Catherine Zuber, War Paint
Catherine Zuber. Photo courtesy of Joseph Marzullo

Catherine Zuber is one of the busiest costume designers working in entertainment that even her vacations are work. She’s currently at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theater for the world premiere of Roman Holiday: The Cole Porter Musical. It began previews on May 23rd and is slated to open this fall on Broadway.

Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in WAR PAINT, photo by Joan Marcus.

The 6 time Tony Award winner is adding an 11th Tony nomination to her extensive list of credits for this season’s flashy musical War Paint. The show, directed by Michael Greif, spans 4 decades and delves into the lives of Helena Rubinstein, a feisty Polish-American cosmetics entrepreneur (played by Patti LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (played by Christine Ebersole), an American businesswoman from Canada who served as an arch rival to Rubinstein. Together, the two cosmetic giants literally changed the face of America and, at the heights of their careers, they were among the wealthiest women in the world.

Zuber, who is also represented on Broadway in this season’s Oslo, recently spoke over the phone with Manhattan Digest to discuss her research techniques and collaborations for War Paint;  a show that this writer declares the most elegant and fashionable show audiences have seen in ages.

MD: Everyone in War Paint–including the men– are dressed to the nines. How many costumes are in the show?

CZ: Oh my goodness. You know, I’m not exactly sure.  I would say that it is somewhere between 125 and 150, but I honestly haven’t counted. It’s not a very large cast, but they have so many costumes, especially the leads.

MD: Talk about your first steps in designing the costumes for the show. Where did you turn for research and what resources do you have to explore these characters?

CZ: The first thing was to gather as much research as possible on their lives and examine photographs. Helena Rubinstein was such an interesting person who led such a fascinating, flamboyant life. There was much more source material that was theatrical and interesting to us than there was for Elizabeth Arden. Arden lived a more discreet life and her choice in apparel was much more classic. For War Paint, we needed to embellish the Arden aesthetic a little more than what we were able to find in terms of images of her clothing style.

Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden in War Paint. Photo by Joan Marcus.

MD: Were you able to find any patterns based on clothes that Rubinstein and Arden wore or did you start from scratch?

CZ: Actual patterns? No. But from the Rubinstein images, we found a lot that we use in our production. We were especially conscious of her jewelry and the way she liked to layer many pieces all at the same time. Taking cues from old photographs was very much a part of the design process.

MD: Patti LuPone really pulled that off so well. I think in the wrong hands it could have looked messy.

CZ: Exactly! But much of that guidance came from Patti. When we did the show in Chicago, we had jewelry pieces made and Patti said, ‘We love these, but we want more!’ We were happy to oblige. There were some moments when we wondered whether it was too over the top, but once Patti put it on, we saw the way she inhabited it and I said, ‘She’s absolutely right!’

Patti Lupone as Helena Rubinstein in WAR PAINT. Photo by Joan Marcus

MD: How much input did the actors- particularly Ms. Lupone and Ms. Ebersole- have in the costumes?

CZ: Initially, I worked closely with the director, Michael Greif. We had numerous meetings several times a week for months. The storyline was developing at that time. We had the extra challenge of two leading ladies and they needed to have a balance so that one wouldn’t surpass the other. We talked through the silhouettes and colors. We also explored how their individual journeys and journeys together played out. Once we were happy with that, we went to Patti and Christine and they were thrilled with the designs. They each had their preferences of what they felt comfortable in, but that’s true of every actor. We started doing muslin fittings, which went quite wonderfully. One of the particular areas that evolved was- as I mentioned earlier- the jewelry. We kept doing more and making it brighter and bigger. But Patti and Christine were wonderful collaborators and really fantastic.

MD: Is it more difficult to design for characters based on actual people than for fictitious characters? Do you find it more limiting because you have to be true to what they actually wore or can you take liberties?

CZ: What’s so wonderful about designing for historical figures is that there is that extra challenge of representing them accurately and sometimes it’s more about what people think of the characters versus what they actually were. Also, you have to mix in the performer playing the role and what their strengths are and play up to them. So, it’s a different type of challenge. In War Paint we didn’t have documentation of every moment, so we had to invent choices based on what we thought the character might have worn in a certain situation. That helped to fill in the pieces of the puzzle.

Costume Renderings for WAR PAINT. Courtesy of Polk PR.

MD: So you didn’t really make the costumes from the inception of the show, but rather throughout the evolution. Is that right?

CZ: I needed to work very closely with Michael who then showed what we were doing with the creative team, so that everyone was on the same page.  There weren’t any designs that came back that seemed inappropriate. We did, however change the structure from the Chicago production. In the initial opening, the audience saw each lady side by side at their vanities wearing beautiful dressing gowns. The creative team felt as though it muted their grand entrances with Arden coming down the steps of her salon and Rubinstein arriving off the ocean liner. So they cut the initial opening and we no longer needed those costumes.

MD: One of my favorite (and most hilarious) scenes in the show is when Rubinstein is sitting on her bed with her grabbing tool, picking jewelry from the edge of her bed.  Whose idea was that?

CZ: That was Patti’s idea! She asked for it in rehearsal.

MD: Talk a little bit about your team of costumers.

CZ: I had two wonderful assistants working with me on War Paint.  At the Goodman, we had the Goodman costume team. They were amazing and invaluable at helping us to get the show on track and documented all of the quick changes. We have a great team in New York. The backstage space of the Nederlander theater is quite limited, so there is choreography going on onstage and also backstage. The whole machinery of what happens backstage is so tightly choreographed.  I’m the face as the costume designer, but there are so many people I rely on like the makers, milliners, hair and make-up professionals, and so many other people who help make the costumes look great.

Costume Renderings for WAR PAINT. Courtesy of Polk PR.

MD: I’m sure as a little girl, you didn’t aspire to being a Broadway costume designer. How did you break into the occupation?

CZ: I started as a photographer and went to arts schools. I got into the habit of going to theater when I was living in New Haven, CT. I went to the drama school and said, “I think I’d be a good costume designer.” They told me I needed a portfolio. So I spent a year doing projects for the undergraduates. There were so many wonderful people there: Tina Landau, Scott Frankel, Adam Guettel, David Hyde Pierce, and so many others. I did 7 shows, went back to the Drama School, and they accepted me on the spot! I studied there for 3 years and when I got out, I never stopped working. I was so thrilled to find a profession that embodies so many of my interests: fashion, history, sociology, literature. When you’re a fine artist or photographer, it can be quite solitary, but I love the collaboration of theater.  When its’ moment is over and everything is boxed up and put away, what is left is the wonderful memory of a production.

War Paint is currently playing at the Nederlander Theater (West 41st between 7th and 8th). For tickets and more information, visit the box office or click here.