Costume designer ‘Wicked’ brings his collection to San Antonio

Secrets and tons of little details are sewn into the costumes that Susan Hilferty, Tony Award-winning designer creates, although they are not visible even from the best seats in the house.

Fortunately, the McNay Art Museum offers a closer look. “Something Wicked | Susan Hilferty Costumes’ opens Thursday at the museum. It includes costumes from ‘Wicked,’ plus pieces from Tony Hilferty’s nominated work for ‘Lestat,’ Elton John’s short-lived adaptation of ‘The Vampire Chronicles. ” by Anne Rice, and drawings for “La Traviata” and other musical theater productions.

There’s even a little preview: a corner of the show is dedicated to his designs for the Metropolitan Opera’s pandemic-delayed production of “Aida,” slated to open in 2024.

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“It’s been pretty amazing for me, at this time in my life and career, to walk into this room and see friends, many friends from the past,” said Hilferty, who was in San Antonio for two days to help refine the exposure. “When I look here, I don’t just see the clothes, I see the actress or actor wearing them, but I also see the hands of the designers.”

Hilferty was in work mode, dressed in comfortable black clothes and “antique” tennis shoes, her silver hair pulled back in a neat braid.

“Wicked” is the show she’s best known for, and it’s at the center of the arts in the museum’s Tobin Theater and Brown Galleries.

What: Display of costumes designed by Tony Tony winner Susan Hilferty, including works from the musical ‘Wicked’.

Where: McNay Museum of Art, 6000 N. New Braunfels

When: Opens Thursday. On display until March 26.

Admission: $15 to $20. Free for members, children under 13, and active duty military, veterans and their families; free for all from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday.

The alluring pink evening dress from the “Popular” number is at the entrance to the exhibit, just yards from the long black coat Hilferty designed for herself for the 2004 Tony Awards. She knew she wouldn’t have no time to thank everyone she wanted if she won. So she had their signatures embroidered into the fabric. That includes the stars – Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth and Joel Gray are all there – as well as the milliners, shoemakers and other makers who helped bring his ideas to life.

“The woman who did the embroidery said ‘I feel like a forger’ because she copied everyone’s signature,” Hilferty said. “Afterwards, people would come and smell the hem of my garment – that’s the only time it happened.”

His Tony Award is also in the series. Usually, she says, “it’s just on a shelf with all the other prizes. It’s not on display.”

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Must be a full shelf. Over the years, Hilferty’s work has been recognized with awards from the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, and the Costume Society of America. And she has also received several lifetime achievement awards.

Several of these awards recognize his work on “Wicked”.

The much-loved musical is adapted from by Gregory Maguire Novel from 1995, which tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz”. The book also gave the character a name, Elphaba. The show focuses on the friendship between Elphaba and a classmate known as Glinda the Good.

The McNay exhibit includes Elphaba’s signature look: a figure-hugging dress and a sleek black hat.

This hat holds a few secrets. On the one hand, a microphone and a battery are hidden inside. That’s because it’s first strung onstage, in the middle of a stage, and covers and muffles the microphone the actress is already wearing.

The hat also has an ability that very few have ever seen.

“I originally designed it so it could be squished into a narrow box like a pizza box, and the moment she opened the box it grew, almost like a pop-up hat,” Hilferty said.

The hat trick was briefly attempted during the show’s development, but was quickly scrapped and never made it into the finished show. It came as news for Rodney Gordon, who has been building “Wicked” hats throughout his long life. In an interview they did together, Gordon mentioned the hat coming out of a box. Hilferty got him back on track.

“I said, ‘Rodney haven’t you seen the show? We’ve never done that. It only happened once in California,'” Hilferty said. “So for 18 years he’s been making all the Elphaba hats out of a box.”

Susan Hilferty was inspired by coal when creating Elphaba's main costume for the musical

Susan Hilferty was inspired by charcoal when she created Elphaba’s main costume for the musical “Wicked.” It is included in “Something Wicked | Susan Hilferty Costumes” at the McNay Art Museum.

William Luther/staff photographer

Another iconic costume from the series is the pale blue dress that Glinda wears when she makes her first entrance, floating in action in a transparent bubble. Up close, the dress is a beaded confection that almost looks like it could fly away on its own. The skirt features layers of scalloped fabric. More layers are hidden below.

Hilferty has lifted the skirt to reveal several petticoats, which give the dress its distinctive bell shape. Between the layers and all the little beading around it, this airy dress is actually quite heavy, weighing around 16 pounds.

Another secret is the harness sewn into the waist of the dress. Whenever the actress playing Glinda is in the bubble, she has to wear the harness for safety.

“When she’s on stage, when she actually goes back into the bubble, one of the monkeys has to come in, unzip her, clip her, and then the monkey…has to give the signal that she’s safe,” Hilferty said.

About half of the exhibition is devoted to the process and the many collaborations that go into Hilferty’s work. A case sheds light on how the masks for the monkeys in “Wicked” came together; another includes stunning embroideries for the current “Funny Girl” revival.

“We celebrate the collaboration between Susan and all of her various creators, and the cases have very similar language,” said R. Scott Blackshire, curator of the Tobin Collection of Theater Arts. “We have Susan’s design, then we have the parts and the manufacturing process working with Susan, and then a final product.”

While working on the show, Blackshire said he was struck by all the work being hidden from the public. And he and Hilferty are happy to share that with visitors.

“A lot of what they do, we don’t see,” she said. “It’s all underneath – there are so many layers to what’s going on. Here we celebrate what creators do.”

[email protected] | Twitter: @DeborahMartinFR

About Madeline J. Carter

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