BY DESIGN : A Beastly Assignment : How to make a human-sized teapot and a candelabra? Ann Hould-Ward used fancy wiring, prosthetics and pryotechnics to make the the stage production of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ come alive.
The Beauty and the Beast were the least of Ann Hould-Ward’s headaches. Some frothy ball gowns for her and a spectacular hair and makeup job, heavy on the hair, for him would do it.
But translating the Disney film’s animated teapot (Mrs. Potts), clock (Cogsworth) and candelabra (Lumiere) into life-sized costumes for the Broadway stage production meant all manner of fancy wiring, prosthetics and pyrotechnics.
The results captured Hould-Ward a Tony for costume design last year. Disney rewarded her with this request: Do it again, please, a dozen times over.
Last week, as Belle’s wardrobe was being unpacked at the Shubert Theatre for the Los Angeles run that opens April 14, duplicates were being readied for touring companies bound for Canada, Australia and Japan. Each destination, Hould-Ward said almost giddily in a telephone interview, offers a different opportunity for refining her designs.
The project’s most daunting challenges, after all, are far behind her.
Scale was the greatest obstacle, Hould-Ward said during a break at Grace Studio, a New York City costume shop. “The problem was the presentation of an actor as a life-sized teapot when the characters in the film were so little in comparison to the immense castle and huge beast.”
In a departure from the script, and with the blessing of director Robert Roth and writer Linda Woolverton, it was decided that Mrs. Potts et al. would appear first as humanlike characters, then evolve into objects. That would give the audience a chance “to care about them dramatically,” Hould-Ward said. And once the viewers accepted the transforming characters, she predicted, they would be less critical of the scale.
The change made Hould-Ward’s job that much harder, though. Rather than make one Cogsworth costume, for example, she needed to devise a series.
With the pesky scale problem solved and eager to visually enhance the film’s two-dimensional characters, Hould-Ward set forth on a two-year production schedule, an extravagant lead time by theater standards.
She chose to set the story in late 18th-Century France and did the historical research. Rococo was the rage then, gilt-encrusted everything that wouldn’t budge. Then, armed with bags of kitchen gadgets and period housewares, she began “to mush it all together in my mind.”
Belle was easy. In the opening scenes, she wears standard-issue Disney heroine drag--an ankle-length skirt topped by a corseted vest and a white, face-framing collar. Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty wore similar before-the-prince dresses. (“I had to honor what is in the closets of animation,” Hould-Ward said of the repetition.) Once the Beast/Prince shows up, Belle is swathed in splendid gowns, lavished with lace, ribbons and roses--the frock fantasies of a 6-year-old girl.
The Beast is a lot of makeup and hair, with a lower half reminiscent of the heavy-metal styles seen on MTV: animal-print leggings and spiked codpieces. As the disenchanted prince, he gets a regal black velvet suit laden with Oscar de la Renta-like embroidery.
Acting under all that heavy makeup is no doubt a pain, but the actors who portray the Beast’s servants have it worse. Rather than stick someone in a life-sized teapot, Hould-Ward created a teapot-like person.
“I wanted the reality of the real person rather than the fantasy of the object,” she said. “The essence of my job is to allow my real actors to take you to this fantastical place.”
And with such an elaborate fantasy, a team of specialists was needed.
“Buttons and fabrics had been my whole life and all of a sudden people were talking about screws that hold the door frame on Armoire (the living dresser) and the hinges,” Hould-Ward said. “All I really knew is, it should be covered in velvet.
“I learned a lot about back braces and wire structure. I don’t think costumes like this had really been done before. At least not for stage actors, who have to wear them and sustain the characters for well over two hours.”
If Armoire fairly beams beneath her blond ringlets, it’s because hers is the most expensive costume. “The original Armoire for the New York production cost the same as a new Porsche, with all the accessories,” said David Paulin, Hould-Ward’s assistant.
Hould-Ward had been accustomed to doing fittings alongside a few assistants. For each “Beauty and the Beast” fitting, as many as 40 people were on hand. The costumes for Lumiere, for example, required “a man who made the prosthetic candle, a hair specialist, a Vacuform specialist, a pyro man who made the hands light up, the man who put the butane in the pyro unit and the man holding the butane tank,” among others, she said.
“The Vacuform man was there because the costumes were made of molded plastic pieces and fabric, then trimmed and hand-beaded. I was trying to go back-and-forth between the hard world of candlesticks and the soft fabric world,” she said.
Lumiere’s get-up will be among a sampling of costumes on display March 24 through April 24 in selected Nordstrom store windows. It will appear at Westside Pavilion along with Belle’s ball gown and the Beast’s black-tie ensemble, among others. Mrs. Potts and Lefou (Gaston’s yes man) will be at South Coast Plaza.
Hould-Ward strongly believes that the audience should be treated to a visceral experience; costumes are just one part of a successful production, and she tailors them to complement the physical location. She recently returned from Melbourne, Australia, where the play will be staged in the Princess Theatre.
“The inside is painted a beautiful Georgian yellow with blue Wedgewood tiles, and the gold they use is a very pale white gold. We will adjust the gold on the costumes so it relates to their theater,” she said. “We came out and did the same kind of things with relationship to color in the Schubert.”
Hould-Ward said the play’s audiences have held a few surprises, especially the young girls who have arrived wearing their own gold Belle gowns.
“Some people are shocked at the number of children in the audience. And it’s not something I had anticipated. But it has proven to be such a good experience for them. Hopefully they’ll go see other things. There is potential for growing a larger theater community. I hope so, anyway.”