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Interview: ‘West Side Story’ Costume Designer Paul Tazewell on the Look of the Film

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Recreating the visually dazzling costumes of one of cinema’s most celebrated musicals may have been an intimidating task for many, but for Tony-winning costume designer Paul Tazewell, it was a craftsperson’s dream come true.

Tazewell, known best for his costuming work in Broadway musicals such as Hamilton and In the Heights, has recently transitioned his talents to film where one of his first big screen projects was working on the critically-lauded Oscar contender West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg. In this exclusive interview with Awards Radar, Tazewell shares the excitement he had in working on a reimagining of one of Broadway’s most celebrated stories, how Spielberg found out about his work, and the decision making behind the stark visual contrasts between the Sharks and the Jets.

How much did the 1957 Broadway musical and 1961 film influence your work? Was there one that you drew inspiration from more than the other?

This was really inspired by and asked of me from [director] Steven Spielberg to really focus on the original Broadway musical that was done in 1957. Steven had made the choice to set it in 1957 when the original Broadway musical was set. I was then looking at imagery – photographs, mainly – from that period instead of moving up to four years later. And there were some significant silhouette changes with the menswear going from the mid ‘50s to the mid ‘60s. As a designer, when you’re thinking about designing clothes that are plausible and make sense and are as accurate as possible, you’re dipping into years before that potentially just to make sense of who these people are and their economic condition. So I was really focused on the early to mid 50s in my designing. I have always been aware of the film and the impact that the film has had on the greater American community and how loved it is. I think that that was somewhere hovering as an idea. Once I let go of that, my job was focused on developing a look and design of the costumes that was specific to Steven Spielberg’s idea and also what Tony Kushner had written in the screenplay.

Can you share how Spielberg found out and about you and wanted you to join the film? What was your partnership with him like?

I would imagine, and I believe he’s actually said that he happened to see my work in Hamilton because I designed the original production of Hamilton and also what’s on Disney+, the filmed version. He had seen my work there and then pursued my interest in doing West Side Story. When I was approached, I was like ‘absolutely!’. It was mind blowing. As it would be for, I would think, any costume designer, to be pulled on board with West Side Story. Once we launched into collaborating, it was just a beautiful experience from the very beginning. Steven is very clear and engaging. We were about telling the story and got on the same track very quickly. Much of that was me presening images that I thought were true to how I was hearing he wanted to tell the story and Steven agreeing and approving with research imagery and sketches that I usually follow that process with. And even to actually produce the costumes because most of the costumes for the principal ensemble company, they all had to be custom-built because of what they needed to do and function dance-wise. As those pieces were being developed and realized, it all felt that we were all on the same page.

So many of the moments where we are able to truly appreciate the designs of the costume are during the musical numbers. Can you share how important the collaboration was with choreographer Justin Peck in designing costumes easy to dance in?

Another very generous collaborator with ideas! It was an amazing honor [working with Justin]. He had about the same time in pre-production with choreography and rehearsal that we had for our filming. And in that same period of time when I was having costumes built, intermittently, along the way, there were check-ins. There was a lot of interactions and feedback around custom-made shoes and how he wanted the dancers to move. Actually being able to see the choreography was invaluable. I already had an idea for how I wanted the dresses to move in the dance at the gym and in America. We would introduce ‘rehearsal costumes’. They’re mock-ups of the dresses so we could actually see how they did move on the dancers’ bodies. I would then shift, perfect, and tighten up. I would make choices so it suited the choreography more specifically. Seeing what the men were doing in some of their dance numbers and realizing that indeed, we would need to custom-build their jeans since they needed to have more flexibility, more stretch. All that we had to do in the process of rehearsal and figuring that out. We didn’t have time to go back once we started shooting. Justin was a dream to work with. He and his wife Patricia were always very clear and effusive with information as far as what their points of view were.

Probably, one of the most visually dazzling showcases of your work was the gym dance scene where you saw the spectrum of beautiful colors and how lovely the dresses moved as the actors danced. There’s a notable visual contrast between the Jets and the Sharks. Can you speak to that creative decision in making those stark visual contrasts between the two groups through your costuming?

Some of the inspiration has developed overtime from when I was first introduced to West Side Story when I was in high school. Just this thought of how does a designer visually control and support the conflict that’s going on with costumes. One of those, for me, was always color. Much of this came out of color photographic research that I was finding. Imagining the environment being that of concrete in these kinds of gray and gray-green tones in a lot of the photographs I had as research. And then, imagining the Jets which is the community that’s in place of this area of New York City and have them be reflective of the steel, the emotionally-drained. I speak of this as the designer. I’m aligning color to emotion usually. So with the Jets, arriving at a world that has been drained of color in a way, what’s left is kind of a cool tone. And then, as a parallel, that the Sharks have migrated from a tropical island like Puerto Rico and other Latinx islands, that they’re coming in influenced what their surroundings. That’s helped to define their sensibility. That would be with warm color. I made every attempt to keep them as defined as possible within their groups because that is what speaks to what this story is. You’ve got these two disparate groups coming together in conflict and what happens when you put them in the same room. So with the dance at the gym, we come into this space that is filled with the Jets and their girlfriends kind of exploding on stage, and to the side we see the Sharks come into that space and all of that warm color kind of flooding in and around and how they both co-mingle and buttup against each other. Surrounding the love interests Maria and Tony, it makes for a very dynamic picture.

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Written by Max Geschwind

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