Entertainment » Theatre

Rafael Jaen :: Designing for Sondheim in 2013

by Kay Bourne
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jan 25, 2013

Rafael Jaen is at the top of his game.

A professional costume designer and a design technology professor at Emerson College, Jaen's name in a theatrical program immediately perks interest. What has this inventive artist come up with this time!

From the kimonos seen in the Lyric Stage's "The Mikado" to the attic wear of the eccentrics in Tennessee Williams's mysterious "The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame Le Monde," and the breadth of Victorian styles in "The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby," Jaen's costumes fit in and fit well.

EDGE recently talked with this remarkable artist on the phone upon his return from a Christmas present tropical vacation his partner had given him.

Most recently, Jaen did the costumes or the treasure trove of Sondheim songs that is Marry Me A Little, which has enjoyed a run at New Rep in Watertown concluding this weekend.

That the story takes place in the winter of 2013, however, makes dressing the actors easily as challenging as a more exotic story-line.

EDGE: The show is about a relationship between a man and a woman who never get together. Yet there’s a cast of four in this production, which immediately suggests a different concept. How does it differ from the original?

Rafael Jaen: I love doing research for each production that I work on; I believe that we need to delve in the dramaturgical components of a play in order to properly contextualize the design.

A man and a woman living in adjacent apartments in NYC delivered the original 1980’s production as a revue complied from unknown Sondheim songs. They started by trying to answer the question: ’What can you do on a Saturday Night alone?’ We are talking 1980 right in-between the sexual revolution and before the AIDS crisis, when sex became more socially acceptable outside the strict boundaries of heterosexual marriage and free love seemed to be the rule in the big cities.

In our production there are two major aspects that differ from the original. First, we are setting the action today in winter 2013. Second, to quote the amazing director and choreographer Ilyse Robbins: ’As the first Stephen Sondheim sanctioned gender-blind production, we have been given the opportunity to explore love, loss, fantasy, and desire between man and woman, woman and woman, man and man.’

This is a daring 21st century idea; the possibility to love in more than one-way that can live inside each one of us -even if we deny it...

During the show, instead of two actors, we see four actors playing four distinctive characters. Their four apartments are next to each other in a rent control building in New York City.

As they try to answer that same question: ’What can you do on a Saturday Night alone?’ They share their inner realities and their fantasies with the audience; they become each other’s projections and those of the audience.

As a costume designer this premise is a great challenge; there is no dialogue in the script to give me clues; it is all songs. When you change the gender that the song was original intended for it all takes new meaning. When you change the tone from sweet to sarcastic or you have a male voice singing what was intended for a female ingénue, it all takes a new dimension.

I had to create costume that added veracity to these new dimensions.

EDGE: The production is described in the promotional material as ’a new take’ on this Sondheim show. What is meant by ’new take?’

Rafael Jaen: In our production, the themes of the show gain relevance given that a) the Supreme Court is about to decide on two same-sex marriage cases and b) the current administration has made clear that it will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law that denies federal benefits to same-sex married couples.

No matter where you stand on this, the subject of marriage has become a hot topic. What does this have to do with a musical you may ask? Well, ’Marry Me A Little’ deals with single-hood and the longing for human connection, intimacy, and meaningful relationships (in the big city) and marrying that special somebody.

In addition, as a costume designer I wasn’t limited to designing costumes for one thirty-something heterosexual couple (as in the original); instead I had to design costumes for four different characters representing different generations with different socio-economic backgrounds.

In order to create their clothing closets, I had to work closely with director Robbins and the actors themselves, creating back-stories and deciding where these folks would do their shopping.

For example, for the character of WOMAN #1, we arrived at the idea that this was an individual who recently moved to NYC (maybe from the mid-west) and who could be in a partial scholarship to Juilliard. When she first appears we see her with her violin and her busking outfit. She probably gets her clothing in vintage shops around NYC and she has incorporated some of the standard darker layers expected in the big city into her wardrobe. We do see her sweeter nature when she is at her most vulnerable; signaled by a softer version of her base palette.
EDGE :With the advent of gay marriage a decade ago, Stephen Sondheim sanctioned a version with two men. Are these LGBT characters?

Rafael Jaen: I am sure I will sound polemic on this, but I would say that in our production the protagonists are more than LGBT characters. They speak to the duality of the human experience; the need for companionship and intimacy; and the simultaneous need for privacy and a sense of self -regardless of gender or sexual expression.

The best example are the songs ’Marry Me a Little’ and ’Happy Ever After’; these songs are sung back-to-back in the show. They represent the longing for that perfect (or imperfect) lover and the funny and not-so-funny routines that set-in after years of marriage.

Watching the four marvelous actors in our production sing to each other in turns (man to woman, woman to woman, man to man, young to mature, poor to affluent and vice versa) forces us to contemplate the universality and complexity of love and marriage in our culture today.

EDGE: Does this version expand on that earlier concept with the addition of two women?

