Costume designer Emilio Sosa has five projects on Broadway this season, and hair, wig, and makeup designer J. Jared Janas has four. The two close friends and collaborators have known each other for over a decade, and it shows. They share a shorthand, a similar sense of humor, and heaps of mutual respect. This year, they joined forces once again to work on Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Good Night, Oscar. The two designers are eager to support each other, even when working on separate projects. Sosa has two nominations for this year’s Tony Award for Best Costume Design for Good Night, Oscar and Ain’t No Mo’ (the latter of which he worked on with hair and wig designer Mia Neal, and makeup designer Kirk Cambridge-Del Pesche). Sosa also lent his talents to 1776 (with Neal) and A Beautiful Noise with Luc Verschueren, while Janas worked with Tony nominee Paloma Young on & Juliet and Sarah Laux on Kimberly Akimbo.
And though there’s no official Tony category for hair, wig, and makeup design, it’s clear that Sosa views those departments as part of a team effort. American Theatre caught up with Emilio and Jared over Zoom last month.
ALEXANDRA PIERSON: You both have had very busy seasons. Let me congratulate you on the amazing designs that you’ve accomplished thus far. How did you get into hair, wigs, and makeup, and costumes, respectively? And what drew you to the theatre?
EMILIO SOSA: I’ll let Jared start, because he has a more interesting trajectory than I do. Mine is pretty boring.
J. JARED JANAS: I had a completely different career for 11 years—I was a mathematician. When I was finishing school back in ’94, I was complaining to a friend of mine that I had nothing to do for the last month before I walked down the aisle to graduate, and she said, “Why don’t you come help out at the theatre?” So I showed up, and she said, “We need help in hair and makeup.” I was like, “Okay, if you say so.” So I walked into the hair and makeup room, and the guy who was designing the show, doing hair and makeup, is today a physicist. So basically, a mathematician and a physicist walk into a makeup room, right? It’s like the beginning of a joke. He taught me all the basics that I really needed right then. But I was graduating, and so I called my mother at the end of the run of that show, one week before graduation, and I said, “Oh my God, I’ve made a terrible mistake. This is what I want to do.” My mother was obviously very supportive.
But I had to make a living, so I got a job in mathematics. The first job I had promoted me to basically head mathematician for North America, with the job located in New York. I was in Chicago at the time—I’m born and raised in Chicago. They moved me to New York in 1996. From that point, I had to just start making connections. We didn’t have the internet back then. You know, we had the yellow pages. I opened the yellow pages and was looking for community theatre. The other thing that New York doesn’t have is community theatre! So I just slowly started making connections while I was working in mathematics full time. It wasn’t until 2005 that I made the right connection to switch careers full time, when I went to Tom Watson, who was the wig master for the Metropolitan Opera, the wig designer for Wicked, and was also wig master for the Santa Fe Opera. He asked me to help him at Santa Fe Opera that summer. I got a leave of absence from my company, moved to Santa Fe, and at the end of that he asked me if I would come work at his wig studio to be the studio manager back in New York. I came back, I gave my company three weeks notice, and I showed up at Tom Watson’s doorstep. And that’s how it started.
EMILIO: You see how interesting that is? Mine is very boring. I was a fashion student here in New York, and I needed a summer job. I got a job at a costume shop, Grace Costumes, not having any theatre experience or really experienced any theatre. But I knew the basics of making clothing, which is really the basics of costume design, and I just stayed in it. I was 20 years old, and I got my first job there and 30-something years later, here we are. When did you and I first start working together, and what was our first show?
JARED: In 2007, We did Ohio State Murders at Theatre for a New Audience.
EMILIO: We’ve been working together since then. I’m real clingy and I’m very possessive. I’m like a bad boyfriend—I’m clingy, but then I don’t want to talk to you, but then if you don’t call me, I’m like, where are you? Who are you working with? Why? Don’t show them the shit I taught you. I’m all of that wrapped into one.
How closely do you designers work together? I’m assuming it’s pretty close, because you’re working on the same bodies.
