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Career Day

Backstage at ‘The Lion King,’ he handles beads, harnesses, and sweat

Inside the daily life of a Broadway wardrobe technician

By Margaret Eby

Jack Schmitz is a Broadway wardrobe technician and costume design technologist who works as a dresser on “The Lion King.”

When “The Lion King” is running onstage, what are you doing backstage?
I’m usually waiting in the wings for my performers to enter and exit. I meet them ready with tools for troubleshooting the mechanical headpiece, cough drops, tissues — whatever they may need in the time they have before they go back onstage.

I’m always walking around with water bottles and sweat towels. Sweat isn’t something people think about in costume work, but it’s a huge part of our job. The actors might be wearing several pounds of clothing under the hot lights, and all that makeup. It’s not that glamorous!

What do people get wrong about what you do?
People tend to think that costumes are about making a pretty dress, but it’s much more about making wearable things and making them last much longer than average. You have to be able to wear it eight times a week, tumble around the stage, and still have that garment look like it’s not under extreme wear and tear, unless it’s intentional.

Who do you dress on the show?
I mainly dress Simba and Mufasa, two of the leads. I’m responsible for making sure that they’re wearing, head to toe, the clothes that have been custom made for them, that everything is buttoned and zipped up.

Sweat isn’t something people think about in costume work, but it’s a huge part of our job.

What do they wear?
Mufasa wears a leotard and a corset, as well as a mask and a sword holder. Simba is a corset, pants, shoes, ankle cuffs and wrist cuffs as well as the appropriate underwear — we provide underwear. So their costume needs are minimal, but very detailed.

Mufasa’s corset is covered in sea grass, a natural fiber that breaks down easily. It’s visually stunning, but the wear and tear on it is pretty serious. Simba’s corset is entirely hand-beaded in a complex pattern, and beads fall off all the time. I can look at it and see places in the pattern that need to be fixed. It’s like reading a computer code.

Are there other aspects of the costumes that are difficult?
I have to attach flying harnesses so [the actors] can be hoisted up into the air. I make sure the buckles and fasteners click and are in the right place, so they aren’t like, flying and dying. I also deal with a headmount change. Mufasa has a headmount [a helmet with costume pieces on top] that has a motor and a battery pack; I test it all out before the performer gets there. If I notice any problems with it, I send it up to the puppet department. If something goes really wrong, we have a back-up plan. It happens sometimes; it’s live theater and it’s unpredictable.

How has Broadway costuming changed since you started?
With the advances in digitally printing on textiles, we are able to replicate designs that no longer exist, or print them on a fabric that is more durable. One example is switching from silk or other natural fibers to synthetic textiles, because the synthetics are more colorfast, durable, and can be laundered with ease.

What’s on the horizon for costuming?
3-D printers will allow designers to imagine almost anything and turn it into a tangible thing. You could create 300 of the exact same item and have it turn out identical, or it could be something as simple as replicating a button to match a set on a vintage garment.

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Margaret Eby is a writer based in Brooklyn and author of South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature. 

 

Illustration by Verónica Grech

 

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