Broadway Dresser: It Ain’t All Snapping And Sewing!
An impressive backdrop of light bulbs is shining brightly at 302 West 45th Street in New York City. Standing in front of this wall of light, the Kinky Boots’ ensemble is all lined up, ready to walk down the runway after two hours and twenty minutes of jumping, kicking and belting. The sight of those performers blinding the audience with Gregg Barnes’ glittering costumes and matching high heels is… breathtaking, simply breathtaking, according to Susan Kroeter. Susan is a real Broadway wardrobe veteran who has been helping actors in and out of costume, sewing, ironing, fixing, steaming and giving extra attention to this one-of-a-kind boots collection for the last six years, eight times per week.
Right before this final, dazzling runway walk, the show’s dresser is fist pumping each actor. She then gathers every character’s costume basket, sorts and puts things away and separates the actors’ laundry. Susan then makes sure that pre-sets are done, that everything is neat, tidy and ready for the next performance at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
“I’ll also add extra rubber to some shoes, spray hats with vodka and make sure that the boots are all properly set on their tree to preserve their shape and forms. The show definitely does not end at curtain call for us dressers!”
When listening to the New Jersey native talking, energy and enthusiasm fill her voice as she recounts a quick-change anecdote, the precision used to describe the costumes’ conception secrets and her tangible fascination for this well-orchestrated, carefully planned production going on backstage. These all come across as very strong personality traits and an insight into her long-lasting career in the industry. Those qualities and perhaps her contagious laughter over diplomas from the Academy of Performing Arts Design or Costumes Pros College, considering that photo shoots (where she was the fashion stylist) led her to the Big White Way!
Years of looking after models and assisting photographers turned her into the perfect, maybe even over-qualified, Broadway dresser according to a friend from the costume industry…
“Next thing I knew, I was trading models for Mary Poppins at the New Amsterdam Theatre! I later worked with acrobats who were not used to be helped by dressers on Cirque du Soleil’s Wintuk at Madison Square Garden and even did the 90-minute marathon that was the Radio City’s Rockettes show along with 24 other dressers for 36 Rockettes!”
With such experience and dynamism, the fact that no velvet, no velcro had any secrets for this dedicated woman by the time she was looking after an unusually tall Elf in the musical of the same name at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre doesn’t come as a surprise! “I was in the building and already knew it inside out before any high-heeled boot stomped on that stage, it was meant to be! I felt extremely lucky to be there from day one with Kinky Boots, even if everything always feels very slow, almost slow-motion, whenever a new show is coming to life. Those long Tech Process Days can easily last ten to twelve hours! Everyone, cast and crew alike, must learn what goes where and when and, since every department is involved and pitching ideas to the director, going through the first act alone took us an entire week!”
In spite of the musical being only a few weeks away from blowing six candles on a boot-shaped cake, the quick-change queen’s eyes still shine when asked about her initial opinion on the costumes, back in February 2013: “Amazing! I LOVED and still love them! Gregg Barnes has won several awards for his beautiful work and all those sparkles, all that glitter, it’s, it’s… Dazzling! I’ve never seen anything like it in my 13 years in this industry! Over the top fantastic, to say the least!”
It takes a village to ensure that each jump and every jacket, as well as each hat and every harmony, remains over the top fantastic: 121 people spread between six floors to be exact!
Among the village’s chiefs, is the wardrobe supervisor to whom dressers like Susan must report. The head of the department oversees all costumes elements and supervises fittings in this always-in-motion puzzle where everybody is following a specific track and seeing different things throughout the show. “I don’t know everyone’s tasks and routines, swings get to see and know more as they cover different tracks, whilst the rest of the team only gets one unique look on the production. That being said, we, the wardrobe crew, and stagehands got each other’s backs! It’s a big safety-first business and we are all on the lookout: I get out of everyone’s way but know that they will come for me if I’m struggling, just like I would jump in to help a colleague!”
Interestingly enough, you won’t detect the hint of a shadow of any struggle in the 57-year-old’s voice that only gets more energized, yet remains calm, as she’s recounting the 2-second quick change that she had to do on Hitchcock’s 39 Steps:
“The actor would come off, hand me something and I’d give him the hat that was facing the right direction on my own head. So fast, I had to hold my breath and yet so fun!”
The success to both lightning speed and very slow changes, from curtain rise to final bow, can be summed up in three words: Where Am I? Regardless of what your role is next, behind or under the stage, being at the right place to do the right thing and knowing where they are in the show at any given moment is what makes a good dresser and this one prides herself in never having missed a cue in 13 years and 18 different productions! “You can say that ‘Where are we now?’ has become my new mantra over time!” she’ll conclude with a sigh of satisfaction.
Dressers always get to the venue and sign in before the cast, usually four to six hours before the orchestra strikes the show’s opening melody, if only to know which costumes must be pre-set and which are taking the night off like their sick or beach-resting owners! Once all costumes have been prepped, all baskets filled with every element worn by the artist, and laundry has been delivered to each company member, Kinky’s last original dresser pays a close look at Lola’s beaded dress. The final check is the drag queen’s rhinestone covered boots which she makes sure are at their shiniest.
“A dresser must be mindful with everything they put their hands on. No food and no drinks around costumes, no matter what!”
Next to the “where are we now” mantra and this golden rule, calmness and one’s ability to convey it is next on Susan’s list for aspiring dressers: “I’m approaching everything and everyone with a calm energy to gain the performers’ trust, so that they know that I have got their backs and know what I’m doing. By talking with actors and letting them know how we’ll get through certain changes and transitions, especially on the first times, a dresser can help them get rid of their nervousness, and support them to be even better on stage. A dresser should want to be there, be there for others mostly, for the good of the show and of the actors. Lastly, you should be able to get along with a wide range of personalities, a needle and a thread in one hand and tapping on the singer’s back with the other!”
Listening to some of this New Yorker’s backstage and quick-change anecdotes is quite interesting when hit by the reality that many are relying more on that tap on the back than on the seamstress’ sewing skills! Dealing with personalities almost sounds more demanding than dealing with snaps that won’t close and zippers that won’t open!
“This is a micro-cosmos of society, an anthropological journey in which one sees all sides of people and where, at eight shows per week, six days a week, even a person with the best intentions can be pushed over the edge by an unsolicited comment!”
With the show entering its final Broadway season before leaving the Al Hirschfeld to Moulin Rouge!, a veil of nostalgia smoothly covers Susan’s voice, makes it a little warmer and somewhat quieter. There might have been times where she felt like “the help” but those moments where a famous person or an incredibly gifted, mind-blowing talented artist took the time to thank and call her by her name, who expressed their gratitude with a smile or a wink getting out of a quick-change, those are what makes it all worth it. “We’ve also had a special anniversary show at one point where every artist who had portrayed Lola and Charlie, the show’s leads, came back to perform together. Wayne Brady, who couldn’t be there, even recorded a video message for all of us and the audience of course! That was a memorable night, such a beautiful and very moving performance during my run on Kinky!”
Getting ready for this week’s final two-show day on 45th street, during which she will wish “Happy Sunday!” to her colleagues on those six flights of stairs, boots and baskets in hands, Susan is feeling deeply grateful. Grateful for six amazing years on the Tony-winning music and leaves me with one final piece of advice that goes out to every freelancer out there: dancer, dresser, actor or composer:
“Always seek to be invited back! Be at your best, be on time, behave well and be there for the right reasons: because you want to be there, because you want to do a good job, your job and not someone else’s.”
Photo Credits: Susan Kroether
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