This is a bit of a full-circle moment for costume designer Paul Tazewell: He began his Broadway career with one of the revolutionary musicals of its time, Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, and now, 20 years later, he’s again designing for a game-changing show, Hamilton. “It feels like the culmination of everything coming together,” Tazewell says. And while Tazewell has worked on his share of hip-hop musicals (besides the aforementioned two, he designed for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights) he was excited to embrace period design for Hamilton. “I love re-creating as a means of storytelling,” he says. “It’s like a fantasy — putting your mark on how a period is emulated. It’s just, how do you use it in a smart way to tell a story happening in front of you?”
Though Tazewell was attached to Hamilton from its earliest readings, it wasn’t until the show set up shop in the Public Theater that he found his design direction. “The Public has a huge stash of period costumes, so we said, ‘Let’s see if we can get a look that feels somewhat 18th century, and what will that feel like to have the whole cast in that silhouette all the way through,” he recalls. It quickly became clear that the visual neutrality of unfussy period looks would allow the audience to focus on character, not corsets. “It’s the ghost of the period that wafts through,” Tazewell says. “You’re aware of a modern essence and a period essence operating together.”
That blend permeates Hamilton, from the so-called “parchment looks” that begin and end the show (a parallel to Hamilton as insatiable writer, confronting the blank page, and also “the blank page of who these characters are”), to the female characters’ differing necklines (Eliza’s dresses have wide, open necklines, reflecting her open heart; Maria Reynolds’s low-cut dress is, well, all about cleavage), to subtle contemporary touches in the uniforms the male and female ensemble members wear (corsets and form-fitting leggings for the women; bare arms for the men).
Tazewell has received his sixth Tony nomination for his Hamilton designs (he’s already a recipient of several other theater world accolades, including a Princess Grace Foundation statue); prior to this weekend’s Tony Awards, he shared his costume sketches and spoke about his designs for Hamilton’s principal characters.