'Nothing Comes From Being Small and Quiet': Suffs Costume Designer Paul Tazewell on Taking Up Space | Playbill

How Did I Get Here 'Nothing Comes From Being Small and Quiet': Suffs Costume Designer Paul Tazewell on Taking Up Space

Plus, how Hamilton led him to designing the costumes for the Wicked film.

Paul Tazewell Graphic by Vi Dang

When Suffs—the inspiring, moving, melodic, and often-humorous new musical following the women who bravely fought for the right to vote—decided to make the jump from Off-Broadway's Public Theater to Broadway's Music Box, director Leigh Silverman was joined by a mostly new creative team. It included costume designer Paul Tazewell.

It seems those creative changes for Shaina Taub's musical paid off: The production received six 2024 Tony nominations, including Best Musical plus a Best Costume Design of a Musical nomination for Tazewell, whose Suffs costumes were just honored with a Drama Desk Award.

The Tony nomination is Tazewell's ninth, following previous recognition for MJ the Musical, Ain't Too Proud, Hamilton, A Streetcar Named Desire, Memphis, In the Heights, The Color Purple, and Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. The artist won his Tony for Lin-Manuel Miranda's megahit Hamilton.

He has also been honored with an Oscar nomination for his costume designs for Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, an Emmy Award for NBC's The Wiz Live!, an NAACP Theatre Award for Best Costume Design for Ain’t Too Proud, two Lucille Lortel Awards, four Helen Hayes Awards, a CDGA Award, a Princess Grace Foundation Fellowship, and The Princess Grace Statue Award.

This Thanksgiving, the first of the two highly anticipated Wicked films, featuring Tazewell's designs, will be released—showcasing the reimagined world created by director Jon M. Chu. His costumes will also be featured this fall on Broadway in the eagerly awaited musical stage adaptation of Death Becomes Her.

In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Tazewell shares career advice and reveals how he found his way to working on the Wicked film.

Paul Tazewell at the first day of rehearsals for Broadway's Suffs

Where did you train/study?
Paul Tazewell: Undergraduate: Pratt Institute and University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Graduate: New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
When I entered Pratt as a fashion design major straight out of high school from Akron, Ohio, I realized that I was more interested in the storytelling and character-driven aspect of designing instead of the market/trend-driven industry of fashion. I transferred to UNCSA after a year at Pratt, and I entered into an educational environment where I truly flourished. The design department was very nurturing, and it was led by very talented and knowledgeable designers and production experts in their field. I was also surrounded by other designers, actors, fine artists, musicians, and dancers, many that would go on to make their individual mark within the expansive cultural community. With my education at NYU, I had many strong influences in my instructors: John Conklin and Carrie Robbins, who unfortunately recently passed away, instilled two very different but very important points of view in approaching my work and process as a film and theatre designer.

John Conklin opened up my perspective of how to imagine the interpretation of representing a design informed by intellectual concept and insight. Carrie Robbins instilled in me the importance of practicality in designing professionally for stage and film while still maintaining the priority for the integrity of intelligent costume design. I was also greatly influenced by Oliver Smith as well, who introduced me to a way of designing and thinking that was rooted in a way of designing that we have both moved away from, but indeed, will always be informed by. Oliver Smith was also a prime example of being a professional and gentleman in all situations in this business.

Hannah Cruz and company of Suffs Joan Marcus

How did you become involved with Suffs?
I was approached by director Leigh Silverman and producers Jill Furman and Rachel Sussman when the decision was made to move the production of Suffs that originated at the Public Theater to the Music Box Theatre on Broadway. This was the first time that I had ever collaborated with Leigh, but I had worked with Jill Furman on In the Heights and Hamilton.

Your Tony-winning designs for Hamilton are also period. In what way was the thought process behind Suffs the same as (or different fromHamilton?
There are structural elements of Suffs that are similar to Hamilton in that there is an ensemble of actors playing multiple roles in order to tell the full story. The story of the fight for American Woman Suffrage with Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Ida B. Wells is told moving through the years of their struggle, starting in 1912 and leading up to the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. This incorporates a number of years to represent the changing look of the clothing for this cast of women, some who are also playing the roles of male characters. It was important for the audience to identify the specificity of characters and their internal struggles, as well as create cohesive and elegant transitions that stayed in step with the fluid way that Leigh staged the overall production.

How did you invoke Inez Milholland’s costume on the horse without recreating it exactly?
I was inspired by the actual photos of Inez Milholland, and I wanted to infuse an iconic quality of a goddess into her look on the horse. I drew from armored images of Joan of Arc and Athena to make Inez appear as a gold-clad and helmeted warrior of Women's Suffrage.

Costume sketches for Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy Schuyler from Hamilton Courtesy of Paul Tazewell

If you were asked to put one of your costumes from any production in a time capsule to represent your work, which would you choose and why?
I would ask that it could be one of the women’s track/series of costumes from Hamilton. I am often asked to synthesize a performer's look to encompass transitions of time through a production, with very little time allowed for the character to change costumes. With Hamilton, I designed looks for the ensemble that were neutral but very specific to the way that we were telling the story. The look was made specific for the female ensemble character by giving her an 18th century corset/bodice paired with leggings and boots that, at a glance, resonates as period specific, athletic, sexy, and modern—and it also allows for seamlessly working as a silhouette to transform into an American Revolutionary soldier or a woman of society of the 18th century with the addition of identifying costume pieces. I would say this best speaks to my ingenuity with costumes and how they relate to movement and clear storytelling.

What made you decide to become a costume designer? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
I grew up influenced by a family of artists. I was surrounded by the culture of the arts, and I became very active first with puppetry and art making, and then with drama clubs and courses in school. I fell in love with performance as an actor and dancer in high school, and I was using my talent as a costume designer as well in high school. My passion led me to enter into universities that allowed me to nurture those skills, and I have fortunately been able to realize my dream of being a professional costume designer of very notable films and theatre productions.

There are so many influential productions that made me want to be a costume designer, but to name a few that I saw early in my teens when I was figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say, first, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Barnum, Dreamgirls, Cats, Sophisticated Ladies, Dancin', Evita—all stellar productions in their own right with amazing costume designers each.

Cast of Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk Michal Daniel

What do you consider your big break?
I’ve been fortunate to have many “big breaks” throughout my career, one leading to the other. Starting with my position of resident costume designer at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., meeting George C. Wolfe and being asked to design Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, being asked to design the original Broadway production of The Color Purple, meeting Tommy Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda and being asked to design the Broadway production of In the Heights, which then trickled over to being asked to design the Broadway production of Hamilton. I would say that was the design that gave me the most visibility up to that point and visible enough to allow me to then work with Steven Spielberg on his film of West Side Story and, in turn, the highly anticipated films of Wicked directed by Jon Chu. All of these “big breaks” from beginning to now I honor. And I am grateful for the experience and growth that they have provided me.

What is the most memorable day job you ever had?
My most memorable job has to be designing the upcoming film Wicked. That experience was mind-blowing and has been infused with my own personal creative expansion.

What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
If I could talk to my younger self and encourage myself as I was starting out, I would stress showing up with confidence and the importance of taking up more space and attention in a room, by allowing my voice to be heard as loudly as possible. I have learned in my years in this industry that nothing comes from being small and quiet. All comes from being present and making that presence known.

What is your proudest achievement as a costume designer?
My proudest achievement as a costume designer is what I am living now. The fact that I have found a profession that is a great match for all of my interests, artistic expressions, and abilities, and that I have sustained longevity in this profession with continued passion for costume design is no small feat.

Photos: Shaina Taub's Suffs on Broadway

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