It Takes a Village

by Joe Kucharski

Marketplace dancers in the Broadway production of DisneyTo create the colorful, bejeweled and magical costumes of Aladdin, Gregg Barnes needed a worldwide reach

Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway is a jaw-dropping, multi-million dollar spectacle that brings to the stage the beloved 1992 cartoon film. Along with new music, stellar performances and exciting effects, Aladdin features some of the most ambitious costumes in Broadway history. Gregg Barnes is the two time Tony Award-winning costume designer behind these elaborate costumes that mix old school craftsmanship with new and emerging technology that transports audience to “A Whole New World.”

A character sketch for a woman in the marketplaceBarnes’ work on this production began more than three years ago. He’s worked on the show alongside director Casey Nicholaw from its early inception, beginning with an early try-out at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre in the summer of 2011. He describes this first incarnation as “light on its feet.” At this stage, Disney was working through the structure of the story, new music and an evolving use of various characters. With a healthy budget, but still a far cry from the Disney Theatrical norm, Barnes oversaw the construction of costumes in both New York and Seattle. 

Two years later, a reworked version and all new costumes would make their way to the Mirvish Theatre stage in Toronto for their pre-Broadway try-out. During the interim, Barnes designed the Tony Award-nominated costumes for the wildly successful Kinky Boots. Eventually Aladdin opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway in March of this year, received great reviews, and has already extended through January 2015. Barnes’ work was overlooked during the award season (he didn’t receive a Tony Award nomination) but did win The (fan-voted) Award for Best Costume Design. And a close look at the costumes reveals the extreme art and craftsmanship that went into it all. 


Gregg Barnes’ character sketch of a harem girlThree Wishes, 1,428 Crystals

For Aladdin, Barnes was inspired by a wide range of source material, including “belly dancers, Dancing with the Stars, Roxy ushers, Max Tilke’s research of ancient Middle Eastern garments, The Cotton Club, Hollywood kitsch and MGM musicals, modern wedding dresses, tattoo art, exotic visions conjured by Bakst, Antonio and the Victorian Orientalists, Islamic architecture, jewelry (both ethnic and Cartier), carved wood blocks, and calligraphy among others!” 

The costumes in Aladdin take us from the marketplace (which Nicholaw envisioned as a color blocked world of bright colors that glowed, in honor of the original animation) to the palace, which is “glistening, pale, and sugar-coated” à la “It’s A Small World,” complete with fantasy tap dance sequences, parades and a royal wedding. Barnes’ design for Aladdin is comprised of 337 costumes, including 136 individual designs, 161 pairs of custom made shoes, 1,225 different fabrics (83 of which are custom created textile designs) and 712 different styles of beads. Ensemble members average 11 costumes each, with 108 costume changes in less than one minute, and 58 in less than 30 seconds. To produce costumes of this caliber at this volume certainly takes a village. 

The smoke design for printing the harem pantsTo get it all done, Barnes called on many talented artisans that he has worked with in New York City for more than 30 years to make use of old-world crafts ranging not just from draping and pattern-making, but also beading, millinery and shoe-making. Rarely do you see such a wide array of hand-crafted, custom pieces displayed on a single stage. One pair of men’s pants from the “Friend Like Me” tap finale alone has 1,428 Swarovski crystals on it!

A close-up of the beading embellishments on the harem pants.“It has taken over 32 shops to create the clothes for Aladdin if you count the dressmakers, cobblers, milliners, painters, beaders and jewelers. And I’m probably leaving someone out!” says Barnes. “We had shoes made in Canada, New York and Italy; beading done in India, also New York and Los Angeles; clothes made in New York and Canada. The fabrics are sourced from probably every country you can think of, including Morocco, France, India, China, Japan and beyond.”

In the course of bringing these wonderful designs from page to stage, Barnes and his team faced the need, as well as the opportunity, to use technology as a way to control and execute several complex elements. One such technology that was utilized to great results was digital pattern design and sublimated dyeing of custom fabric prints. Barnes designed a beautiful rolling smoke motif and flame pattern for a set of harem pants worn in a fantasy sequence within the “Friend Like Me” number. In order to be able to engineer a print to follow the shape of the pant, as well as offer multiple color ways, and the ability to easily keep up with the demand of swings, replacements and the possibility of future touring and international companies, the decision was made to have the fabric printed. 

Gregg Barnes’ sketch for Aladdin The patterns and pants were created by Tricorne, with graphics initially hand-drawn on paper by Jeff Fender of Jeff Fender Studios, then scanned, digitally manipulated and printed on silk by Gene Mignola Inc. The pants are then finished at Tricorne, complete with traditional hand-sewn jewels and hot-fix stones to make them sparkle. This sublimated dye technique was also utilized on a whole unit of shirts, pants and gowns within the same number. Many of the other details and patterns in the show that were hand-painted will likely be replaced by this technology as the demand for replacements and duplicates grows over time. With the vast number of costumes, adding unique patterns, texture, and depth to each show number became tricky. Having already made use of brocades and machine embroidery throughout the “Prince Ali” number, Eric Winterling, head of his eponymously-named Studios, recommended introducing laser cut leather appliques. This effect was used to create various metallic motifs that were then applied to ensemble pants, robes and other garments.

In an exciting use of traditional craftsmanship to create non-traditional elements, the Aladdin costume team called upon Rodney Gordon to create silicone molded dimensional details. Barnes’ design for the Palace Guard costumes features a beautiful series of menacing metalwork, such as harnesses with dimensional appliques and embedded jewels, as well as elaborate snakehead shoulder pieces. To create these in a way that was easy to reproduce, as well as light for the performers, they were first sculpted in clay and then cast. The molds were filled with a colored silicone, embedded with a fine mesh to allow these elements to be easily stitched to the finished costume. Additional paint and bronzing powders completed the look.

Adam Jacobs in the final resultFrom street rats to show girls, peasants to princes, the costumes that fill the Aladdin stage sparkle and amaze. With a dazzling use of hand-painting, dyeing, sublimation, beading, rhinestoning, pleating, quilting, and distressing, the costumes of Aladdin on Broadway are truly a kaleidoscope of color and fantasy, expertly arranged by one of the industry’s most talented designers.