by patrick pacheco | November 1, 2013 | Lifestyle
A rendering of the stage set for After Midnight
This fall, Broadway will be in high cotton—literally. The Jazz Era, in all its syncopated glory, is evoked in the new show After Midnight, a celebration of the Cotton Club, the legendary night spot that was once the heartbeat of the Harlem Renaissance. From the early ’20s to 1940, the Manhattan club became synonymous with speakeasy elegance and lavish revues featuring the likes of Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith singing the songs of Duke Ellington, the in-house bandleader from 1927 to 1931.
The show, originally titled Cotton Club Parade, promises to reek of bootleg gin, sultry sensuality, and the “tan, tall, and terrific,” as the club’s chorus was once billed. But there will be a contemporary gloss to the spirited shenanigans of the cast of 29, led by Adriane Lenox and Dulé Hill and featuring the vocal styling of such special guest artists as Fantasia Barrino of American Idol fame (October 18–February 9) and k.d. lang (February 11–March 9).
“We decided early on that we wanted to honor the period but not be bound by it,” says Warren Carlyle, the director and choreographer who along with writer Jack Viertel and jazz legend Wynton Marsalis created the show. When it debuted (as Cotton Club Parade) at City Center Encores! in two smash-hit engagements in 2011 and 2012, Marsalis paid homage to the club’s pivotal role in American pop culture by faithfully re-creating some of Ellington’s original orchestrations with The Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, his handpicked orchestra.
Isabel and Ruben Toledo collaborated on the costumes for After Midnight
However, when it came to giving the show a look that would slip the temporal bonds of its setting, the creators came up with an out-of-the-box choice. They asked Broadway neophyte Isabel Toledo to design the costumes. It took the award-winning designer all of a syncopated second to say yes.
“Wynton Marsalis, the music of Duke Ellington, the Cotton Club, are you kidding me?” says Isabel. “This show is a gift.”
“Jazz was and is the juice that continues to feed us today,” says Ruben Toledo, the artist and illustrator who is her husband and close collaborator. He is the show’s Artist in Residence and worked with Isabel on the sketches. “That’s what creativity should be about, what fashion and art should be about. There’s nothing like building on the past and reinventing.”
The ebullient couple have been improvising and experimenting for nearly four decades, enthralling the fashion world with their visionary elegance. Isabel’s stature was further solidified in 2009 when First Lady Michelle Obama chose her to design the outfit she wore on Inauguration Day, a lemongrass yellow wool lace shift dress with a matching overcoat. But far more daunting was the call to create more than 100 costumes for After Midnight.
The designer says her initial “visions” were inspired by listening to such songs as “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.” She recalls thinking, “This song feels like jersey moving around, this one like chiffon.” The designer takes a layered and pleated dress off the rack. With a mischievous smile, she drapes it across her body and dances. “It’s liquid and sexy; it swings,” says Isabel.
“They were pushing buttons back then as we are now,” adds Ruben. “The dancers in these Art Deco dresses are only onstage for a moment, but what you see is a brief glimpse of the future.”
Ruben adds that they were inspired by the city rumbling 12 floors below. Fittingly enough, their atelier is in a neighborhood that was called Tin Pan Alley because it housed the music publishing houses of the early 20th century. “New York is jazz,” says the illustrator, who, like his wife, came to the city with their respective Cuban émigré families in the 1960s. “Even the hem hitting your knees as you’re walking down the street creates a rhythm.”
Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis performs at Lincoln Center. Marsalis, along with director Warren Carlyle and writer Jack Viertel, created After Midnight
Isabel says an added pleasure has been to sculpt her designs on round and curvy bodies, unlike those of runway models. “I’m a Latina—I love shapes,” she admits with a laugh pointing to her hips. “It’s not a matter of size—it’s a matter of how comfortable you are with your body and Fantasia feels good about hers. I dress to somebody’s strong points, and she has great legs and moves beautifully.” Ruben sees the actress, whose last Broadway appearance was as the abused and ungainly Celie in The Color Purple, as a cross between Josephine Baker and Marilyn Monroe, a kitten.
While there may be many highlights in After Midnight, one of the biggest challenges for the Toledos has been the designs for Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy,” which will be a New Orleans–style funeral procession. At one point, the coffin flies open and a dancer emerges in a white dress beaded with black sequins. Barely detectable is the outline of a skull. “This was my opportunity to go ‘pop!’ but elegantly and with humor,” says Isabel.
“My wife may be one of the few to make death look so beautiful,” says Ruben. After Midnight is playing at Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St., 212-719-4099
photography by Randall Bachner (toledo); Michael Loccisano/getty images (marsalis)