EMILIO: I mean, I would be lost without Jared in all of my shows, because he’s someone I can trust. He’s untouchable, in my opinion, on the technical end, artistically he’s on top of the game, and then his people skills, which is what I love more about him, are off the charts. So I’m able to entrust an actor and my vision to him, knowing that he will support it and make it better. I don’t have to micromanage him. We just have to give each other looks; we don’t even talk. We just like [gestures] “more” and things get done. That’s because of the work we’ve done together, we’ve done so many different things, but it’s also a testament to his temperament as an artist. Because I see him as an artist; I don’t see him as just a technician. I don’t give him orders, except for around the back of the neck. That’s the only thing. Everything else I just leave to him to really have a creative process, because he is a true collaborator.
JARED: Thank you for all those wonderful words, by the way.
EMILIO: [Joking] Your turn.
JARED: Emilio is great. [Jared pauses, as if that’s all he has to say about it. They both start laughing.] No, actually, I have to credit a big portion of my career to Emilio, because No. 1, he’s the first commercial costume designer to entrust me with many of his shows. He also gave me my Broadway debut, which was Porgy and Bess. That show was what I call the “trifecta” for designers. It’s where you get to take a show from pre-Broadway to Broadway to national tour, and you’re with it from start to finish. It is the most amazing feeling when you get that trifecta, and that’s the first time I ever experienced it. That was because of him that I got to experience that.
We work so closely together and we’re so on the same page that when we’re in tech, at the end of the night, we kind of have the exact same notes. We just have to be like, “No no no, we did that wrong. Okay, now we’re gonna fix that one.” It’s not just that we’re on the same page; it’s also that Emilio definitely has made it clear that he’s put a lot of trust in me with the work. He draws beautifully, he sketches beautifully; he sketches the hair, but it’s not prescriptive. It’s like, “This is my idea, but take it where it needs to go.” I love that he lets me take it and run with it.
EMILIO: And I trust him to talk to the director, directly. I don’t ever put myself in between the director and my team. I want every department to feel empowered that they can have a conversation with a director, because all of the directors that Jared and I work with, they all have very strong hair opinions. For me, I think I’d do Jared a disservice if I were to absorb the opinion, digest it, and then give it back to Jared. I want him to get it straight from the source, so he can explain how it’s going to get done or why it can’t be done the way they see it, but that there will be a solution. That comes from the trust I have in him, that I will put him in front of all my directors. I’m like, “You deal with that, that’s your department.”
You’ve had such a wonderful array of challenges and opportunities this season: different time periods, different styles, from contemporary to Shakespearean and everything in between. Do you enjoy the variety, or do you have a particular style that you gravitate towards?
EMILIO: I do it all. It all really depends on the on the project and the director. Early in my career, I tended to do a lot of new projects. That’s always the most challenging, because you’re creating something new, but it’s also the most rewarding because once you do that first production, that’s the production that everyone’s going to reference eventually somewhere down the line. So it’s about your legacy, longevity. That’s a part of it. But I like it all.
JARED: As far as favorites go, it’s not the period that’s the favorite, it’s not the show that the favorite—what’s my favorite is the process. It’s the right collaborative team. When the team is truly collaborative, you see the most cohesive production ever, and when it’s not as collaborative, you really see it. You pick out the pieces as though it’s separate, like, “Wow, that looks like it’s from one show, that’s from another show, and that’s from another show.” It’s very clear when they did not work together. Honestly, all of the shows that we’ve had this season, certainly those that Emilio and I have done together, and the ones that I’ve done apart from him, have been such collaborative experiences. I really think that you can look at that stage and say, “I can’t pick out any one element that doesn’t look like it belongs.” That’s what makes a show so much fun to work on.
Where does the creative process start for each of you? Is it the script, the characters?
