By Sam Thielman
(Editor's Note: I am very pleased and honored to be publishing this interview with Martin Pakledinaz, conducted by Sam Thielman in 2011. Sam Thielman is a staff writer for Adweek and a frequent contributor to Newsday's books section. He has written about the theater for Variety, Newsday, Back Stage and The Washington City Paper, among others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and too many comic books.)
Martin Pakledinaz was a very talented costume designer who worked on a truly incredible number of Broadway shows. He died Sunday at his home in New York, according to the AP, which is a great loss to the American theater. While I was working at Daily Variety, I wrote the same feature every year before the Tony Awards: a long article on the designers nominated for the prize. It was the plum assignment to end all plum assignments; for "research" I had to see every popular show on Broadway so that I could interview every designer within a few days of the nominations and file the feature quickly, but the interviews themselves were, if anything, even more rewarding than the shows. Set and costume designers are necessarily articulate about their craft in a way that directors, actors and writers are discouraged from; Martin Pakledinaz, in particular, gave me one of the best interviews I’ve ever had last year before the 2011 Tonys.
He was in the early stages of his battle with cancer, but he was still working on Anything Goes and The Normal Heart simultaneously. Isaac has graciously given me space to post, in his memory, the mostly-unexpurgated interview, starting with our conversation about Anything Goes and going on to The Normal Heart and his own illness. I've edited it here and there to make it legible and included bracketed clarifications where needed, but this is mostly the text of our conversation as it occurred, from just after the small talk ended to just before we started talking about whose Broadway Cares auctions were more fun to watch, Daniel Radcliffe's or Hugh Jackman's. Please enjoy it. I didn't know Martin well, but I think, given his enthusiasm about the charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, it wouldn't be inappropriate for me to suggest a donation to that charity in his name, if you're so inclined.
Sam Thielman: Tell me about [Anything Goes].
Martin Pakledinaz: I enjoy clothing through the centuries, and I enjoy studying it, as opposed to clothes that need stylization because of the subject matter or because of the dance. [Director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall]'s dance kept to the time pretty closely. Often with '30's dance shows, if there's a huge amount of movement that's fabulous, but that's not with the period, and then you have to have the fullness in the skirts. But with Kathleen's moves, we can just go with skirts from the period—they just look like 1930's women, and then they do a tap number. I'm inspired by design, but I kind of make it my own on this kind of show. Working with Kathleen on a real level, she really understands the time and she doesn't… imprint on it. We might do a visual thing, but it's so pure for her—she goes back for the time.
ST: That sounds very difficult.
MP: One of the things that was hard and beautiful was finding our way into it, because the revival was so successful. But if anything I was inspired by the original, because Tony Walton's design was so original.
ST: Do you ever have to break period?
MP: One wonderful number that I got to work on, which I had to break the period for, was the opening of Rob Ashford's Thoroughly Modern Millie. I don't know if you saw it, but [in dresses from the period] they can't open their legs—and I just saw [the choreography] and I went, "Girl…"
ST: So the less acrobatic dancing in Anything Goes gave you greater license.
MP: I knew when I could [make a tighter dress]. With the Angels' getting on-the-boat things, if [Kathleen] had said, "I need a fan kick," I'd have to have made them differently. If she'd said, "I need them to kick and touch their noses," I'd have said, "Well, I guess I need to put a slit in there.
ST: That's really great. Do you ever have to put, I don't know, a gusset in the crotch for the guys, a la the old Chuck Norris Action Jeans?
MP: [laughs] Actually, they're '30's, so they're a little loose. I have dancers like that in a suit, in men's things. This won't sound pretty, but I say, "Do a deep squat. Do a lunge, and do this, do that," and if you're lucky enough to have the time and the right tailor, you're fine. You only need a gusset if you're doing something really insane.
ST: Please tell me about Sutton Foster's dress.
