In the wings of a Broadway show you will find a ballet of sorts being performed, with a team of people executing costume and set changes as precisely as the actors delivering their lines on stage. And no show on Broadway right now demands that extreme precision like Best New Musical Tony winner A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Lead actor Jefferson Mays wows audiences with his rapid — and seamless — transitions as eight separate members of the D’Ysquith family, taking just seconds to go from priest to a dandy to aging socialite. The man responsible for those changes is 32-year-old Julian Andres Arango.
Arango’s path to Broadway is similar to what you would expect for an actor — he paid his dues at smaller productions both in New York and on the road doing touring shows like a 1940s big band review as well as Hair. One year he even dressed the clowns for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “I oversaw the clown department, so all fifteen hundred-plus clowns,” he says. “I would leave out of Port Authority every morning at five a.m., head out to Moonachie, which I never knew existed, in New Jersey, to the parade studio which is a theme park where they make all the floats.” Arango has now done Off-Broadway shows like Sealed for Freshness and The Toxic Avenger. He also has two other Broadway shows under his belt, having dressed Norbert Leo Butz in the very short-lived show Enron and Alan Cumming in Macbeth.
We sat down with Arango to talk about his career so far — as well as his big Tony moment. His passion is clear, though there is one thing Arango doesn’t love about the job: The title of dresser. “If we were just putting clothes on and taking them off it would be fine, but it’s so much more than that,” he says. When asked what he would prefer his title to be, Arango contemplates before answering with a sly smile: “Lion tamer.”
What drew you to the theater?
I fell into this. I really did. I think it was the fall in 2006, I was freelancing and I was working as a fashion stylist and I was doing some merchandizing. A marketing manager recommended that I take a continuing education class at FIT [the Fashion Institute of Technology, where Arango received his undergraduate degree] from a woman named Barbara Berman who had a dressing team. I had no idea what that meant. I was like, dressing team? She said, “You should definitely contact me. It seems like you would be into it.” And so I did. I worked a fashion show, I think it was Jason Wu when he was launching his collection, and so I was introduced to the idea of dressing. And then I continued to contribute to this team for the Equity Fights AIDS shows for Broadway, and then I did a Broadway Bares [annual charity events put on by Broadway Bares/Equity Fights AIDS]. One of the volunteer designers, Rob Bevenger, was designing a show Off-Broadway, and he asked me to supervise the show. And I kind of was like, yeah, I guess, if you show me the ropes. So I did Sealed for Freshness Off-Broadway at New World Stages. I remember saying to the actors, “I’m really not a theater guy. My focus is in the fashion industry.” And they said, “No. We’re keeping you.” I was like, “Absolutely not. I’m just doing this as a favor.” Fast forward seven years later, here I am.
How did you get involved in Gentleman’s Guide?
After Macbeth closed, Rob Bevenger, who I met working on Broadway Bares, contacted me about Gentleman’s Guide. He’s the wardrobe supervisor. I remember sitting with him and he was like, “All right, they have this show, and it’s beyond amazing. They’re doing it with Jefferson Mays. It’s these magical, crazy, quick changes, I think you’d totally be into it.” He told me the story line, everything. He says, “It doesn’t sound like just dressing. It sounds like work of a ninja.” I’m so happy that I said yes. And then as you went into production and rehearsals, it just really made sense that I was the man, the wardrobe guy behind the scenes, with all the responsibility to just make sure that this man was on stage during every cue wearing every single bit of costume that he should be wearing in order to help tell the story. I love every moment of it. I mean, once you get into the rhythm of a show, six months in, you can put it on autopilot. You can never put Gentlemen’s Guide on autopilot. Never, never, never. You can’t. It’s about being agile, alert, grounded, a troubleshooter, you know, always prepared to execute any situation without taking Jefferson out of his moment.
How does the team work together to accomplish the rapid costume changes?
There are basically three people executing the changes. Catherine Dee is the second wardrobe person on him. She deals with anything that happens behind him, which is zip, unzip or snap. And then we have Jennifer Pendergraft who is the hair person dealing with all of his facial hair. We work great as a team. There is so much communication that happens between us just by our eyes. There’s a lot of nudging. Even when Jefferson’s mic isn’t live you don’t want to talk because that’s another thing that would possibly distract him. And so we don’t really speak. We have our moments where all of us, including Jefferson, we all joke around, but that’s when you put the show on autopilot and that’s when things go wrong. So you can’t. We definitely get each other’s personalities and I think at this point we understand what our strengths are and if maybe some days you’re just not on your A game, we’ll pick up each other’s slack. I’m not going to lie and say that every day I’m like, wow, super ninja Gentlemen’s Guide dresser. I’m glad that they’re there and it’s a team effort, it really is. You know, I understand and take the responsibility of leadership but it’s definitely a team effort.
You also dress Bryce Pinkham. How do you handle being responsible for both leads?
It’s like Batman, Robin and Alfred the butler. It totally is. Bryce and I have this one intense quick change that happens in the second act and I love talking about it because that’s our moment. Jefferson is doing cross training. So he’s coming on and off. Bryce is experiencing the Bikram because he is stuck on stage [for almost the entire show] with no way out. During the second act, he comes off and he throws on his tie and his cut away coat. We have this whole routine where we fling the tie and magnets and throw the coat on and he spins, he takes his water, I tuck his tie for him, and just give him the nudge, the gentleman nudge, just get the jacket nice and sleek, and then he’s off, and then I don’t see him again. It’s just that one moment, but it’s always such a great moment because it’s just like, oh, you’re still alive. You’re killing all the D’Ysquiths, but you’re alive.
