Why the Linda Cho Snub Stings
And here we go, folks: as promised, my first in a series of critical posts regarding Broadway, culture, and my opinion on the state of theatre today.
Let me preface this post with a clear disclaimer: I am a major fan of Anastasia and have been since the Don Bluth movie came out in 1997. I also understand why Santo Loquasto was selected by the American Theatre Wing as this year’s Tony winner for costume design; I congratulate him heartily, because he is a master of the craft.
But with that out of the way, I disagree with the American Theatre Wing on this award and truly believe that the award should have gone to Linda Cho for her work on Anastasia. I think this honestly was the most upsetting snub for me last night. In some ways, this gets to the heart of another post I made. From an aesthetic standpoint, Linda Cho’s costumes were more visually impressive, more memorable, and more original than those for Hello, Dolly! I’m not alleging any animus in the ATW’s decision, to be clear; it goes more to the somewhat staid, static vision of theatre possessed by the eligible voters.
Now, part of the reason I find the HD costumes uninspiring is because thanks to HD being a revival, there is a kind of need to look to the past productions for inspiration, since the director and producers were not trying to go for some kind of completely original setting (which is fine, for the record!).
But to my mind, the Best Costume Design category is designed to reward originality and accomplishment, not just improvements on a theme. The costumes that Linda Cho designed for Anastasia manage to have a kind of timeless elegance that grabs the eye and forces you to notice not only the actors, but the costumes themselves.
Anya’s (Christy Altomare) red and blue gowns from Act II have stuck in my head since the very first stills were released to Playbill ages and ages ago. For visual pops, you cannot beat these (all photos are either from Playbill or other publicly available sources, and are not my property):
Both of these gowns exude a classic elegance that is unrivaled on Broadway today, paying homage to the source material (the high society of the Roaring 20s in Paris, as well as the Russian designs included on the red gown) while still looking fresh.
The lines on the blue gown in particular are exquisite, and give Christy Altomare (who is not a tall woman) the appearance of added height without it being obvious that is what it’s designed to do.
The costumes for the Romanovs are also elegant, sophisticated, and memorable (I lack a proper still for this that I can attribute to Playbill or Broadway World or Broadway Box and thus the still is drawn from Pinterest; if you are the original photographer, please message me and I will edit this post to credit you).
For those familiar with the show, you know the ones I mean: the ghostly pearlescent white of Nicholas, Alexandra, and the others slain at the start of the musical. The costumes are graceful, and a good match to many images of the real Romanovs in the era in which the prologue is set. But as with Anya’s gowns…truly, there is a level beyond the simple. I called them “ghostly” for a reason: you can’t look at them without having a terrible sense that these people (innocent for the purposes of the musical) are about to be slain. Linda Cho made funeral shrouds out of ballgowns–and that is a metaphor that works on a huge number of levels.
But you know where Linda Cho really gets me? The costumes for Lily (Caroline O’Connor), Vlad (John Bolton), and Dimitry (Derek Klena). Let’s take each in turn, with just one example per.
This is a Playbill still from the Broadway performance of (I believe) either “Land of Yesterday” or “The Countess and the Common Man”. One of my fellow fanastasias ( @nikolaevna-romanova or @anyasdimitry perhaps?) can confirm which scene/number.
I’ll focus on Lily for the moment. That gold dress is clearly designed to pop. Lily is a fun, flirty, outrageous character, like her spiritual predecessor in the 1997 film as voiced by the divine Bernadette Peters. Caroline O’Connor brings a downright saucy quality to the character that this gown is designed to highlight. The character is a fallen aristocrat who acts as press secretary/majordomo to the Dowager Empress. She’s supposed to look wealthy–but a kind of shabby wealthy, like someone down on their luck.
So let’s take a closer look at this Linda Cho masterpiece (via Broadway Box):
The pattern and the cut of the dress are simple–much simpler than would have been worn by the nouveaux-riches of post-war Paris, but still quite elegant and stylish, especially when accented with the lace gloves. But it’s a far cry from the style that Countess Malevsky-Malevitch would have been used to in her old life in imperial St. Petersburg. She’s had to make reductions–but damn if she’s not going to make them work. Linda Cho really captures that perfectly. This dress looks, in addition to being beautiful, like it might have come from a very high end store, but wasn’t custom-made as would have been expected of someone with massive resources. While presenting a memorable dress, Linda Cho stuck to the history: Lily is down on her old circumstances (as the Romanov family was post-Revolution) but she will still Look The Part.
Next, I look at how Linda Cho costumed Vlad Popov, the would-be Count and titular Common Man of the previous number. This still is courtesy of Getty.fr and numerous other news orgs, and is from the Broadway opening night:
It looks pretty fancy, right? It is! But if you look at it closely and in the context of the play, it’s in the same category as Lily’s gold dress. The fabrics are clearly fine, but it’s not a custom tailoring, even though this comes after he is restored to some measure of glory. Linda Cho replicates a rich French brocade for the vest and matches it to the morning coat perfectly (more technically, I believe it’s a stroller, though the term is anachronistic for the year the musical is set). But there’s a reminder to the common-man status in the design of the trousers: leaving them striped, subtly, the way Linda Cho did is a subtle signal that Vlad is not born to wealth–no aristocrat would have styled themselves that way. But he mixes the two styles in a subtle nod to what he is (a commoner) and what he pretends to be (a Count).
Finally, there’s the costuming for Dimitry. Playbill ran this still before opening night, and it’s a perfect one to showcase why Linda Cho was such a genius with her choices:
We know from the musical that Dima is a poor con artist, really not much more than a gutter rat as it were and his costuming matches. The fabrics he wears are rough-hewn and cheap-looking (by intention) because he would never have been able to afford anything else unless he aggressively bartered. As a good man in early Communist Russia, he wouldn’t have had the resources to style himself any better–we get the sense Vlad can only because he had the clothes beforehand. Dimitry is all commoner, all working class, all rough (the same with Anya’s Act I wardrobe).
Now, it’s easy to make a costume look cheap–but Linda Cho does more than that. She makes it look cared for. After all, Dimitry has no resources to replace a winter coat if it’s torn, and so we see that while worn, it’s clearly cared for. His shoulder bag, if a bit out of place in the era, is the same: the leather is time-worn and it’s clearly a possession he has had most of his life. That’s not an easy look to master, and to execute it so flawlessly requires real skill.
Here’s my bottom line. The costumes that Linda Cho designed were bold and innovative, and perfectly matched to the heart and soul of the characters who wore them. They took some risks in the way in which they used colors and fabrics, and they blended some modern sensibilities with the design elements and fabrics of the era the musical is set in. That is the kind of thinking that I feel the American Theatre Wing had a chance to reward with the Tony in 2017, and it’s why I feel disappointed by the snubbing of Linda Cho. Her costumes weren’t groundbreaking, but they were unique, they were original, and above all, they felt like they improved the overall quality of the show for their presence.
I doubt Linda Cho will ever read this, but if she does: you own the Tony in my mind, and I cannot wait to see what you come up with for the next show lucky enough to hire you to design their costumes.