For me, a good lunch break is one where I pick up food from my favorite lunch spot and take a walk outside (weather permitting—this is Chicago of course). Last week, my lunch breaks may have reached a peak of awesomeness as I spent an hour at the Civic Opera Building, home of the Lyric Opera.
I entered through the stage door, denoted by a classic black and gold sign, in keeping with the building’s art deco style. near the northeast end of the building. Little did I know the depths of the wonders that awaited inside. I had seen the Lyric’s My Fair Lady a few days earlier, so to say I was excited to see the fabulous dresses that Lisa O’Hare wore while playing Eliza Doolittle was an understatement. That tiara she wore during the ball! That polka dot frock she donned for her first Ascot gala.
Upon arrival, I was whisked away to the costume department, where I met Maureen Reilly, costume director. I found myself standing amid row after row of pristine costumes, labeled meticulously with character names, notes, and show titles. The organization was astounding, and I realize it had to be, but it went beyond what I even had imagined—silly me thought there would only be one space where the costumes were kept. Silly. Me.
Maureen took me through each space of Lyric’s costume stores, every nook and cranny, every dressing room, and every show time changing area. I quickly discovered how prepared Lyric is—from extra costumes, to a complete haul of shoes and hats. Lyric prepares its costumes for the entire season far in advance, as summer is the off-season—I recognized this when I spotted a trunk of costumes imported from France and pieces that would be preserved in a warehouse space. Stored in various spots throughout the building, each costume has its place and order, which Maureen knew backwards and forwards.
I learned things I hadn’t even thought about before—like does Lyric do laundry after each and every show? The answer to that is yes. Are the costumes fireproofed? Again, yes (think about those on-set candles!). The amount of man- and woman-power that goes into every scene is immeasurable, with quick changes happening seamlessly behind the scenes in dressing rooms or curtain boxes a short jaunt from the stage, lit with blue lights so the audience is completely unaware. I learned that each actor wearing a wig had to have it perfectly shaped with a mold, and all were on display in rows, neatly labeled. I learned that costumes for the extras were ready and waiting, preventing any last-minute shakeups.
After seeing My Fair Lady, I was quickly impressed by the ornate costumes and how quickly large ensembles moved from opulent formalwear to casual street clothes. Maureen filled me in on just how impressive it was—22 women and 33 men are solely part of the ensemble and secondary cast. That’s 55 outfits to maintain alone, not to mention the costumes of the main players like Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins. Higgins’ servants got ready in change booths, while some cast members did quick changes in the elevator. O’Hare even has a quick change in the wing of the stage while attendants create a makeshift dressing room around her. Yep, this organization is that in sync.
I learned that the shoes worn in My Fair Lady were mostly rented—and it’s the first time that Lyric has ever done this for a show. I discovered that Anthony Powell, the costume designer for Lyric’s production of My Fair Lady, worked for the original My Fair Lady costumer, and he wanted to make it a colorful production—hence the use of original prints that had not been shown from Raoul Dufy, a prominent textile artist in the 1920s. The show was set in 1930, and it typically portrayed a much earlier era, giving the show a modern twist.
I also learned that the inspiration for Eliza’s beautiful white gown at the Ascot Ball was Jackie Kennedy. Maureen shared that Jackie O was an event host, and everyone wore color, while she wore all white. Topped with a tiara on that stage, Eliza’s costume was supremely stunning. Every little detail was carefully curated with the show, including the dress Eliza wears during the rain-in-Spain segment, which is Spanish-influenced in design.
While the tour lasted an hour, two moments truly stuck out at me as experiences I’ll feel forever grateful to have seen. First, the dressing rooms—each lead performer in My Fair Lady makes their home base exactly as he or she wishes. There’s a piano in each room, a mirror, a closet filled with costumes—but there are also personal mementos. A jar of perfume. A congratulatory note. Hot tea with lemon. In seeing where these artists spend their time before the show, I gained personal insight into who each was when they are off stage.
Second, the stage. I can’t say enough how breathtaking it was to set foot on the stage for a few brief moments. Henry Higgins’ home was on display, filled with beige tones, marbled flooring, majestic columns, and books as far as the eye can see. I stood there and felt the energy of the cast, yet I would never be able to comprehend the rush Lisa O’Hare feels when she steps on-stage during the Ascot Ball, or the thrill Richard E. Grant as Higgins must feel when he succeeds in training Eliza to become a lady. I could truly comprehend the grandeur of the stage, and of Lyric as a whole—just behind the stage awaited costumers, a slew of accessories, dresses, suits, fabrics, and much more. With a seamless performance of a timeless classic on-stage, I feel privileged to have experienced the costume department’s perspective too, if only for a little while (that I’ll surely treasure forever).
Tickets are on sale for the remaining dates of My Fair Lady, which runs through May 21. Tickets range from $22 to $199, and can be purchased here or by calling 312-827-5600. But don’t worry; there are plenty of shows coming up this year, too that are sure to stun with costumes galore.
All photos by Sarah Brooks.