EMILIO: I read the script. I always ask or require that Jared is on the project, and then he gets the script. We read it independently. Then I meet with the director, and Jared and I meet, and he formulates what he’s thinking. Then we’ll Zoom with the director together, so we can all talk about it. It starts with the granular details. I like to know that there’s someone that I’ve worked with, and that we have that comfort level, because it’s stressful to put a Broadway show together. There are so many elements, so many people, that as far as my team, the more people I have that I’m comfortable with, that understand my aesthetic, and that I trust, the easiest and the earliest that happens, the better.
I have to ask about A Beautiful Noise: Are you sick of denim yet?
EMILIO: [Laughter] No, I love denim. And that’s beaded denim, so it’s different.
Denim you can dance in. That’s a Levi’s commercial all on its own.
EMILIO: Totally. I love Neil Diamond’s music, and that project reminded me of college. It reminded me of being a fashion student, because that’s what I listened to. I used to listen to Lite FM when I was in school.
JARED: You mean elementary school? Stop aging yourself.
EMILIO: Oh, I know, right? My babysitter, my wet nurse used to play it on the harpsicord!
With shows like 1776 and & Juliet, you’ve got these colonial and Elizabethan influences that you’re making fun and modern. You’re also working with non-binary performers. Do you typically design for the body, or do you have ideas in mind before you meet the actors?
EMILIO: I think, and I can say this for Jared as well, we design for the actor, for the body, and the face, and what they bring to the table. All of my successful designs have been collaborative. All that happens in the dressing room, because you can get sent a headshot that’s been altered and filtered, which is the norm, and then you ask for sizes, and you get sizes that might not be correct. So you don’t know until you have a person in front of you in a fitting room. That’s when the design really comes to life. I can sketch a beautiful sketch, but until I put it on a 3-D body, it’s just a pretty sketch.
JARED: Some of the most useful tools for designing are actually Instagram and Facebook, because you get some candid shots there. Headshots are just useless to me. They don’t tell me anything. I really prefer like a nice candid shot, or, if I have to, I just call up the actress and say, “Can we just do a FaceTime for 10 minutes, and I can take some photos and see what you look like?” Even when you’re looking at those photos, as Emilio said, we design it for the actor. Let’s say we’re doing a show set in the 1890s. We sort of know what that looks like, right? But looking at the actor, you can see things like, what side do they part their hair on? There’s a reason they part it on that side. Do they always wear bangs? There’s a reason they wear bangs. There are things that you can gather from it. You can also see like, she’s supposed to be ashy blonde, but clearly her skin tone won’t be able to handle that, so let’s figure something else out that gets us where we need to be. We just had this case in…[He forgets the name for a few seconds.]
EMILIO: [Imitating Jared] “I’m sorry, I have too many nominated shows. Which Tony-nominated show are we talking about?”
JARED: Alli, this is what he’s like. Just so you know. In Sweeney Todd, when I found out who was cast, the first thing I did was look up Maria Bilbao, because Joanna has to be blonde. I mean, they sing about her being blonde, there’s a song about her being blonde. So we had to look her up and realize: Okay, what color blonde is going to make the most sense? Headshots were useless, but all the candid shots I found of her were amazing. The first time that we put that onstage, it was a hit the moment we did it. It was exactly right, because we designed it around her, we didn’t design it in a bubble. That was so important. We definitely design for the individual, not for the show itself.
EMILIO: The actors always bring something to the plate, because they’re the ones who are going to be embodying the costumes. The sketch is the sketch—that’s for producers, that’s for people to look at and go “ooh” and “aah.” Until you put an actor in it, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. I’m very collaborative with my actors. Like one actor said, “My grandmother loved this color.” Not that I’m going to just say the whole costume is in that color, but that’s something that I take into account, because that just adds another layer to the actor’s performance.
I think what Jared and I do is, we give the actor the ability to transform, and that’s the most powerful thing about theatre: how not only is the audience transformed by experiencing the work, but so are the actors. For me at least, I want them to be able to transform physically and embody the character. I think the biggest one is Ruthie Ann Miles as the Beggar Woman. God love her, she went 100 percent Beggar Woman down to the details. I mean, this woman is like my spirit animal right now.
