Milwaukee native Alyce Gilbert, Wicked’s wardrobe mistress, on a life of theater
The veteran of "A Chorus Line," "Dreamgirls," and many more Broadway shows returns to Milwaukee alongside the "Wicked" tour, stopping at the Marcus Center this month.
Who would have thought that a twelve-year-old’s summer job with the Milwaukee Parks Department’s Playground Trailer Theater would lead to a Tony Award? Milwaukee native Alyce Gilbert has served as the Production Wardrobe Supervisor of Wicked since its out-of-town tryouts in San Francisco in 2003, and was awarded a Tony in 2007. “I perform all the duties of the Wardrobe Mistress of the Broadway company with my staff, as well as being responsible for hiring and supervising the wardrobe personnel for the touring companies,” she said. “There is considerable traffic between the companies and shipping of old and new costumes between the companies.”
Gilbert continued to do this kind of work during her university years, so she had been wardrobe mistress for dozens of shows before she came to New York. That was convenient, as wardrobe was the most available off-Broadway job when she arrived in New York. She did fifteen Off -Broadway shows in two years because she was willing and able. “Eventually I started doing wardrobe for the Public Theatre – while also working in a law library full-time – and that meant that eventually I lucked out with A Chorus Line and moved to Broadway.”
She would serve as the production wardrobe supervisor for the entire run of A Chorus Line, although she wasn’t always directly present due to a number of other shows she worked on at the same time. Among her duties? Keeping the company’s costumes frozen in time, even as the show’s run extended through 15 years. “Since A Chorus Line ran so long, I had to find suppliers willing to make dance wear that was no longer fashionable or available and coordinate with the Shakespeare Festival Costume Shop to make [the character] Cassie’s skirts and dance pants,” Gilbert said. “I also worked with the costumes for the finale to stretch them out beyond the usual life of a costume. The original cotton-back satin was remarkable in its strength and looked good for a long time. There are still costumes from the original Broadway stock being used all over the country with great success.”
A Chorus Line would just be one of the many shows she would take on in her career. There’s the original companies of Ballroom, Dreamgirls, The Will Rogers Follies and Grand Hotel, The Musical, Broadway revivals of Into The Woods and Kiss Me, Kate, and, as she herself admits, “a number of flops.”
While Gilbert’s job isn’t under a bright spotlight, it takes a lot of work to make sure those costumes end up there. In an average production, she is responsible for getting new costumes fitted, dealing with underwear and show suppliers, hiring wardrobe personnel and replacements and sticking with a production in the theater from 9:30 a.m. until the show is over, six days and nights a week.
Of course, she’s not alone. Off-stage, at the Gershwin Theatre in New York, an assistant supervisor is enough to schedule personnel, do much of the computer work and fill in for Gilbert when she’s out of town. Backstage, it takes a virtual army to pull everything off. “Wicked has twelve dressers who are responsible making sure that the actors are on stage in the correct costumes every performance,” Gilbert said. “They also do emergency repairs and lots of costume transport.”
And that army doesn’t just work nights: There are numerous “day workers” on Wicked for each performance day who check the costumes in each dressing room for repairs and stains. “There is some ironing but on Wicked it is mostly repairs,” Gilbert said. “There are stitchers who do major repairs, and also ongoing projects, such as relining costumes, repair and refurbishment. There is also a person who works on shoe maintenance, and another person who works with the mechanics of the monkey wings.”
Gilbert admits that, after 46 years there, New York has become home, but she notes that having traveled all over the city with the Playground Trailer Theater, she knows Milwaukee’s turf pretty well. Special occasions, like a college reunion or a beloved aunt’s birthday, bring her back, as does her work – soon to be right under that Marcus Center spotlight.
The Marcus Center will host Wicked from June 12 to July 7. Tickets start at $45 and can be purchased in person at the Marcus Center box office, (414) 273-7206, or online at Ticketmaster.