There are two things you notice about the costumes for Strictly Ballroom The Musical. Firstly there are sequins. Lots of them. Secondly those with negative body issues should probably not audition for a role. Skimpy, quite literally, doesn’t cover it. Not even close. The show, which sees maverick dancer Scott Hastings take on the traditionalists as he sets out to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship, is based on Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 film of the same name. A few years ago the director decided to revisit the rom com which gave him his break on the big screen and take it back to the stage.
Luhrmann, whose mother was a ballroom dance teacher, had originally written Strictly Ballroom as a short play, but this time he wanted it to be a full- blown musical with more than a little helping of high camp.
The show premiered in Australia in 2014 and for its UK premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse the team behind it agreed to lend the Leeds theatre the original costumes which were designed by Catherine Martin, whose work on Luhrmann’s other blockbusters The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge earned her four Academy Awards.
“They arrived in 89 boxes and just unpacking and hanging them was a voyage of discovery,” says Victoria Marzetti, the theatre’s head of wardrobe. “We are so lucky to have them, but the cast can’t just pick them off the rack and put them on. They are all different shapes and sizes to the original cast so we’ve had to make quite a number of alterations.”
As well as remaking some of the original costumes, the team at West Yorkshire Playhouse have also added a number of new pieces which are shrouded in the kind of secrecy normally reserved for royal wedding dresses.
“We know that a lot of the audience that come to the show will already be fans of the film,” says Victoria, while advising the photographer what he can and most definitely can’t take pictures of. “There are some things they expect, but we also wanted to give them something new. This is about us being able to put our mark on the musical.”
The film was in many ways an unlikely hit. It didn’t have the usual budget of a blockbuster and 25 years ago, Strictly Come Dancing hadn’t yet made sambas and paso dobles must-see viewing.
“You can see why everyone loved it, because it has such a great story,” says Jan Bench, a freelance costume associate who has been drafted in to give Victoria a second pair of hands.
“The costumes are as much a character as Scott or Fran. The way they move is just beautiful and when you put a dancer’s body into them they almost become a work of art in their own right.
“Ballroom dancing has really struck a chord with people thanks to Strictly Come Dancing and you can see why because when it’s done well it’s effortless. There is also quite an old-fashioned glamour to it and what Strictly Ballroom does is mix that with some really exciting routines and it’s a pretty potent combination.
“When you do a new production like this when it comes to the costume design, I think you just have to be true to the spirit of the original. Every outfit has to reflect the journey that the characters go on.”
The show brings with it more than 2,000ft of coloured ostrich feathers, 208,000 handcrafted diamantés and additionally, each of the £5,000 wigs takes five days of continuous knotting to make and will have to be redressed daily and washed weekly.
However, as well as looking good the costumes have to be robust enough to make it through the eight-week run intact.
“The feathers and the fabric look delicate, but we can’t have them falling apart by the end of the first week,” says Victoria, who is also looking after the costumes for the Playhouse’s two other Christmas shows, Rudolf and The Witches. “And there are some really quick changes. For one, we have just 25 seconds out of one outfit and into another and that’s asking a lot, but we are a pretty well-honed team. While Strictly Ballroom is big, it’s not the biggest show we’ve ever done. That would be Carnival Messiah a few years ago which had 500 costumes, so we are used to dealing with things on a big scale.
“This time of year is always incredibly busy and yes, by the time we get to January we are all pretty exhausted, but when you see the audience reaction you know it’s been worth it.”
The wardrobe department at the Playhouse has five permanent members of staff and it is now one of the few British theatres that still has its own in-house team. “I walked in here and couldn’t quite believe it,” says Jan. “So many theatres have lost their costumes departments. It’s down to budgets and I understand it but I think it’s short-sighted because we are in danger of losing so much talent. The great thing about a set-up like this is that it provides an opportunity for those who have just finished college to really learn their trade.
“Victoria has taken on a few extra pair of hands in the run-up to Strictly opening and every one of them is brilliant at what they do. If places like this didn’t exist and there isn’t anywhere for costume designers to perfect their trade then I do worry what the industry will be like in 10 years time.”
Victoria herself trained at Liverpool in costume interpretation, which entailed intensive pattern cutting, tailoring, sewing techniques and history of costume. Her first job was as a wardrobe assistant at Harrogate Theatre where she worked in a department of two, cutting, making and dressing the cast. In 1997 she moved to the Playhouse as a cutter and within a year she had been promoted to deputy head of wardrobe and supervised the Ian McKellen season.
She has been in charge for the last two years and Strictly Ballroom The Musical will be the 100th Show that she has supervised.
“The wealth of knowledge that someone like Victoria has is priceless,” adds Jan. “As well as technical ability you also need to be calm under pressure and when there are three shows up and running you also need to be incredibly organised. It’s the first time I’ve worked at the Playhouse, but I hope it won’t be the last. Honestly I’ve been blown away.”
Victoria is momentarily distracted as one of her team moves various costumes into position for a photograph and she’s also conscious that one of the cast members will be arriving soon for the first fitting of the day.
“Once it starts, it doesn’t stop,” she says. “We have to make sure that every costume not only looks right, but it can move with the dancer because some of the routines in Strictly Ballroom are incredibly physical.
“With any show you never really know how it’s going to look until they are all up there on stage under the lights. That’s always a special moment and for something like this when the costumes are so opulent it’s even more so.”
Strictly Ballroom the Musical runs to January 21 a the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. For tickets call 0113 213 7700 or book online at wyp.org.uk