The cast of Sweeney Todd in costumes designed by Melanie Watnick.
Conlan Ledwith and Jamey Hood in Sweeney Todd.
Melanie Watnick got started in her profession as a student costumer at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Following graduation from UCSB, Watnick continued her studies at UC-San Diego, where she obtained a master of fine arts degree in costume design. After a stint at the Juilliard School as a guest costume designer for The King Stag, Watnick went on to teach costume design at UC-Irvine for seven years and then worked as a freelance costume designer, where she designed costumes for theatre and dance companies such as SCR, Seattle Repertory Theatre, San Diego Repertory Theatre, Boston Court Pasadena, Kansas City Ballet and Norwegian Cruise Line, among others.
As a costume designer and professor at Pepperdine University, Watnick develops curriculum and uses her connections in the performance world to cultivate long-term professional relationships for her student-artists. We recently caught-up with the Los Angeles native to ask her a few questions about designing costumes for Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
What was your design inspiration for the Sweeney Todd costumes?
I am a huge fan of this musical and the dark themes it explores. The industrialization of England was not such a pretty thing in reality. There was human suffering, loss, poverty and people were at their wit’s end. I wanted to capture this feeling, but in a fleshy vibrant way versus going dark and Gothic. I looked at a lot of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, paintings as well as still life paintings with rotting fruit and dead game. The use of color and light in these paintings really intrigued me. I relied on them heavily to create a color palette for the show.
What’s the best part—and the biggest challenges—about working on Victorian-era costumes?
The best part of working on a Victorian-era costume production is that it is Victorian-era. I love this period, which, to be clear, has several stages within it and can look quite different decade to decade. We set our Sweeney Todd in the 1840s. The hardest part is that we can’t build every costume, so some pieces are shopped. Thank goodness for the people who are interested in historical reenactment clothing—and the cosplayers who take it seriously. They have opened up the options available to buy things pre-made online that can look fairly good with a bit of tweaking and tailoring.
What inspired you to delve into a career of costume design?
I've been interested in theatre since I was a kid. I used to sing, act and dance but it wasn't my cup of tea entirely—something was sort of missing. Once I got to college, and learned that there was a path in design, I jumped in with both feet. Theatre being a collaborative art form is really what I love and costume design is based in that. From developing a design concept, to working with an actor and draper during a fitting, to the final moment it is seen onstage, it is a joint effort.
What do you enjoy most about being a costume designer?
Fabrics. Finding the perfect fabric and getting to use it to make a garment. Seeing it come to life on an actor and move the way you had hoped. That is when it all comes alive. Knowing again that you succeeded as a team to make that happen is a grand thing. It makes me giddy, honestly.
What are some of your favorite productions that you’ve designed costumes for?
Sweeney Todd, honestly…it is a true pleasure to work with this group. Smokefall at SCR and Hey-Hay, Going To Kansas City and Keep Me Wishing In The Dark, both with Kansas City Ballet.
Learn more about Sweeney Todd and buy tickets.