Interview: EMILIO SOSA (Costume Designer for “1776,” “Ain’t No Mo’,” “A Beautiful Noise,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Good Night, Oscar” on Broadway)

Post image for Interview: EMILIO SOSA (Costume Designer for “1776,” “Ain’t No Mo’,” “A Beautiful Noise,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Good Night, Oscar” on Broadway)

by Gregory Fletcher on June 4, 2023

in Interviews,Theater-New York


Has there ever been a costume designer for five Broadway productions in one season? Not just that, but with Tony Award nominations for Good Night, Oscar and Ain’t No Mo’. Meet costume designer extraordinaire Emilio Sosa, who had a chance in a very busy week to speak with Stage and Cinema’s Gregory Fletcher about his season on Broadway.

Past Broadway work includes a debut in 2002 with the original production of Topdog/Underdog, and later with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (2012, Tony nom), Motown: the Musical (2013), Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (2014), On Your Feet! (2015), Trouble in Mind (2021, Tony nom), and Skeleton Crew (2022). TV/film credits include “Annie Live!” and Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer.”

Emilio Sosa with The Rockettes (Radio City)

GREGORY FLETCHER: Congratulations on the recent Drama Desk Award [for Costume Design of a play—Ain’t No Mo’ — Here is S&C’s review].

EMILIO SOSA: Thank you. I just came back from the nominees’ luncheon, and there was an astounding sense of community. We’re all in this together. I’m feeling grateful. You know, I’ve been around a bit, so it’s nice. I appreciate the recognition. And I appreciate the work; I love my community.

FLETCHER: I noticed, too, that your colleague Mia M. Neal also won for Outstanding Wig and Hair [Ain’t No Mo’].

SOSA: She’s such a genius; an incredible talent.

Jordan E. Cooper in Ain't No Mo' (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: I assume wigs and hair crosses over a bit into your vision and territory of the character-look. Is that a tricky, close collaboration to maneuver?

SOSA: No, because I let them be who they are as creative artists. That’s the reason they’re working on the project. I have an overall vision of who the character is from my own research, the director’s point of view, and then the actor’s input.  Once we all have the general vibe of what we want, then it’s up to the wig designer to visualize it through their own lens, and that’s how the best collaborations happen. Because I am not a wig designer; I cannot tell a wig designer how to design hair.

FLETCHER: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the idea of designing the costumes for five Broadway productions in one season makes my head spin. Is that crazy or what?

SOSA: Yeah, it is. But, there were many factors that contributed to it being a very busy and full season for me; it wasn’t planned.  COVID had something to do with it because one project was pushed back, then slotted in for this season. Then A Beautiful Noise did so well in Boston, it got transferred in. It just happened. But I’m proud and happy that I was able to express myself in so many different ways. I love being stretched that way. I had a good time.

Crystal Lucas-Perry in Ain't No Mo' (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: You deserve a vacation.

SOSA: COVID stopped things for two years, and then, you never know what’s gonna happen next. As an artist, you’re always considering whether there will be another job. I’m grateful and blessed to be busy.

FLETCHER: Do you have an assistant per production? Or do you have assistants who assist you in general for everything?

SOSA: I like to create pods (or teams) for each show independently because a show is a living organism. I always tell people, “It’s not just the one thing I sketch that gets approved and we’re done.” But within the rehearsal process, things change. Another vision may come to light, so everything must be very fluid to keep everything moving and evolving. So, I like to create three pods that rotate for every other show or project.

Fedna Jacquet, Shannon Matesky, Marchant Davis,
Crystal Lucas-Perry, Ebony Marshall-Oliver in Ain't No Mo' (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: How many people in a pod?

SOSA: It depends on the show. Ain’t No Mo’ had three. A small show would have three with a floating person. For Sweeney Todd, we had a team of 10. But that’s for a cast of 26.

FLETCHER: How do costumes evolve?