MP: I tried to make a dress that maybe people who don't know what the show is would see, and they’d think that she'd be doing ["Blow, Gabriel, Blow"] all in white. You know, rather than do it a choir robe, or something where it was obvious she'd be taking it off.
ST: Where did the idea come from?
MP: I was inspired by a silent film called Madam Satan. It's about a good wife who goes in disguise to see if she can win back her husband, and she wears that sort of stylized devil dress. So it was inspired by that. And I knew we could always show off Sutton's legs.
ST: What did you change?
MP: We knew we wanted fringe—that was part of our research. It was a journey, because when those were being made was when I went away [to have brain surgery]. It was clear even at the sketch stage that I was making something. When I came back, I was a little softer because I was in surgery.
ST: You also have The Normal Heart this season, right? How was that process?
MP: It's great to be able to work on it, but I lived a lot of those years. I was never one of those heroes. Every speech [in the play] I have my own imprint on. And the fact that it's still… you know, it's not just about AIDS. It's about governments not acknowledging people. You can make it about the time and you can make it about "we gay men," but this African-American woman was looking at the poster, and she said, "What's this about," and I told her, and she said, "I'm a little offended that there are no people of color here," and I said, "You know, if you look back, you'll see that we're not the community you thought we were."
Maybe it's about Koch, who was a monster—which you can quote, I don't care. But it's about the community, which is in part responsible for the spread of the disease. All of these other major cities like San Francisco [where the city contributed $4 million to fight AIDS] had dealt with it. In New York, they were given $9,000.
ST: It must have been a terrifying time to be gay.
MP: When it happened—and it's one reason I get so emotional—no one knew what was going on. And when you see the play, you'll see all the fear. And we were ashamed to talk about it, and no one would stop having sex. [cries]
ST: How did you portray that fear in the costumes?
MP: John Benjamin Hickey plays a character who, when we meet him, is healthy, and he's beautiful and dapper. And in the final scenes we see him, and just through direction and acting and the clothes we have to show that he's ravaged. That's a subtle thing—even changing a shirt in the middle. You know, when you're not feeling well you just dress differently. And we have this guy Wayne Wilcox—guys these days really maintain themselves, and there was no gym culture in the 70's, and it was about finding things that hopefully evoke; the shirt collar is falling down around his neck. We've all seen people who are lost within their clothing a little bit.
ST: What was it like to work on two shows that are so different?
MP: I had the astonishment of Anything Goes, and the joy. I'm happy I've done [The Normal Heart], but to be honest, I'm a wreck at the end of the night. The other day I had to say, "I need to take a night off." It brings back memories. I'm sort of at peace with what's happening to me, but... you have no idea how firm the commitment of the community to me is. One of my favorite charities is Broadway Cares. They don't just acknowledge the community, they really help it.
ST: And you had Joel Grey working with you on both shows, presumably going through something similar.
MP: He's been a huge support. […] Joel and I have gotten even closer. I have a little Buddha made out of quartz that he bought me before the operation.
ST: It must be very strange to be going through so much personally at the same time.
MP: I think it's good that people know. For a long time, it was just Martin's Mysterious Illness, which was not good. Now I'm working on The Normal Heart, which I lived through, and I'm in the early days of cancer.
- - -
From here, the two of us basically start talking about our favorite Broadway Cares post-show prop auctions, and the transcript isn't very interesting to anyone who hasn't seen a bunch of these. Again, I would like to humbly suggest that anybody who really dug this interview would make a donation to Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS in Martin's name. I don't normally ask this sort of thing, but he really spent a long time talking about it in a largely unrelated interview and it clearly meant a lot to him.
 Here is Sutton Foster doing "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" in the bottom layer of the costume we're talking about. This was a really wonderful show to see live, and you can probably dig up a bootleg in which she starts off in the white number that Martin is talking about here, but I didn't have the heart to post anything where you can't hear Foster's beautiful voice. People spent a lot of time snobbily proclaiming that this or that person they'd seen play Reno Sweeney was better, which misses the point so spectacularly that I get depressed thinking about it.