Designing Drama: How a costume designer brings Broadway plays to life

t takes some of us more than 20 minutes just to pick out an outfit, let alone design one from scratch — not Linda Cho.

Twenty minutes was the amount of time she had to redesign and hand in a sketch for one of the elaborate dresses in Anastasia the Musical, which will be making a stop at the Wharton Center this month.

While doing previews in Connecticut, Cho was told Anastasia’s red dress, which audiences see in the musical’s finale, needed to be more spectacular. The current dress just wasn’t working.

“They didn’t know what exactly it should be but the shop basically told me, you have 20 minutes if you want to get this done,” Cho said. “It was like my Project Runway dress, really high pressure, and it was all hands on deck.”

Over the next three days, a team of more than 10 people brought Cho’s vision to life — all 25 yards of ruffle of it.

“That was an Olympic challenge,” Cho said.

To many, Cho’s entire job as costume designer for the new musical would feel that way.

Cho and her team created more than 125 costumes for the cast, with multiple changes between the Hartford previews and Broadway. So where does one even begin to take on something of this magnitude? For Cho, it all starts with research.

Her sources ranged from period paintings and photographs to museum exhibits. This helped her create what she called her bible of research.

With Anastasia, Cho found copies of Tsar Nicholas II’s photos to take inspiration from. Cho mentioned that he took thousands of personal photographs, many of his family. Some he had tinted pink — this was back in the day before color photography — a nod to his wife’s favorite color.

“I used that as my inspiration for the royal costumes,” Cho said. “You’ll see at the very top of the play, all the princesses are dressed in pink.”

Cho also had to factor how much, if any, inspiration she would take from the beloved 1997 film about the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, which the musical is based on.

There is one dress audiences will see as a nod to the animated film, Anastasia’s iconic blue gown, which wasn’t originally in the production when it was playing in Hartford.

“There was backlash from the fans on blog sites that they were somewhat enraged that her iconic makeover dress wasn’t like the film,” Cho said. “So we were like, let’s make the fans happy for Broadway, so we remade it in blue.”

What Cho did create is absolutely stunning. The Tony Awards Administration Committee seemed to agree, nominating Cho for her work with the musical. She had one of two nominations Anastasia received, the other being Mary Beth Peil for her portrayal of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.

That character wears one of Cho’s favorite costumes she created, a black dress that does a lot of storytelling.

During the scene, the Dowager Empress is in mourning, but she still has an elegant, royal presence, Cho said.

“I think it was a good meld of the period, 1927, and of her royal past,” she said. “Another factor was that older people tend to hold onto clothes longer, so her stuff is somewhat teens-inspired. It’s a little bit higher-waisted, very classic and elegant.”

Cho said the entire cast, especially the principle members, were a delight to work with. They all loved their clothes, a huge perk for a costume designer.

Another perk is getting to interact and collaborate with creative people every day.

“You’re crafting something as a group,” she said. “I’m just one component that is presented onstage, and my work wouldn’t be possible without the rest of the team.”

When Cho decides which shows she wants to work on, being with great people is one of three factors she looks for. The other two: is it a great project, and what does it pay? Anastasia had all three.

During her time with Anastasia, Cho worked for the 56th time with its director, Darko Tresnjak. Both she and Tresnjak took home Tony Awards for their work on A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, which just so happened to be her first Broadway musical.

Cho, who is also the mom of two boys (who would rather get their Halloween costumes from Amazon than have her make them), has more than 200 regional and international design credits in theater, dance and opera. So while she loves designing for Broadway, it’s really one venue of many.

Even though she has been designing for upwards of 20 years — Cho has her MFA from the Yale School of Drama — she said that those first dress rehearsals, where everything comes together for the first time, are still exciting and surreal.

“I always pinch myself,” Cho said. “I always say, ‘I can’t believe this is my job,’ whenever I go to a first rehearsal, because your ideas that you draw on paper, they’ve come to fruition; quickly, too.”

Anastasia the Musical
Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Ln, East Lansing
Jan. 15-20, $43+