SOSA: In tech rehearsals when we put all the elements together, that’s when the work really begins. For example, Natasha Katz’s lighting in Sweeney Todd is revolutionary. I worked closely with her, asked a lot of questions about colors, mood, and she’d make recommendations, and I’d show her stuff. Her lighting is like another character in the show. For me, that’s the fun part — putting it all together.

Mark Jacoby and The Noise in A Beautiful Noise (Julieta Cervantes)

FLETCHER: Your work has a lot of fun in it. A Beautiful Noise (see S&C’s review) begins with a few therapy sessions between the older Neil Diamond [Mark Jacoby] and his doctor [Linda Powell]. The scenes jump from one to the next, and the quick costume changes that follow are pure theatrical magic. I’ve never seen such lightning speed changes before.

SOSA: That was the genius of Jamie Harrison [Illusion Designer] and his team of magicians who came up with those solutions; it’s very specialized work, very seamless, and so technical that there’s a beauty to it. Yes, it looks so effortless onstage, but that’s Jamie and his incredible team.

Will Swenson and The Noise in A Beautiful Noise (Julieta Cervantes)

FLETCHER: And later in Act 2, when jumping from concert to concert, there were some more quick changes with younger Neil Diamond [Will Swenson].

SOSA: Yes, that’s layering. You know, you have two shirts on, and then you take one off. Then you add another. And you rip the pants away. It’s very visual and all about color. He starts off with a pair of black pants. By the time we do the third change, he’s gone from black to red. It’s shocking to the eye. The same thing with the colors of his shirts. We started in blue, then we went to purple, then to red. By escalating the color, that’s how I help the audience experience the different concerts.

Ensemble (The Noise) in A Beautiful Noise (Julieta Cervantes)

FLETCHER: How’s that different compared to the quick changes with the doctor? Doesn’t that involve clothes, too? Why did it take a separate team?

SOSA: I can’t give away industry secrets, so let’s just say that the illusion was very successful. But it is technical. Yes, it’s clothes, but it’s all how it’s made.

FLETCHER: In two of your productions, you were dressing real life people: Neil Diamond, Oscar Levant, Jack Parr, to name a few. Does this make it easier or harder to design?

Motown the Musical (Joan Marcus)

SOSA: A little bit of both. When I did Motown: the Musical, a lot of the people we were portraying were still alive. So, I had to respect that these people lived these lives. When doing real life people, it’s about authenticity. Neil was a showman. He wore all that sequin and glitter. I didn’t make that up. That’s Neil Diamond. When you look back at all his concerts, he was up there with Elton John and Elvis. They were all wearing all that glitzy stuff. For me, it’s about authenticity. It’s about making sure I’m honoring the history of the person that’s living, because most importantly I want it to ring true.

FLETCHER: Another fun part in A Beautiful Noise is getting to jump around the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.

SOSA: Oh, yes, I can go back without having to actually wear the clothing in real life. I wouldn’t want to ever wear the 80s again. But here, the 80s were so much fun because we were so adventurous. I was a kid in the 70s, but I remember how the 70s were so sexy. Everything was slimming and tight, low hung, cut out T-shirt. Real sexy. Whereas the 80s were all about shoulder pads and frizzy hair, and the 90s, all black and baggy. But even more important, hair is the number one way to show the time. The easiest way to tell an audience what period you’re in is with hair. It’s such a cultural phenomenon. That’s why for me, it’s so important when I collaborate with a wig and hair designer. Hair has to look real.

John Zdrojeski, Sean Hayes in Good Night, Oscar (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: With Good Night, Oscar [see S&C’s review], you didn’t have a variety of decades to work with, it was more subtle. And yet it was the clothes that pushed Oscar’s journey forward.

SOSA: June Levant [Emily Bergl] sets it up when Jack Paar asks, “How does he look?” She says, “He looks like Igor in a cheap suit.” Those words from [playwright] Doug Wright is a perfect description. Meaning, his suit should look sloppy, big, and ill-fitting. I chose a specific tweed that never holds a crease because the fabric is too spongy. It makes the suit look even sloppier for him. Then later, he transforms right in front of us when he changes out of his hospital clothes and into a quality suit for the TV segment.

