Paul Tazewell created the costumes for one of the biggest musicals in the world, Hamilton, and won a Tony Award for doing so. Even that couldn't have prepared him for when Steven Spielberg asked to meet with Tazewell to discuss working on his next movie. "I knew what it was about, so my butterflies were very active in my stomach," the designer tells A.frame.
That project was West Side Story, Spielberg's adaptation of the seminal musical about Sharks, Jets and two star-crossed lovers caught in the middle. Overcoming any early jitters, Tazewell would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Costume Design, becoming the first Black man to ever be nominated in the category.
The recognition is well deserved, as Tazewell's work extended beyond dressing María (Rachel Zegler), Anita (Ariana DeBose), Bernardo (David Alvarez) and Riff (Mike Faist), and required he costume hundreds of supporting characters and extras -- everything from the shirts on their backs to the shoes on their feet.
"What's interesting about the original Broadway production is that each of the cast members had their own name," he explains. "It wasn't just the chorus. They each had a given character name, so for me, it means how I [costume] each of these characters needs to be as specific as possible. That's the fun of getting in there and digging into what they might wear."
Below, Tazewell discusses wardrobing this generation's West Side Story and paying tribute to a certain white dress from the original movie.
A.frame: I know Spielberg appreciated your work on Hamilton. This is a different story set in a different time period, but were you able to build on anything you did for that show? Or was there something you learned on Hamilton that you applied to West Side Story?
Paul Tazewell: I have a good number of musicals under my belt -- mostly for theater -- so every time that I approach a new period, I learn and stash that information away for the next time. In a boring way, some of what I learned with petticoats, I applied to West Side Story. Which paid off! But it's also just understanding how fabric and clothing become an extension of a dancer's body, alongside the character work I do, and making as specific and as accurate choices about a character as I can given a period.
As far as West Side Story, it's all interpreted through the late 1950s. Steven made the decision that the film would be set in 1957 -- which is when the original Broadway musical was created -- which is different from the film that came after, which was set in 1961. From the beginning, Steven was very clear that he wanted to have a more realistic, gritty view of New York City, which led me directly to research photographs of real gangs that existed in the period. We are deeply rooted in the streets of New York City, while acknowledging that we're telling a story through music and dance.
How much did you look to the 1961 West Side Story, either to take inspiration or to pay homage?
The '61 film has been in my life since I've been engaged with musical theater. That was back when I was in junior high, and I love that film. It has been very influential in how I see design. But as a creative person and a professional designer, I wanted to have my own interpretation. Early on, Steven asked that we retain the white dress for María, for the first time that we meet her at the gym for the dance, and that the first time we meet Bernardo, that he wanted to see him in a red shirt. Beyond that, he was not interested at all in recreating the world that had already been created in that West Side Story. After having some of those early meetings with Steven, I needed to set that film aside, so I could have that not be an influence and also not a barrier to get to what my interpretation was, and to serve what Steven Spielberg was after.
With María's white dress, how did you feel like you were able to pay homage while also putting your own Paul Tazewell stamp on that look?
I always go back to character and how to most accurately interpret character. With that dress -- which goes back to the original Broadway musical -- why it was so smart of Steven to hold on to that was this image of innocence represented by this white dress. It's almost like a confirmation dress, but it's going on this young woman that is ready to burst out of that and mature into her womanhood. Tony Kushner smartly wrote a scene where this dress is going on María as she's complaining, and Anita gives her this red belt from her own dress, which is really ushering her into womanhood and into this experience of love and life. For us, red was a metaphor for joy and life force. So, it means more than just a white dress that, when she spins around, it opens up and it's pretty. We custom embroidered that eyelet so that it had a delicate feel, because we couldn't find the right eyelet on semi-sheer cotton fabric that was going to be soft enough, so there was flow to the skirt. It's all trying to fill this idea that I have in my head of the power that this dress will have within the story and within the arc of María and her clothing.
Having starred in the previous adaptation, did Rita Moreno come with an idea of how she wanted to appear in this movie?
Oh, sure. I put together both sketches and also research boards and images of Latinx women in the '50s -- what their hairstyles might be, the kind of glasses they might wear, everything -- and I had a meeting with Rita and she expressed that she wanted to be in pants. I hadn't designed any pants for her, but it made perfect sense. At that period, people were wearing pants. But it also meant something about this woman who now owned a drug store and was the proprietor of that space. It gave her a certain kind of power and agility that seemed connected to how Rita wanted to interpret Valentina, as a new character that we had not seen before this film. It was beautiful to be able to collaborate with her.
And then, I had to figure out, what kind of colors am I going to use? I had established a color palette that was largely cool tones for the Jets and the Caucasian community of New York City, because I thought that was reflective of the concrete and the steel. And then, for the Latinx community, leaning into Puerto Rico and the tropical colors, that all of that would be reflected by more warm tones. So, with Valentina, what is her color palette going to be? It becomes this marriage of the two. And I think that it works beautifully.
Were there other cast members who had ideas about their characters that influenced how you costumed them?
All of the actors had opinions, and they're all helpful. For me, as a designer, I needed to check in with them individually, to see, "Does this work with your interpretation of the character? Does this both allow you to do all the movement that's being asked of [you by] Justin Peck and his choreography, and also, is it reflective of the Anita or the María or the Riff as you have thought of that character?" With Mike Faist, he wanted specific things that we had seen in the research. He wanted a Saint medal and a necklace that he thought might have come from his mother. So, it gave him something to connect to what felt really real as he was creating this character. It gave him this backstory and a connection to his mother, whether she was an addict or she was an alcoholic. Providing those very specific, subtle touches helps the actor. If we've all done our work, then it really shines.
Do you have a memory of a costume fitting that was particularly memorable or meaningful?
It was the first day that we were shooting the dance in the gym and it was the first time that everybody was seeing what everybody else had on. We didn't do group costume fittings, so it was the first time that we had the whole cast together, all dressed, and everybody was so excited. And they started applauding for the costumes. I've never been in that kind of situation. It was overwhelming and joyful, and I was so pleased that everybody felt really great about what they were wearing and how they were being represented. That was an amazing feeling.
You are responsible for costuming so many people in the movie. Who are the unsung heroes from your team who helped make that possible?
Oh my gosh! David Davenport was our wardrobe supervisor and a consummate professional. He knows his stuff, has worked with so many greats of costume design and just understands what he brings to the event. Brian Hemesath, who was my direct assistant, and I had a team of five other assistants. My costume illustrators, Mio [Guberinic] and Shane [Ballard]. Stacy Caballero and Christine Field. Everyone in L.A. who was pulling [vintage clothing]. When you're doing a musical on Broadway, you might have a cast of 30 people and that's a huge undertaking. You're custom-making everything so it will last and so it looks a certain way [on stage]. But, with a film, you're dressing all of your primary ensemble with all the custom-made clothing, and shoes, and underwear, and then -- you have all of the background. We had large numbers of background people, so I was relying on a crew and assistants to manage all of that and set up looks that held to the rules that I had created around color palette and style. It's a cliché, but it takes a village to pull this off.
This is your first Oscar nomination. What does it mean to you to be recognized for this film?
Words escape me to express the feeling of being acknowledged by my peers, and also being in the circle of peers I am right now with the work that's been nominated. I never imagined that I would be in this position. And then to be the first African American man -- the first Black man -- to receive a nomination for costume design, it's so meaningful. It means so much to be representative of that. To be the first means there will be no other first, so I'm an original in that. And it can't help but hold one of the most important positions in my life.