Rafael Jaen: I would say, yes. Watching the two women sing to each other raises the question: are women more fluid with their sexuality? But it also points out that for some folks sex is not a fluid thing; as WOMAN #2 sings "never easily thrill, never did never will" during the song ’The Girls of Summer. ’

Costume-wise I have to add that I designed the WOMAN #2 costume keeping in mind many lesbian and bisexual friends who define themselves as ’lipstick lesbians’ and who are successful businesswomen. But I also know many straight identified women who dress like this character and shop in the same stores that I assumed this character would.

EDGE: Is this production updated? If so, how does that impact on your designs?

Rafael Jaen: Yes, it is for today’s audience (2013).

I think different generations and genders will identify with the topics explored in the various songs. The costume design is contemporary and I explore socio-economics and some dress-codes that hopefully will help the audience get a sense of who these individuals are.

Designing modern dress is really tricky (everyone has an opinion!) but I was happy for the challenge. For example, I was happy to have the chance to conceive the costume for the character MAN #1 as both a skater/messenger and as an alterna-gay individual to explore the duality of the character through costumes, and MAN #2 as a high-up-the-ladder-of-success architect who shops at Barneys.

Mind you I had to do all of this on a tiny budget! (Laughs). I have to add that set designer Eric Diaz has done a fantastic job at creating the four apartments for these characters too. We worked at one accord under Ilyse Robbins inspired, harmonious and very clear leadership.

EDGE: How much of their socio-economic backgrounds are conveyed in the costumes?
Rafael Jaen: A lot, for me this was extremely important. For example, I wanted to explore the idea of the young man (MAN #1) looking at the mature man (MAN #2) as a possible relationship where economic dependency would be acceptable. I came up with this after a straight young man told me that he would consider dating a "sugar daddy" to get through college. I am not sure if he was serious but it gave me the idea.

I also chatted with gay friends who mentioned that they would consider the role of a mentor to a younger partner -as in lyrics of the song ’Marry me a little, do it with a will. Make a few demands I’m able to fulfill. Want me more than others, not exclusively. That’s the way it ought to be. I’m ready! I’m ready now!’

EDGE: And with an updated concept - for instance, do the characters have iPhones and iPads? And are they texting throughout?
Rafael Jaen: Yes, they have all the technical trappings as appropriate to their character but not as a distraction but as part of the dramatic tension instead.

EDGE: How are the characters delineated through their costumes?

Rafael Jaen: Well, we see these folks through time during a Saturday evening. They come home after a long day, they undress or cook dinner, they finish office work, they read, and they shower...

I had to anticipate all the details right down to accessories and underwear. As a costume designer it is important to endow the characters with visuals (color palettes, fabric textures, silhouette, etc.) that support and even foreshadow their emotional state, their inner qualities and their actions. It is my job to translate their back-story and motivations to clothes -You never know where the inspiration will come from.

For MAN #1 I wanted a tattoo (which would fit the character archetype I wanted). When I heard him sing the lyric (during a rehearsal) ’...years to learn to tap out that tattoo.’ I knew that my instincts were right; I wanted him to have a tattoo and I had gotten the idea from the song ’A Moment with You!’ Inspiration can come about in subtle ways...

EDGE: Is this a ’Marry Me A Little’ for the Ikea generation?

Rafael Jaen: Well, maybe... If we equate the longing for love and/or commitment with the idea advanced by blog posts on this subject that go from defining this generation as into the ’extremely practical and/or cheap’ and ’want it now, for a buck, don’t care how long it will last,’

But seriously now, I would say the Ikea generation is represented together with the pass-down-antique, the found-in-the-street and the good-taste-though-it-is-90s.

Branding is important when defining these characters’ worlds. Clothing wise, Burberry, H&M, Kohl’s, Armani, Lakai, Zensah and other brands are represented as a way of giving the characters some status.

Let me clarify, I don’t want to mislead the readers of this interview; the intent is to represent these brands on a budget. For me this play is aptly named ’Marry Me a Little’ because the costumes truly represent something new, something borrowed and something blue! All these characters have items that are new (build or bought/altered), they also have items from my personal closet, and there is a show-stopping gown that is (aqua) blue.

EDGE: The show has a patchwork-like quality, being lifted from numerous Sondheim shows. What do you think holds it together?

Rafael Jaen: The poetry in the lyrics and the universality of the words...There is something for everyone.

I remember wondering during rehearsals if other folks felt like crying during some of the more poignant "been-there-done-that" songs. I was happily surprised to notice that the twenty-somethings in the crew were shedding tears as well.

EDGE: Are you a Sondheim fan? If, so, why?

Rafael Jaen: Yup, because of his smart lyrics and his amazing ability to write a show stopper! His songs have a way of being short stories onto themselves.

The award-winning Jaen belongs to the United Scenic Artist (USA) 829 and the United States Institute for Theater Technology (USITT) where he is on the board of directors. Among his other credits, he serves as Natioanl Design, Technology and Management vice chair for the Kennedy Center ACTF. He is the author of "Develooping and Maintaining a Design-Tech Portfolio" and ’"SHOWCASE," 2cnd edition (Focal Press). His blog is a wealth of costume design info (fromthetailorstable.blogspot.com.).


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