Jefferson Mays’ quick changes at the Tonys really highlighted the work of dressers. What was that experience like?
It was nervewracking in the beginning because the idea of something being live on TV, the fact that if there was any troubleshooting that had to happen, when was it going to happen? How? I just started creating all these scenarios in my head of okay, if this, that, what do I do? Do I grab him? Do I just push everyone out of the way? I think we were at Radio City at six on the morning of the Tonys, going through the rehearsal, and we had one of the zippers just malfunction. And there it was. It just kind of reminded all of us involved that at that moment there’s really nothing we could possibly do. So that was the hardest thing, to surrender the idea that there was nothing that I could possibly do if something went wrong besides possibly guiding him to take the next step that might not involve a change. I also had the sense that I was literally representing my union – Local 764. So of course, I was nervous but always keeping it super cool. Always super cool, because that’s the most important thing. It’s not about being there. It’s about making sure that Jefferson was as cool with it, the rest of the team is cool. I feel like I am leading the team so I have to lead by example. Minutes before we went on I had the shakes, but then I looked out into the house. And I just saw our community, our theater community was out there, and I’m just like, you know what? They get it. They know what’s up. Seeing faces that I’ve worked with, like Nick Cordero, we did The Toxic Avenger together, and Lena Hall. And thankfully, when we went on, I had my back to the audience. So that helped. And in the moment that we actually had our bit, you really just kind of shut everything out and it was just Jefferson and I, it was just like being backstage and I think for those 30 seconds that we were out there you could have put me anywhere else and it would have felt just like the way it feels when we’re backstage at the Walter Kerr. It was just him and me and we were just going through our costume montage that we go through nightly [Arango is the figure in the shadows to the left in the clip above].
What are some of the unique challenges of a dresser’s job?
I always say, if there’s one thing that any person who desires to be in wardrobe needs to know before anything, is always remember that you never repeat what you hear or see in a dressing room. You pretty much become just such a huge support system to [the actors’] wellbeing and to their performance. It’s important. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with many great actors, and you experience so many things but you just don’t share it. There are days when you’re just like, oh, this moment, or I just this or we just spoke about this or we just heard this. But the reality is there’s something exclusive and special about knowing that no one else will ever know what it is that you’ve seen. But it takes work, you know? It really takes a lot of work.
The job is more than just changing clothes. What other details are you responsible for?
I come in two hours before every show, I go through all of Jefferson’s costumes and make sure that everything is functional, that the zippers are zipping and buttons are buttoning and identifying anything that may need to be tended to and bringing it to our wardrobe supervisor’s attention. I’ll set up Jefferson’s dressing room, Bryce’s dressing room. My job is about making things as fluid and functional as possible. Like, if I know that they’re going to come in and put their costumes on immediately I’ll have everything set so they just come off, take their bag off, take their clothes off, put on their costume, boom. Get on stage. If I know they’re going to come in and take a nap, everything will stay hanging, nothing in their way. I just want to make sure that their space is as comfortable as possible. Jefferson and I and Bryce, we always talk about staying healthy and working out. I’m a huge juicer too, and I’m always bringing them shots of wheatgrass, and trying to keep them hydrated. I have water bottles for them everywhere. It’s not that they’re not capable of taking care of themselves, but it’s like you get caught up at work and you forget to eat, you know? So I’m the right hand man.
Then half hour comes around, I help mic Jefferson and just kind of get him ready to interact with everyone else that’s about to bombard him with all of the stuff that he needs to know. As well for Bryce and then we have those fifteen minutes, just kind of getting our heads in the game and just prepare ourselves physically, emotionally for what’s to come. It’s a very physical job.
Have you ever had an experience where things went terribly wrong? How did you recover?
We did have a moment, in the beginning during previews. As the show moves forward there are costume pieces that we take off [when Mays switches characters]. Then there are things that we just leave on because there’s no time, but then during the next change we make sure that piece comes off. So there was a change where [Mays] was going from Hyacinth into Senior, which is one of the quicker ones. When he previously changed into Hyacinth, he leaves on the gaiters he wore as Henry. So Hyacinth is unzipped by Cat and I’m pulling Hyacinth off him and then throwing Senior on. I make sure he gets his water, he gets his cane, and as he was walking on stage I was like, “The gaiters.” Literally threw myself and pulled and only one of them came off. I was holding onto his leg and he was literally dragging me on stage. I needed to be as precise as I’m known to be so I needed to take that gaiter off, and as precise as he is, he needed to be on cue. And there’s that moment where you have to decide, you have to either let it go or fight for your life. And I just had to let go. So he went on with one gaiter and we literally got one of the biggest laughs that night. That will definitely be a moment that I will always remember as Jefferson and my first wrestling match backstage. But he won. He won. So it made for great comedy. I felt horrible. But you have to just shake it off because that’s then a distraction and I shouldn’t be distracted. I have to be on my A game.
What advice would you give someone interested in following this path?
I think that one of the most important things is just be realistic. For me it was never about being on Broadway. It was just about being in a wardrobe department. And never be embarrassed or look down on anything that’s below what people consider Broadway. Whether it be Off-Broadway, whether it be cruise ships, whether it be bus and truck tours, you know? I did a mom and pop bus and truck tour. It was called In the Mood. It was a 1940s big band, we traveled with a fourteen-piece orchestra, six singers, full vintage. I did the wardrobe care, and dressing, and loading in, loading out, and it was a great foundation. Things like that will be some of the best training that you will ever have, and you will eventually get your Broadway show.
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