Over 60 Artisans Helped Jen Caprio's Spamalot Costume Designs Reach Broadway | Playbill

How Did I Get Here Over 60 Artisans Helped Jen Caprio's Spamalot Costume Designs Reach Broadway

The Emmy-winning costume designer was also once a cheese seller.

Graphic by Vi Dang

Emmy Award-winning designer Jen Caprio is currently represented on Broadway with the costumes for the critically acclaimed revival of the Tony-winning musical Spamalot at the St. James Theatre.

Caprio started her artistic career with the Jim Henson Company and later won a Daytime Emmy for her Sesame Street designs. She's also designed the costumes for Broadway's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and the 2016 revival of Falsettos, received a Lucille Lortel nomination for her designs for the Primary Stages production of In Transit and a Henry Hewes Design nomination for costume designing Primary Stages’ production of Perfect Arrangement.

The New Jersey native is currently the assistant costume designer for Apple TV+’s upcoming limited series, Manhunt, created by writer-producer Monica Beletsky. 

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—Caprio traces her genesis as a costume designer, how a regional production led to her Broadway debut, and putting her own spin on some well-known Monty Python looks.

Costume design for the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot by Jen Caprio Bee Gables

What made you decide to become a costume designer? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
Jen Caprio: It all started when I was 10 years old. My uncle was the Director of Music for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC at the time. He took me to see the original Broadway cast of Les Miz in the ‘80s. The emotions I felt watching this production stayed with me long after the show was over, inspiring a love for theatre and entertainment.

As a teenager, after seeing that show, I consumed anything made in Hollywood during the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. As I watched these movies, I started to pay attention to the film’s details; in particular, I observed how fashion and film worked hand in hand. Costumes made the movie credible; they helped to narrate the place, the period of time, as well as each character’s personality. I loved every part of it, particularly anything by Edith Head.

I had much more aptitude in high school in the STEM fields, but my parents were divorcing, and as a good kid, my only way of rebelling was declaring I was going to major in theatre at college. My guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I had no clue. She asked me what I like to do and study, and I said, “Theatre, music, and art.” I wasn’t the best at it, but I liked it the best. So she told me to be a theatre designer. I didn’t even know that was a job. So, that’s what I decided to do. It made sense: I loved telling stories, I loved clothes, so therefore, costume designing was a perfect marriage of the things I enjoy.

Where did you train/study?
I trained and studied at Ithaca College for undergrad and Carnegie Mellon for my MFA. I gained much of my practical knowledge about show business at Williamstown Theatre Festival in the early 2000s.

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
The people who impacted me the most—and continue to be the most influential—are the makers and artists who I collaborated with over the years. I’ve learned a great deal from the exquisite tailors we have in NYC and in regional theatres, as well as the crafts artisans, dyers, and painters. Some include Donna Langman, who bends my mind with her talents; Arnold Levine, the milliner whose ideas transform what I have envisioned beyond what I could have dreamed; and the many small business owners in NYC such as Schmalberg, the custom flower maker who has been in business since 1916. I’ve also been collaborating with more tech-driven companies like LW Pearl, who does embroidery and laser cutting, or SKY NYC, where I learned you can print graphics on sequin fabrics.

There are techniques you don’t know exist until you realize you need them, and then you learn how that sausage is made. For me, this craft and career is mainly about continuing education, and we are nothing without the people who work with us. Continuing to evolve through education and experience is crucial to becoming a good designer. When I work on a production, the entire process requires many moving wheels to come together in a seamless effort; therefore, my assembled team becomes a critical component in the translation of my overall vision.

How did you get your first job in the theatre?
On a fluke. I applied and was offered an internship with the Jim Henson Company in 1996, which was not theatre specifically, but was my first entertainment business job. I always love that I ended up full circle working for seven seasons on the team designing costumes for the human beings at Sesame Street, for which I am the proud owner of an Emmy. 

The following year, I got my first theatre job at the Hangar Theatre, located in Ithaca, New York, where I studied undergrad. The theatre and the school had a connection, so that’s where I learned how to sew.

The original company of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Joan Marcus

What do you consider your big break?
I worked numerous summer seasons at the Hangar, and by 2003, they hired me to design. The assistant director of that first show, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, was Dana Harrell. She recommended me to design The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which played at the Barrington Stage in the summer of 2004. I had zero expectation of continuing with the show after it moved [to New York]. 

That fall—when I first met stage director, playwright, and screenwriter James Lapine, who was taking over the project—I was terrified. I was 26, who did I think I was? He became one of my close collaborators, and we continued to work together on multiple shows, with many productions and iterations over the course of about 14 years. Being as young as I was, when we transferred the show to Second Stage, I never dreamed that he would keep me on the project. But he and Bill [Finn] did, and for that I’m forever grateful.

