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Catherine Zuber talks Broadway costume design at Brooklyn Heights Designer Showhouse

BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — Broadway costume designer Catherine Zuber gave a backstage glimpse at the world of theatrical costume design to visitors at the Brooklyn Heights Designer Showhouse on Thursday. The Tony Award-winner chatted with audience members about the secrets to quick costume changes, how body chemistry affects the lifespan of outfits and tips for pitching a costume sketch to a director.  

The showhouse, located within an 1820s wood-frame home at 13 Pineapple St., features rooms furnished and decorated by 15 cutting-edge designers. Many of Zuber’s elaborate costume sketches are currently on display throughout the home’s hallways. 

David Kramer, a Broadway aficionado and real estate developer currently building a 36-story development that will house the new location of the Brooklyn Heights Library, interviewed Zuber for the event. 

Zuber, a Brooklyn Heights resident, has designed costumes for productions like “The King and I,” “My Fair Lady,” “South Pacific,” and many others. She’s been nominated for 14 Tony Awards and has won seven. 

One of the more challenging aspects of designing costumes for Broadway, according to Zuber, is managing the wardrobe budget, which can run over $1 million for a major production. The materials and construction have to be high-quality to withstand the wear and tear that many shows entail. 

ebrooklyn media/Photo by Alex Williamson
 The seven-time Tony Award-winner was interviewed by developer David Kramer.

“Everything has to be made from scratch… and in a quite durable fashion,” Zuber said. 

And it’s not just what you see on stage — Zuber and her three-person team also costume the ‘swings,’ or understudies who fill in for sick or injured actors. 

For that reason, money is a challenge, even for shows like the currently-running “Moulin Rouge,” which set aside a $1 million budget for its legions of cancan skirts and gowns studded with Swarovski crystals. 

Ideally those costumes would last for the life of the show, but Zuber told the audience that the life of the clothes depends a lot on one unexpected factor — sweat. 

“It’s quite fascinating how people’s sweat is so personal. Some people react to fabric in a certain way where the fabric gets a little funky really fast,” said Zuber. “So sometimes when somebody has that kind of body chemistry, they need to have their clothes replaced a lot sooner.”

In addition to durability, costumes have to be made so actors can change in and out of them quickly. For this, Zuber likes a sturdy, lightweight zipper hidden in the back of the outfit, rather than a long strip of Velcro, which she says doesn’t hold up as well over time. 

“Moulin Rouge” is one show that called on Zuber’s skills for quick-change construction, with some scenes giving actors only 20 seconds to change costumes. 

After initial meetings with the director and producer, Zuber sketches all the costumes in a show, then arranges the sketches in ensembles so the director can see how the different characters will look together in various scenes. 

ebrooklyn media/Photo by Alex Williamson
Several of Zuber’s sketches were displayed in the showhouse.

At this stage, she opts for simple pencil sketches, and explained that this helps the director not feel bad about saying, ‘No’ if she doesn’t like something. 

“It should look like you were at a diner and you did a sketch on a napkin. Don’t make it too precious,” she said. 

The detailed, colorful sketches, like the ones hanging in the showhouse, come later, when the designs have been finalized and are ready to be passed onto the tailor who will construct the clothes. 

At this point, Zuber says, “You’ve got to sell the merch… If they have something that’s elevated to look at, it tends to make them a little more excited about the project.”

Zuber is currently working on costumes for “Mrs. Doubtfire,” expected to make its Broadway debut in spring of 2020. 

The Brooklyn Heights Designer Showhouse is open through November 3. Tickets are $35 for BHA members and $40 for the general public.

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