“What I yearn for, is an idea of how I can interpret things… or reinterpret them in a way we’ve never seen before,” reveals Clint Ramos. The Tony Award winning costume designer, who discusses his latest project in our recent webchat, is nominated again this year for his inventive work in “Once on This Island.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
The process of reinterpreting “Once on This Island” for the current revival came easily to the costumer thanks to director Michael Arden’s clear vision. “The design mandate was pretty clear from the beginning,” says Ramos. Arden’s desire to “reposition the musical ”to reflect current events led to a design concept that invoked present day Haiti. That island nation, like much of the Caribbean, is recovering from a series of devastating hurricanes and earthquakes. The actors then, wear costumes out of found materials.
Since a major conceit of “Once on This Island” is a group of island dwellers performing a musical fable, Ramos’ found material concept brought the island gods to life in unique ways. Alex Newell’s Asaka, contains one of Ramos’ favorite costume pieces. The character starts out as a food seller, and in a fabulous “drag moment” turns his plastic tablecloth into a dress to become the Earth Mother goddess. He adds, “By creating characters with real stories for each particular god before their transformation in deities, it narrowed down the materials I could use.”
The actors themselves served as inspiration for the designer. Ramos notes that his concept for Erzulie came into focus when Lea Salonga was cast. “That costume is anchored in who Lea is” says Ramos. When finding a justification for the presence of an Asian woman on a Caribbean island, he found research photos of many Asian nurses volunteering with Doctors Without Borders. A perfect backstory for the woman playing the compassionate goddess of love. “There’s lots of story behind it,” says Ramos. The concepts “would only have worked if the actors were really on board.”
Ramos’ nomination for Costume Design of a Musical is his second Tony nomination, after previously winning the Costume Design of a Play category for his work on Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed.” That win marked the first time a person of color had ever won that Tony category. “It’s profound. It’s remarkable. And it’s also maddening” that it so so long for such a milestone.
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