A magical museum experience: Elphaba's dress comes to the museum
In a special ceremony, Tony award-winning costume designer Susan Hilferty signed the deed of gift for an Elphaba costume and broom from the musical Wicked, based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, to the museum’s popular culture collections. The costume is currently on display in the American Stories exhibition. Former intern and current New Media Department volunteer Mary Kate du Laney shares her perspective on the special day.
On December 17th, at 4 AM, my phone alarm went off to the tune of "Defying Gravity." There are not many things that would inspire a night owl graduate student like me to get up so early after the semester's end. I would also not normally spend my first waking moments painting my nails emerald green with black glitter, but a recent event at the museum inspired me to do just that!
Volunteer experiences rarely surpass all expectations and match up with a passion perfectly, but that's just what happened for me. I'm a lifelong fan of school musicals (I sang along to Sarah Brightman as a first grader, enjoyed my first Broadway show at age ten, and landed the French horn solo for Damn Yankees in high school before stage fright sunk in), but Wicked has a special place in my heart. I was thrilled to see an adaptation of Gregory Maguire's book, which focused on a strong, independent, emotionally-layered female lead, not afraid to wear black and be less than bubbly.
To say that I enjoyed the donation ceremony would be an understatement—and I could tell I wasn't alone. When costume designer Susan Hilferty asked how many in the audience had seen Wicked more than once, nearly all hands shot up. As Tiffany Haas (Glinda) and Donna Vivino (Elphaba) performed three songs from the musical, I admit I was caught mouthing along to the lyrics.
The most amazing part of the day was having the opportunity to interview these talented women and the curator who made it all possible about the dress, portraying Elphaba and Glinda on stage, and the importance of musical theater in American culture and history for a museum podcast.
It was exciting to hear about the research process for the dress design from Susan Hilferty. She spun a tale of power, strength, and depth for the character I love. Hilferty is an inspiring speaker, weaving together her research in history, science, literature, to "create worlds."
"My job as a designer is really to be a storyteller… What was incredible for Wicked was to know that I had two iconic characters that I had to arrive to, I had to get to the end… What is an iconic good witch? And what is an iconic bad witch?" said Hilferty.
From the two actresses, I discovered facets of the show I never noticed, such as how Elphaba gets taller as the musical progresses thanks to some spectacular footwear and how the clothes (and broom) really make a character come to life.
"I realized how strong Elphaba was when I actually put on the costumes... it really helped me with the physicality of the character," Vivino said.
As someone hoping to move into the museum world full-time, sitting down with curator Dwight Blocker Bowers, gave me an opportunity to understand the curatorial side of exhibitions and acquisitions. His research in and love for the arts gave me insight into the passion surrounding the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and how its retellings represent various generations of Americans. "I think that each generation remakes the Wizard of Oz... each generation seems to feel the need to remake what Frank Baum called an American fairy tale. They find that myth very appealing." said Bowers.
You can learn more about the show, its costumes, and the process of designing characters and worlds in the complete podcast.
Mary Kate du Laney is a volunteer with the New Media Department at the National Museum of American History and is the Project Lead for the Smithsonian Civil War 150 Facebook page.
Want more Wicked? Read Part I and Part II of our interview with costume designer Susan Hilferty, see photos of the event on Flickr, listen to the podcast, and, if you're an educator, use the teacher's guide to the podcast with your students.