JARED: When I met with Ruthie, she made it clear that she wanted to be somewhat…I hate to use this term, but “repulsive” to look at, and then she was going to take care of the sympathy portion of it with her acting. She used to have Invisalign, so she still had her old Invisalign retainers, and she wanted her teeth painted, but she didn’t want to paint her teeth—so she literally brought us her Invisalign so we could paint her Invisalign. So she gets really bad, gross teeth in her mouth. I mean, this is a woman who swallowed cyanide. Physically she’d have a lot of maladies. The other thing that she even brought up, which I hope is okay to say: She actually said she wanted to possibly even smell bad. I said, “Okay, I’m gonna actually request that we maybe draw the line there, because there are other actors to consider.”
The point is the method—she really wanted to go there. The moment we know where an actor wants to go, that’s when our job really starts to fly.
EMILIO: Of course, you know, all of this is rough. We talk all this through with our directors. The actor has a say, we talk to the director, make sure that everyone’s on the same page, and then we execute. But the actor is a huge part of the development of the character and the way they look.
I could talk about Sweeney Todd all day, but let’s also touch on Good Night, Oscar. From the outset, it seems like it’s mostly suits. You’re going to tailor and you’re going to hem them, but there’s more to it than that.
EMILIO: I’ll talk about the clothing, then I’ll let Jared talk about the hair, because the hair is very important in this one. We have a cast of almost all male-identifying humans and one female-identifying human. So already the scale is a little tipped on the male side. But I love wearing suits, only because I think they’re the easiest thing for man to own and to wear. I just had to figure out the character. In the script, Doug Wright, our playwright, has some specific costume notes about Oscar. There are so many quips about how sloppy and how unkempt he looks. So that’s my roadmap for color, fit, and pieces. First, what clothes do you get when you go into a mental institution? When he’s in the institution, he’s probably in sweatpants and sweatshirts. What clothing would you wear to travel outside? Are these the same clothes that he was admitted in? What condition are they in? That’s how we created that first look for Oscar.
When he’s in his suit, his wife, June describes him as “Eeyore in a cheap suit.” That tells me that the fit is not right, or is not up to par. Also, if she brought him a suit from home, and he’s been in a mental institution for 28 days, 10 hours, etc.—he tells her exactly how long—that means that maybe his body has changed, maybe he’s not eating or drinking like he used to. So the suit might be a little bigger, because he’s lost a little weight. So that’s how I use just a plain suit to help capture stuff. I’ll let Jared chime in about the hair because the hair was so important for every character.
JARED: The fun and/or the tricky part about this show is that almost every one of these characters actually existed, and there are photo references of all these people. So we know what they look like. The trick is, then, how to make a nod to those styles, while also realizing that everyone is viewing this through the lens of today. What might have looked perfect in 1959, may not look the same today. Americans have grown over time. We’ve developed into bigger people; we’re taller, some are broader. Hairstyles have to take that into account.
We did a bunch of tests, specifically for Sean [Hayes]. Sean has a very slender face, so we needed to do something with his face to make it look bigger. We actually came up with a way to make his face look a little bit jowlier, with deeper-set eyes. And then we really played with his hair to see how close we could get his hair to the actual Oscar Levant, realizing that it’s never going to look the exact same because they have different textures of hair. We played around with it for many days while in Chicago just to get it to where it made the most sense.
Most importantly, of course, who we haven’t talked about is June Levant, who gets the only wig in the show. All of the photos of June Levant are in black and white, so we came up with the color that we thought it was. It’s a beautiful red color and it worked incredibly well on our actor, Emily Bergl. We tried to do a good nod to 1950s style, but also to the photos of June Levant as we had them, without being exact. We’re not trying to duplicate the character, we’re trying to create Emily’s version of June Levant.
EMILIO: I always say, the audience believes what we tell them. If we tell them this is what it is, why would they not believe us? It’s not like someone is there looking through Google. Well, maybe some people are.
Alexandra Pierson (she/her) is associate editor of American Theatre.
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