Theater News

Going on a Gender Bender

Broadway’s top designers discuss the art of dressing men such as Harvey Fierstein, Brian Bedford, and Nick Adams as women on the stage.

Harvey Fierstein inLa Cage Aux Folles
(© Josh Lehrer)
Harvey Fierstein in
La Cage Aux Folles
(© Josh Lehrer)

From the drag queens of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the Musical and the cross-dressing guys of Propeller’s The Comedy of Errors, to Brian Bedford’s masterful gender-bending turn as Lady Bracknell in the Roundabout Theater Company’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Harvey Fierstein donning a glitzy gown to play La Cage Aux Folles‘ glamorous chanteuse Zaza, and Charles Busch getting into the nun’s habit in his hit play The Divine Sister, the current theater scene is chock full of men running around in women’s clothing.

Not surprisingly, though, each show has presented particular challenges for its design team. In Priscilla, most of the men — including the characters played by Will Swenson and Nick Adams — are meant to be obvious drag queens; but the character of Bernadette (played by Tony Sheldon) is simply a man who always lives — on and off the stage –in women’s clothing.

“There is a massive difference between designing costumes for drag queens and creating a believable feminine look for a man,” says Tim Chappel, co-costume designer of Priscilla along with fellow Oscar winner Lizzy Gardiner. “Gender illusion is infinitely more difficult, since it is always about subtlety, where drag amplifies the fact that the wearer is a man in a dress,” he notes.

Plausibility also played a big role in designing the costumes for La Cage, especially those for the notorious and dangerous Cagelles. Tony Award winning costume designer Matthew Wright noted that he deliberately tried to keep his buff male dancers looking like men. “I wasn’t even trying to make them look like women,” he says. “It was more about the characters buying into a sense of glamour. The references are more like 1950’s pin-ups or Hollywood stars.”

As for Fierstein — the show’s newest leading man — La Cage‘s wig designer Richard Mawbey was determined that the Tony Award-winning star (who is also the show’s librettist) should not look like he was once again playing Hairspray‘s Edna Turnblad. “Yet once I started getting him into wigs and make-up, I realized there was actually a reason for a lot of upswept hair,” he says. “If you put it lower on the shoulders, it just doesn’t work.”

Brian Bedford in The Importance of Being Earnest
(© Joan Marcus)
Brian Bedford in The Importance of Being Earnest
(© Joan Marcus)

Making the venerable Bedford look like a proper (if overdressed) British aristocrat was an intriguing proposition — especially since neither Earnest‘s costume designer Desmond Heeley nor Bedford, who also directed the production, view Lady Bracknell as a “drag” role. “You’re designing a character, with a human being who is going to play it,” Heeley says. “You regard that actor as a building block on which you can add things to make a plausible representation of the character that Wilde talks about.”

Nevertheless, Heeley’s opulent designs for Lady Bracknell were created to keep the star comfortable, as Bedford’s chest isn’t padded and he doesn’t wear a corset. “It’s attempting to make the audience see things that aren’t there,” he notes of his costumes. “The outfits essentially consist of a skirt and a jacket, allowing Brian to remove them while he’s off-stage.”

Katherine Carr, who has been Busch’s wig designer since the 1980s, notes that there is a difference between designing wigs for him and the female cast members. “I always take into consideration that we need to soften the lines in his neck, so we either have soft curls around the neck or, if it’s an updo, I put a few wispy tendrils around his neck.”

For his part, Chappel offers some tailoring tricks to make the job of gender illusion easier. “Necklines are your best friend,” he says “You want to draw the eye to the face. A great décolletage will do that. You also want a smaller boob, with a slightly lower bust point to create a natural look — unless you’re doing drag.”

Having worked with everyone from Busch to drag icon Lypsinka over the years, Fabio Toblini, the costume designer for The Divine Sister, actually enjoys having the opportunity to create a female body for a man. “It’s quite fun, because you can do so many things with padding,” he says. “You can create the body that you want. It’s not that difficult. You just need to know how.”