Birth Of A Nation: Dressing The Founding Fathers

hamilton broadway
Photo by Joan Marcus

The streets of New York may not have been paved with gold, but they were certainly filled with intrigue and opportunity when Alexander Hamilton, a young immigrant from the Caribbean, arrived in the American colonies in 1772. His story, which runs parallel to that of the founding of the United States of America, is the subject of the hottest show on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre this season, Hamilton, which marries history and hip-hop in an extraordinary production that celebrates the birth of a nation. With book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda—who also excels in the role of Hamilton—the musical has an all-star design team consisting of David Korins, sets; Howell Binkley, lighting; Nevin Steinberg, sound; and Paul Tazewell, costumes. Directed by Thomas Kail with innovative choreography by Andy BlankenbuehlerHamilton has brought an unrivaled sense of excitement to Broadway, with an interracial cast, contemporary forms of music, and deep roots in American heritage. Read about Korins' sets, Binkley's lighting, and Steinberg's sound design.

Dressing The Founding Fathers

“It was such an honor to be a part of Hamilton from the workshop all the way to Broadway,” states costume designer Tazewell. “Most of us worked on In The Heights, so we already had a set vocabulary and a familiarity that allowed us to put things out there that I might not put out with a director I didn’t know. This is a piece that is brilliantly written by someone who is humble and down to earth, which created a wonderful situation, and they brought in a great cast. I didn’t want to ‘f’ it up.”

For Tazewell, “This piece was more special than any other piece I ever worked on, and I realized that I didn’t want the costumes to say something that wasn’t appropriate. We’re always looking to reinvent the musical—what is the new way of presenting musical theatre—and tap into a way of storytelling in a way that feels very modern. Hamilton really encapsulates that genre of hip-hop musical.”

Photo by Joan Marcus

After initial meetings about how to tell the story visually and researching an approach before the first workshop, Tazewell had conversations with the director and choreographer, investigating how contemporary it needed to feel and, on the other hand, how historical it needed to be to reflect Hamilton’s life. “We looked at hundreds of images and 18th-century fashion design as a point of reference, as well as portraits of the forefathers and John Trumbull’s group paintings,” Tazewell says. In other words, his team pulled imagery from the hip-hop world as well as the time of the American Revolution, at the same time honoring the red coats and blue coats of the British and American armies in the costume design.

At The Public Theatre, Tazewell did not have a large budget but was able to pull from a large costume shop. “We used 18th-century clothes to see what it felt like telling the story in period costumes,” he says. “The dancers wore riding boots, as the chorus had to seamlessly move from soldiers to people on the streets, and the show made the commitment to build dance boots for everyone after they did the best they could in boots we had pulled from stock, and we saw what it would look like.”

Photo by Joan Marcus

The goal was to have a look that felt clean and held together, and as Tazewell points out, “having all of the actors relate to the boots and riding pants the way they relate to their jeans and t-shirts, as clothes they are used to dressing in, as ordinary people. The same is true for the principals. For the workshop, there were no wigs. They all used their own hair. After the workshop, we looked at it to see what felt right and decided to go with a period silhouette, but everything from the neck up would be contemporary, while honoring the 18th century from the neck down. It felt very organic to how the piece was developing in the workshop, and at The Public, we had full-on designs.”

To pull it all together visually, Tazewell looked at what was in stock to unify the chorus. “The period uniforms have white or beige shirts, vests, and pants under the colored coats, so without the coats, they became neutral,” he notes. By using an 18th-century vest from a suit or a soldier’s uniform for the men, which looked like leggings and corset for the women in the chorus who also played soldiers, Tazewell created a contemporary look and of the period at the same time. “It straddled the fence nicely,” he adds.

A Contemporary, Colonial Look

Photo by Joan Marcus

The fabric choices are all of the period as well. That was important to Tazewell, who notes, “The detailing is stripped down to make it feel more modern, with silk taffeta for the ladies dresses but no patterns or embroidery, other than for King George. He is buried in the position he is in and has the most trim.”

The costumes take a new look at the people who were founding this country, which is one of the elements that makes this story so vital. “They are modern, not with white-powered hair,” says Tazewell. “We see them as rebels that were setting the tone for a new country. That’s the energy that this piece projects.”

For the central character of Alexander Hamilton, Tazewell thought, “He needs to look like he is coming from some place else and not completely formed as a man at the beginning. Then he goes into uniform with the American army, and after the war, he shifts into the color green, the color of money, until his son passes away, and then we wears black at the end of the show, as his priorities shift.” In terms of historic accuracy, Tazewell made use of it in a poetic way, using the green color to always pull Hamilton out on stage. “He was known as someone who dressed above his station,” adds the costume designer, who also dressed Hamilton in suits of silk and wool.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Aaron Burr is more conservative, according to Tazewell, “playing it safe and then becoming the antagonist. It was important to keep his look lean and dark, so he goes from uniform to deep charcoal gray to black, with an eggplant vest. This holds Hamilton and Burr in contrast, until the end when they have the same black coat and approach one another as equals, and it becomes an everyman story.”

Thomas Jefferson had the biggest change, color-wise, from The Public to Broadway. “The shape is the same, but we made him more of a rock-star figure, with his costume going from Jeffersonian brown to magenta, like Jimi Hendrix or Prince. His suit is made of silk velvet and silk Duchess satin,” explains Tazewell.

In collaborating with Binkley, Tazewell notes, “There were some color shifts with the sisters’ dresses in moving to Broadway when I knew Howell was going to use more color to help pop their costumes more. For all of us, going to Broadway and looking at the detail of what we had done at The Public, this was a chance to make it more perfect and more specific. I’d say to Howell, ‘Please tell me if there is a color that isn’t correct, and we can shift it.’ I know I can go to him and ask him to adjust something up or down if it affects a costume. We didn’t have that issue here. It’s great to have a shorthand that is so effective.”

 

Paul Tazewell costume sketches:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more, download the September issue of Live Design for free onto your iPad or iPhone from the Apple App Store, and onto your Android smartphone and tablet from Google Play. 

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