What are the duties of a costume designer before the show opens? What are the responsibilities after it's running?
Step one: Read the script! It sounds so obvious, but I’ve worked for people who do not always use this step as the starting point.

Step two: Attend tons of meetings with the director.

Step three: Develop a budget and the designs simultaneously and try to manage expectations while dreaming. Costume design involves pulling research from the internet, books, and old magazines or art (if that’s relevant), and then compiling all of that research into mood boards and sketches. Sometimes I personally do the sketches, sometimes (if pressed for time) I hire an illustrator.

Step four: If it’s a larger project, a team of assistants is hired to work on shopping, swatching, sourcing, and organizing the project. On smaller shows, I may do this part myself.

Ultimately, either myself or the team of assistants and myself are responsible for all the costume looks for the show, so the duties that fall to me are all related to making that happen. Once the show is running, I’m asked from time to time to make sure the wardrobe team is maintaining the show and occasionally am needed to work with understudies or replacements. Once the show gets to tech, it becomes the wardrobe supervisor’s show. On Spamalot, Joseph Sibley performs this role; his work is invaluable.

Christopher Fitzgerald and James Monroe Iglehart Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

How did your current work with Spamalot come about?
I’d collaborated with Jeffrey Finn, the producer at Broadway Center Stage, on a few other productions at the Kennedy Center. When they chose Spamalot as a replacement for another show, they brought me on. I love working there, and staying at the Watergate [hotel] is always fun. Who knew back in April [2023] that this is where we’d be? It was my first collaboration with Josh Rhodes, who was just a joy to create this new production with.

Was it a challenge to put your own stamp on the Spamalot costumes since the show has a very particular look that one can’t stray too far away from?
Working on Spamalot provided the creative team the gift of being a part of storytelling and comedy history. For me, it was an opportunity to honor the legacy of the film designed by Hazel Pethig and the 2005 Broadway production designed by Tim Hatley, both legends. For costumes, the show has two parts—the deeply Python-centric characters that are lovingly ripped from the 1977 film, and the other half which is a love letter to show business and musical theatre. 

For the former, it’s my opinion that it’s best to give the Python fans what they dream of when they think of Holy Grail—their favorite characters from the film live on stage. With such a great jumping off point, we then could put some little 21st-century Easter eggs. For example, the Afro we added to the traditional King Arthur sun, which was a collaboration between me and James Monroe Iglehart. 

The latter half is a musical theatre treat, one you want to be a feast for the eyes. Because that is a blank page, we were able to pull from all sorts of creative inspirations. It was a satisfying creative puzzle to solve to marry the two worlds.

READ: James Monroe Iglehart Is in His Leading Man Phase

What were some of the other challenges of designing the costumes for Spamalot?
The biggest challenge for us was the timeline. We learned that we were moving the show to Broadway with a short timeline. The arrangement process of getting the new costumes designed, swatched, shopped, and built happened in about 10 weeks, which is extremely short for a show of this size. Gratefully, I had makers who were able to squeeze us in, as well as a lot of colleagues from film and TV who were unemployed due to the WGA and SAG strikes. These costumes wouldn’t have been possible without the 65 various shops, crafts people, individuals, and vendors who jumped in to create the joy that can be seen onstage.

Costume sketches for Call Me Madam by Jen Caprio Jen Caprio

You also designed the costumes for the 2019 City Center Encores! production of Call Me Madam
Yes! That was a career goal and one of my top five favorite experiences. Carmen Cusack’s custom ivory dress for “You’re Just in Love” and the costumes Christopher Schramm built for Lauren Worsham (who I also worked with on Spelling Bee) and the Ocarina dancers were some of my favorite designs. That one was certainly a labor of love. 

What is the most memorable day job you ever had?
Selling cheese at my friend’s cheese shop during the pandemic. I met some interesting characters and learned a lot about cheese! Specifically, I’m lactose intolerant and old/long-aged cheeses are OK for me!

Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo in Joseph… Daniel A. Swalec

If someone were to ask you to choose one costume from any production to put in a time capsule that is representative of your work, which costume would you pick and why?
The design for Joseph’s coat in the national tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which starred Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young and was directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. It was a culmination of collaboration with all departments, and to this day, that finale moment is one of my favorite designs.

What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
Worry much less about what people think of you. It will make you happier. Start wearing comfortable shoes sooner…all the walking you do as a costume designer is bananas.

What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
How much time I’d spend doing Excel/Google Sheets budgets.

What is your proudest achievement as a costume designer?
, for a couple of reasons. It was a project that aligned perfectly with my sensibilities as both a designer and a human, as I love comedy and think it's especially important at this time. I was also finally able to hire some artisans who I love dearly to work with on such a prominent level. We were able to assemble an extraordinary team, which included some young people with whom I’m excited to continue to foster careers for, supporting them as they make their way in the entertainment business.

Photos: Production Images of the Broadway Revival of Spamalot

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