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Costume designer William Ivey Long talks 'Cabaret,' Baltimore connections, working with stars

For costume designer William Ivey Long, the clothes in "Cabaret" are about supporting the storytelling.

Any theater or movie enthusiast has undoubtedly seen William Ivey Long's work.

His costume designs have graced the big screen and on stage, resulting in 15 Tony Award nominations and six wins for "Nine," "Crazy for You," "The Producers," "Hairspray," "Grey Gardens" and "Cinderella." Long has also won the Drama Desk Award for outstanding costume design in five theater productions.

Most recently, his work was on display during Fox's production of "Grease: Live" in January.

It turns out that Long has deep Baltimore roots. His mother, Mary, was born in Baltimore in 1919. His grandfather, Robert E. Wood, owned a Baltimore-based lumber company.

"Baltimore has always been a part of my life," said Long, who was born and raised in North Carolina. "I feel very connected to Baltimore."

Long's designs will be on view in Baltimore next week when "Cabaret" begins its weeklong stint at the Hippodrome.

In "Cabaret," Long's work plays an integral part of the production.

"I consider my job to support the storytelling," he said. In "Cabaret," Long's costumes reflect the 1930s seedy German nightclub where the production takes place. Expect plenty of skin, exposed undergarments, and splashes of color and glitz.

Long said "Cabaret" is one of the darkest projects he's been associated with.

"It's a much more bleak story — what happened in Germany," he said.

The music, lyrics, dancing and vibrant costumes help ease the production's difficult subject matter, Long said.

"They can elevate the process of the medium. You can accept it without dying in your seat," he said.

With that said, Long promises a heart-wrenching conclusion.

"Wait till you see the ending," he teased. "It's not the ending of the movie. It's pretty stark. You'll be messed up."

The Baltimore Sun caught up with Long while he was in Toronto working on Fox's remake of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which is scheduled to air in the fall.

Toughest assignment

Long considers transforming actors who are the complete opposites of their characters his biggest challenge.

"I particularly love tough assignments — it defines what I do for a living," he said. "I help someone become someone else."

Michael C. Hall was one of them.

In 1999, well before he went on to star in TV's "Dexter," Hall was cast as the emcee in "Cabaret."

Long remembered Hall starting off as a "preppy, WASP-y boy." It was Long's responsibility to make Hall look convincing as a shirtless "decadent" comfortable with semi-bondage and dressing in cut-off tuxedo pants.

"The greater the contrast, that makes it trickier," Long said.

"Cabaret" might be Long's most challenging production in that regard. And the emcee role might be the most daunting assignment for Long.

Long recalled similar transformations of Neil Patrick Harris and current lead Randy Harrison.

"They're these cute little blond boys. That's probably why [Harrison] went after the role. For the contrast," he said. "They're clean-cut as the day is long."

Stone made him cry

When Emma Stone played Sally Bowles in "Cabaret" in 2014, she brought Long to tears during a fitting. She retold the story of being 10 years old and watching Natasha Richardson perform her character.

"Her parents took her to see the first show that made her want to become an actress," he said.

Dressing Laverne Cox

Long has enjoyed dressing actress Laverne Cox for her role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

"She's in perfect proportion," Long said of the "Orange Is the New Black" actress.

Cox has the same proportions as actress Kristin Chenoweth, whom Long worked with for the production "On the Twentieth Century," he said.

"The proportions are exactly the same, except that Kristin is 5-foot-2 and Laverne is 5-foot-9," he said. "Their proportions are perfect.

"They can wear old, classic Hollywood looks," he said. "I don't have to do any corrective work in shape."

Famous roomies

While studying set design at Yale School of Drama, Long shared a Victorian home with five roommates, including Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver.

"Sigourney and I were suitemates. We had an adjoining bathroom," he said. "She was this beautiful brunette model from another planet. She still looks exactly the same — if not better. When I first saw her, I realized I wasn't in Kansas anymore. We're friends to this day."

Little did Long know that his downstairs housemate — Streep — would go on to become one of the best actresses of his generation.

"She's the David Garrick of our generation — maybe of a few generations," Long said. "It's an honor. It's a challenge. It's very frightening. You are talking about the best actor in the world."

The first Tony

Long underwent a Steve Harvey moment when he won his first Tony Award in 1982 for "Nine."

That year, many people expected designer Theoni V. Aldredge to win for "Dreamgirls." Apparently, so did presenter Hal Linden, who incorrectly announced Aldredge as the winner.

"Actor Raul Julia yelled [my name] from the audience," Long said. "It really happened. I wasn't crushed like that poor girl [Miss Colombia, whom Harvey incorrectly named the winner of the Miss Universe pageant in December]. Mine had a happy ending. … Mine happened in reverse."

After the post-awards ball concluded, Long headed to a corner bar near his home.

"I had a hamburger and a beer," he said. "That's how I finished the night."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

If you go

"Cabaret" runs April 26 through May 1 at The Hippodrome at France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. Call 800-982-2787, or go to baltimorehippodrome.com.

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If you go

“Cabaret” runs April 26 through May 1 at The Hippodrome at France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. Call 800-982-2787, or go to baltimorehippodrome.com.

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