kind of thing that I don’t necessarily do it that consciously. I remember having an interview with a director who was looking at my portfolio. She was a very bright English director and she said, “Oh, I just love how you gave her these colors.” She pointed out to me what I had done. I guess that’s what I mean by kind of working more intuitively, it’s kind of what comes out of me.

Earlier when you talked about simplicity and not having a lot of detail, there’s a certain irony in the fact that your Tony came for The Rivals, which I remember being quite elaborate. 
The Rivals (photo: Joan Marcus)It’s not that I don’t think there shouldn’t be a lot of detail, it’s just that the detail that’s there has to be right on the money. It’s not about extraneous detail, even something like The Rivals, which is set in the 18th century at the height of that beautiful period. A lot of people, including myself, probably consider it the prettiest period in costume history because everybody just looks good in those clothes. I think I found a way of doing it which was more about colors and the palette than it was about a lot of lace and ribbons.

Are there two or three shows of yours that you look back on and you’re particularly proud of, particularly happy with?
There’s many. So often it’s about some emotional connection with the show. But from a design standpoint probably the most important show in my career, I think in a way, was designing Henry IV at Lincoln Center Theater, that Jack O’Brien directed, with Kevin Kline as Falstaff. I think that was a huge assignment in a very prominent venue, with an incredible cast, and I was being asked to really create a world. It was just such an enormous undertaking, and I felt like I did very well with it, so I was just very proud of that. 

I think On the Town is my other choice. In the same way, it was about designing a whole world. Just creating that life on stage, that was to me very exciting, where you really felt like you were in control of this big huge stage picture over several hours of time. In both situations, very different situations, seeing all different aspects of a world in one evening I think was most exciting.