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Backstage at Les Mis: Buttons, clasps and clips keep costumes intact

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Austin Photo Set: Meredith_les mis_may 2012_2
“Beggars at the Feast” – The Company of the New 25th Anniversary of Les Miserables.  Photo by Deen van Meer
Austin Photo Set: Meredith_les mis_may 2012_1
 “Lovely Ladies” The Company of the New 25th Anniversary of Les Miserables. Photo by Deen van Meer
Austin Photo Set: Meredith_les mis_may 2012_3
 Andrew Varela as Javert. Photo by Deen van Meer
Austin Photo Set: Meredith_les mis_may 2012_4
 I Dreamed A Dream, Betsy Morgan as Fantine.  Photo by Deen van Meer
Austin Photo Set: Meredith_les mis_may 2012_5
Peter Lockyer as Jean Valjean/ Photo by Deen van Meer
Austin Photo Set: Meredith_les mis_may 2012_2
Austin Photo Set: Meredith_les mis_may 2012_1
Austin Photo Set: Meredith_les mis_may 2012_3
Austin Photo Set: Meredith_les mis_may 2012_4
Austin Photo Set: Meredith_les mis_may 2012_5

I have a hard enough time getting one three-year-old dressed in the morning — I can’t imagine having to keep track of one thousand wardrobe pieces every day for 38 actors. 

“It can turn into a big game of finding the missing sock,” Les Misérables (Les Mis) Wardrobe Supervisor Brit Baines says with a laugh. Being good at her job — maintaining the integrity of the costumes for the touring company of Broadway’s longest running musical — requires a lot of organization, a great memory and a little psychology.   

 The actors wear 90 percent of the costumes in the first 45 minutes of the show. That makes it very important that everything starts and ends in the proper place so that none of the thousand moving pieces gets lost. 

“I’m definitely the mom to 38 actors at times when it comes to making sure they’re dressed properly,” she explains. “Because I do this every day you just learn peoples’ little idiosyncrasies - like the guy who always puts his scarf in his pocket. A local dresser will come in and spend an hour looking for the scarf and you’re like, ‘it’s in his pocket.’ Little things like that you pick up.”

After studying theater in college, Brit paid her dues in Las Vegas for five years, working wardrobe on several big shows. She’s been with Les Misérables for about a year. The show that follows the struggles of several characters in 19th century France, features hundreds of richly layered costumes, all managed by Brit. 

In each city, the show hires nine or ten local dressers to help pull off the hundreds of costume changes. Brit says the dressers come in just an hour and a half before opening night to learn what they have to do. “It’s like, 'hi, welcome to Les Mis,  here are your responsibilities.'” 

The dressers, who are usually part of a union of theatrical stagehands, receive paperwork further outlining their responsibilities and detailing how the costume changes work.  Each actor has a dedicated chair in the "Wardrobe Village" backstage and the costumes are stacked in order.  

“So, they put on the first costume, go do the scene, come back, throw their dirty clothes in a basket and take the next outfit and just work their way down. That’s kinda how the whole show runs.” 

The quicker changes happen side stage, in the dark. “It’s amazing what you learn to do in the dark.  You can pretty much just feel it out. I think sometimes I could do it with my eyes closed but its not me doing it — it’s someone brand new every week and they usually take three or four shows to get used to it and then they have four more shows and then we leave.” 

Brit says the actors wear 90 percent of the costumes in the first 45 minutes of the show. That makes it very important that everything starts and ends in the proper place so that none of the thousand moving pieces gets lost.

“Everything has a home and a place where it lives and they are labeled and organized and that’s part of the paperwork that we give to the local dressers and basically we do our best to get everything back to its starting position at the end of the night.”

The local dressers also help to launder and repair the costumes as needed.  “Most things we just have one of, and that becomes a challenge keeping it clean and in good order, she explains. “But anything that touches the actor’s body like their shirts and the bottom layer, we have doubles of and they get laundered on a rotation.  But most things we just have one of. We don’t have room to carry extras.”

Brit says the layered look of Les Mis costumes and the fact that none of the characters are dressed exactly alike gives her wardrobe team a bit of an advantage over other shows. She says if a wardrobe piece does go missing, the audience isn’t going to notice.

About 70 percent of the costumes in the 25th Anniversary Tour of Les Misérables are the same design as the costumes used on Broadway — the other 30 percent are brand new. All are integral to a successful production.

Nine transport trucks, including one dedicated to wardrobe, containing all of the elements that make up the touring version of Les Misérables roll into Austin this coming week.

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You can see the amazing period costumes featured in Broadway’s longest running musical at Bass Concert Hall from May 29 to June 3.

If you need any help deciding what to wear to the show... don’t call Brit Baines... she'll be busy!

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