Alex Wyse, Sean Hayes in Good Night, Oscar (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: It’s like the nice suit gives him the strength to survive the TV interview. And afterwards, when he realizes he’s not going home, he changes back into his hospital clothes, knowing that going back is the only reality for him.

SOSA: I think the nice suit transforms Oscar into a man. And when he takes it off, and puts on the floppy hat, there is nuance in the change of body language and energy. It’s such a sweet, poignant moment.

Marchánt Davis, Sean Hayes in Good Night, Oscar (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: In what year is Sweeney Todd set?

SOSA: Roughly between 1830 and 1846.

FLETCHER: And the additional challenge on top of the period is you’ve got the three classes of people: lower, middle, and upper class. And you show the differences so effortlessly.

SOSA: It’s all about color and fabric. As you go up the ladder, the fabrics get finer. They get smoother. The colors get lighter. You’re not walking in the mud. The elite are riding in a carriage and being carried to the carriage. The lower class is working. The skirts are shorter, so they don’t drag in the mud. Your boots are dirtier. No matter how much you wash your clothes, there’s always going to be the stain of dirt. Plus, back then, you didn’t have as many personal belongings as we have today. Like this morning while preparing for the luncheon, I didn’t have a T-shirt to go under my suit, so I just ran out and bought one. They didn’t have conveniences like that. Nor the money. But what they did have is dignity. So often, people think the lower class doesn’t have self-respect. I’m not putting people in rags just because they’re lower class. I grew up low income here in New York City. And you know, we were not in rags. Poor people have dignity. And I like to show that. As the classes go up, the colors get a little brighter. The fabrics are nicer. Lower class is all tweed and burlap, and the upper in cotton and linen. And wool and satin. The jackets have a little bit of a luster. The shirts are a little crisper. They have a collar. They’re wearing an ascot. Their top hat is finer versus a cap for the lower class. For the upper-class women, the dresses are longer, the fabrics are richer, and the sleeves are longer. There are more details like lace, buttons, a little cape. There’s a hat and gloves. Judge Turpin is at the top end of the pyramid. He’s the only one adorned in white in the show. He’s in a white shirt and a beautiful French brocade vest, with hand carved Mother of Pearl buttons. The audience may not see it, but the actor knows, and it elevates his character.

Gaten Matarazzo and cast in Sweeney Todd (Matthew Murphy/Evan Zimmerman)

FLETCHER: It’s such great storytelling. I also noticed with the Judge that when he proclaimed the sentence, he took out a piece of black material and placed it on top of his white wig, [peruke]. Where did that come from?

SOSA: Research. We found out that back in the day when someone was sentenced to death, the judge would put a little black piece of fabric on his head, and when the defendant saw this, he knew he was going to die. Yes, that was such an amazing piece of research to find, and it was great how Tommy [Thomas Kail, the director — also a Drama Desk winner for Outstanding Direction of a Musical for Sweeney Todd] just opened the doors for me and my team to really explore.

Jordan Fisher and Maria Bilbao in Sweeney Todd (Matthew Murphy/Evan Zimmerman)

FLETCHER: I also appreciated the bird image played by the character Joanna [Maria Bilbao]. How she moved and gestured as if trapped in a cage. And the breast of her dress shimmered like a bird’s breast. That was brilliant.

SOSA: [with laughter] I’ll take it, thank you. Yes, I had great fun making her costume because I love excess. There’s never enough for me. I rather go all the way out because you can always pull back. I think it’s harder to start meek and then to find ways to up the ante. But Tommy wanted Joanna to be classic and clean. He wanted the fragility of her arms to be like feathers. And our actor is so expressive, Maria, that her sleeves are very narrow like a bird’s wing, and the sateen fabric we used for her gathers in the front and gives off a little bit of a shimmer. And because she’s always under this great light that makes her glow, the fabric glimmers — I’m glad you noticed that. Also, she’s wearing a little gold cross with diamonds on her neck.

