Paul Tazewell interview: ‘West Side Story’ costume designer
On the list of iconic costumes from the last 60 years, few are likely as recognizable as Rita Moreno’s famous purple dress from “West Side Story.” It’s an outfit Moreno’s Anita wears in what is arguably the Oscar-winning musical’s two most iconic scenes: the famed “Dance at the Gym” and then the performance of “America.”
“I was totally enamored with the woman in the purple dress who was just dancing with this reckless abandon,” Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita in Steven Spielberg’s new version of “West Side Story,” previously told Gold Derby. “I so desperately wanted to do that because I think I came out of the womb dancing. I just loved it and I loved that she sort of looked like me. I guess it felt like it gave me permission to try and do things and move very freely.”
But when it came time to dress DeBose’s Anita for “America,” costume designer Paul Tazewell had permission to go in a different direction. Unlike in the 1961 version of “West Side Story,” Spielberg’s “America” takes place apart from the “Dance at the Gym,” meaning Anita didn’t have to wear the same outfit. As a result, Tazewell landed on a bright yellow dress for DeBose’s Anita, an outfit that took center stage in the “West Side Story” marketing.
“It is a day in itself, it is Anita and her friends making their way through New York City … all of them coming together throughout this day as well as in being joined by the community, the Puerto Rican community. So it fills a different moment,” Tazewell tells Gold Derby in a new interview. “I needed to find something that was going to really support and embody all the energy that is ‘America.’ With that, I started looking at color and styles and what could it possibly be as a day dress, and I landed on this yellow tone. For me, it became a metaphor for the sun and for just this radiant energy.”
Tazewell is an acclaimed costume designer, best known for his Tony Award-winning work on “Hamilton” and other Broadway musicals like “In the Heights” and “The Color Purple.” On television, Tazewell is an Emmy Award winner for “The Wiz! Live.” But “West Side Story” is Tazewell’s biggest feature film yet – and for one of the most acclaimed directors of all time.
“We spent a little bit of time getting to know each other and understanding each other’s sensibility,” Tazewell says of his relationship with Spielberg, who often uses the same department heads on his projects, but sought out Tazewell because of his work on “Hamilton.” “West Side Story,” Tazewell says, “has been a part of my life, probably since the beginning of my interest and involvement with theater when I was in high school. And it’s been in my blood, and also, I’ve always loved the original design. So in developing our version of ‘West Side Story,’ I tapped into my own sensibility and Steven’s interest in making it feel a little more realistic. … It gives it kind of a deeper, richer view of what was going on at that time, and how to represent New York City in 1957.”
Watch the full interview above. “West Side Story” is in theaters now.