In 1941 the Broadway dream team of composer Kurt Weill, librettist Ira Gershwin, and playwright Moss Hart concocted a modish musical within a play about one Liza Elliott, the editor of a leading fashion magazine (prophetically titled Allure, it predated Condé Nast’s magazine of the same title by half a century), who is undergoing psychoanalysis to battle childhood demons and a complicated romantic life. (The play breaks into song during three dream sequences resulting from Liza’s psychoanalysis: the Glamour Dream, the Wedding Dream, and the Circus Dream.)
The Broadway production starred the world-weary British actress Gertrude Lawrence and made a star of Danny Kaye. Lawrence was dressed by the fashionable Hattie Carnegie, but her costumes were actually designed by Carnegie’s uncredited designer Norman Norell, who would soon leave to carve a career for himself as one of America’s greatest designers. In 1944, director Mitchell Leisen brought the production to the big screen with Ginger Rogers playing Elliott, and although Edith Head was credited with the movie’s costume design, Leisen himself was said to have designed Rogers’s costume for the Glamour Dream—a lavishly embroidered dress with mink skirts that is currently in the collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. At the time, this stupendous gown—it cost $35,000 to make—was said to have been the most expensive movie costume ever created.
The musical is notoriously challenging to stage, but Ted Sperling (musical director for such Tony-garlanded productions as Lincoln Center’s The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific, and the current revival of My Fair Lady) has embarked on a three-night-only affair at New York City Center (April 25–27) with the 120-strong MasterVoices singers and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s—and with Tony winner Victoria Clark in the leading role.
Sperling and costume designer Tracy Christensen approached Vogue’s Alexandra Michler and me for potential collaborators to work on the dream sequence costumes. As a result, Thom Browne opened up his remarkable archive for the Circus Dream; Marchesa’s Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig provided a wedding dress with romantic echoes of Grace Kelly’s fabled 1956 Helen Rose creation for the Wedding Dream; and Zac Posen—although he was in the throes of building a dozen creations for the upcoming Costume Institute gala to celebrate “Camp: Notes on Fashion”—created Clark’s ensembles for the Glamour Dream.
Posen was a natural fit for the project. From the ages of 6 to 18, as he noted, “musical theater, opera, choral music were my entire life, my first love. But when my voice settled into a baritone at 18, I decided it wasn’t for me!” Luckily, a passion for fashion followed, but Posen has never forgotten that first love. His first official commission when he established his brand was to dress Bernadette Peters—a performer he had idolized since he saw her when he was a child in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George—for the Tonys. Since then, he has dressed legendary performers from Anna Netrebko to Ariana Grande and Broadway stars including Patti LuPone and Bette Midler. “It’s been a real joy of mine to give a spotlight to the wonderful world of theater,” he says.
For Clark, Posen created a transformative costume adapted from a runway model. Theater costumes, of course, have to work much harder than fashion—even for a run as short as this—so Posen worked with Christensen to transform “a fashion sample into a stage sample—the zippers and buttons were changed so she could change quickly, and the understructure was made to maximize the movement and dancing and sweep.”
Posen collaborated with Brooks Brothers for the tuxedos for the supporting male dancers (choreography is by Doug Varone), and Radio City provided some of the costumes that Posen had originally designed for a Rockettes Spring Spectacular—“Charles James-ian ball gowns that I had designed in Easter colors that unfurled over bodysuits”—for the women.
“I hope to do more theater in the future—including staging and directing,” Posen adds. “I loved every moment of the project—it was a dream come true.”