Nicholas Christopher and cast in Sweeney Todd (Matthew Murphy/Evan Zimmerman)

FLETCHER: I noticed, too, the humor you incorporated into the costume design. After the scene when Beetle reaches inside a birdcage and snaps the head of the bird, in the following scene with Mrs. Lovett [Annaleigh Ashford] she wears a hat with a stuffed bird on top.

SOSA: Yeah, she probably found the dead bird and made a hat out of it. Or someone sold it to her. The creepy thing back then was that animal taxidermy was huge in fashion. They loved accessorizing with it.

FLETCHER: Switching to 1776 (see S&C’s review), another period piece, but this time, most of the characters are of the same class, and yet now the founding fathers are being played by a cast of women, non-binary, and trans. How did that affect your costume design?

SOSA: That show was about individuality. It was about needing to make everyone look their best in that silhouette. Made for specific people, wearing these clothes. It wasn’t about being sold on the period, but I wanted to make the actor look good, feel confident, and be assured I was giving them enough.

Liz Mikel, Nancy Anderson and Gisela Adisa in 1776 (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: With the collaboration between you and the actors, is that in the fitting room when trying on costumes or in the very beginning when taking measurements?

SOSA: At the meet-and-greet where ideas are presented. Designers show drawings of their vision for the production illustrated through costumes for the characters. This is after many conversations with the director and respective teams. By the time it gets to the actor, there’s a clear vision of where the character is going. But it isn’t set in stone. We can still move around and grow as needed. You know, that’s the thing about costume design. You have to grow with the character’s development. You can’t put them in the same costume that you and the director spoke about six months prior. My work is part of that process as well. I want the actors to have ownership of the characters while in the clothes. I don’t want them to put something on because they were told to wear it.

The cast in 1776 (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: The differences between the five productions you’ve designed this season are so great and varied. What was the biggest challenge you had in Ain’t No Mo’?

SOSA: Ain’t no Mo’ was about the quick changes.  The show moves fast and each vignette is very specific. It’s not like, “Oh, they can wear these pants again for that other part,” or tracking costume pieces throughout. The vignettes were each specific to itself, and to do it right, I couldn’t cheat just to ease the costume change for the next vignette. And that’s a testament to Stevie [Stevie Walker-Webb, Director]. Understanding that these characters really needed to be fleshed out costume wise, then we figured out how to make these required quick changes work. A lot of time throughout the show the actors only had 30 seconds to make complete changes!

The cast in 1776 (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: I read that when you were young, a teacher wanted to help you out of your shell, and gave you some colored pencils, which never left your hand, giving you a newfound sense of purpose in life. Have you kept in touch with this teacher? Does she know what a turning point she gave you?

SOSA: This was in 1973. She must have been 30 years old back then. That’s 50 years ago. So, I don’t know if she’s still alive. But I do remember her name—Miss Torres. She was ahead of her time because she lived in the Village, she had a Husky dog, and she commuted up to the South Bronx to teach.  You know, it would’ve been interesting to get to know her as an adult. And I’d like to thank her because it was a major turning point for me.  She changed my life forever.

FLETCHER: God loves teachers.

SOSA: Absolutely – Yes!

FLETCHER: Are you still saying yes to everything?

SOSA: [with laughter] Yes! Why, what you got for me?

FLETCHER: Hmm, I’m gonna have to get back to you on that. But I’m guessing though, at this point in your career, it may be hard to say yes to everything because you’ll be offered too much to handle.

SOSA: More pods, more people. Yeah, there’s this saying I live by from this amazing choreographer, creative director Frank Gaston, [Jr.]. He says, “Share the light; shine brighter.” The more people I can help get in the industry, the more I will shine. That’s where equity, inclusion, and diversity come in when we bring people up. We can’t wait for others to do it. We have to do it ourselves.

FLETCHER: You’re putting colored pencils into young people’s hands.

SOSA: Yes!

Follow Emilio at @esosafashion

find Gregory Fletcher at Gregory Fletcher Facebook and Instagram

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