There’s a little show on Broadway right now that you may have heard of — it’s a musical about the life of a Founding Father.
Yes, that’s the one.
Jennifer Raskopf is an assistant costume designer for Hamilton, the show that picked up 11 Tony Awards last night (no biggie). She’s seen the show about a dozen times — or two dozen, if you count shows that weren’t fully staged — has cried every time.
Raskopf helped shop for and do swatching and fitting for costumes for the 28 members of the current cast, from bras to buttons to the king’s cape. Like most typical theater-goers, she has about 30 Playbills sitting around her apartment; unlike most typical theater-goers, she can casually reminisce about the time Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created and stars in the show, started singing DuckTales while everyone was waiting for lighting onstage.
Based in: New York City
Graduated from: SUNY New Paltz with a degree in theater and a concentration in performance and design; MFA in stage design from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas
Previous jobs: I moved back to New York City where I did design work for small shows, sourcing fabrics for people who didn’t have time to. For a short time, I worked at a costume shop, where I’d buy the threads and snaps for use in costumes.
How did that lead to Broadway? I developed a good working relationship with [costume designer] Tracy Christensen, who introduced me to other designers, and through that network I got started working as an assistant on Broadway shows.
Shows you’ve worked on: The national tour of Shrek, Catch Me If You Can, Leap of Faith, A Free Man of Color, Drood, On the Twentieth Century. I also assisted on Sweeney Todd performance at Lincoln Center with Emma Thompson, which was televised, and a West Side Story performance in Queens.
Let’s move on to the main event. I was initially hired for 11 weeks on Hamilton, starting in early May of 2015. After the show got running, I helped out here and there; I’m associated with the show, but not full-time.
What was your day-to-day like during those 11 weeks? The design team is primarily responsible for realizing the vision of the designer — for Hamilton, it was Paul Tazewell — and assisting with research to ground the show you’re doing. Since this show was historical, there was a lot of specific research. I was mainly sourcing undergarments, scheduling fittings, attending fittings, and finding accessories where needed. I did some searching for specific military details, too, and helped with swatching: finding different fabric options with various colors and textures to create a palette.
Once the show starts, it’s wardrobe’s show — they dress the cast, launder everything, and do alterations if people lose or gain weight. The design team still works to filter in new pieces after clothes get wear-and-tear. For example, there’s a lot of work to get lighter-weight woolens for the dancers doing crazy breakdancing in period wool coats. We get them more comfortable while keeping the appearance Paul [Tazewell] wanted.
It must be difficult to shop for items that look like they’re from the 1780s. What are your secrets? Etsy and eBay are my friends, and there are lots of wonderful vintage stores in the city. Lots of us costume designers stock up on certain things repeatedly; I have little stashes of pocket watches and wedding bands hidden everywhere, which frustrates my husband. You can still get pocket watches, it’s just a matter of finding one that has the Statue of Liberty on it versus a $400 antique one. You might be able to get away with the former since it’s not visible from the seats,which is the nice thing about theater. Everything will be at least 10 feet away from the audience. Though sometimes, you do have to buy that one key beautiful antique. An earring will be so small, it doesn’t matter if I get it at Macy’s or an antique shop; you won’t pick up a musket prop at Macy’s.
The job sounds incredibly detail-oriented. We keep track of everything in the Costume Bible. We take a swatch of every piece of fabric in the show and label it, who it’s for, what part of the costume it’s for, how much it cost, where you got it. There are 1 million tiny details. In a man’s jacket, for example, you have the lining; the body of the coat; the lining of the sleeve; the lapel; the collar, which can be different from the lapel; and the cuff fabric. If you have buttons made, which one of those fabrics is the button made from? Most of the buttons in the show are custom made to go with the clothes.
And that’s for how many people? There are around 28 people in the cast, and all have multiple costumes, as well as covers and standbys. Some of the stuff [from when Hamilton was at The Public] was reusable, but we rebuilt most of it to make it uniform.
The toughest thing to find: We had trouble finding the right shoes for a few people, ones that looked period but were comfortable; most are custom in the show. In West Side Story, the distinction between the gangs was the purple shoes, so it was hard to find enough different purple sneakers that the actors could dance in. There are just not that many options for men’s purple sneakers that are danceable.
Do people immediately cozy up to you, asking for tickets, when you tell them what you do? [Hamilton] is one of the first things I’ve done that has had this amount of impact. I go to my small hometown, to the school where my mom is a teacher, and the principal — who I have never met — comes up to me and says, “You must be Jen! How is Hamilton?” I try not to talk about it all the time! It’s kind of cool, but sometimes I feel like I’m humblebragging. Someone says they work in advertising, and I get to draw pictures and pick out fabrics all day long. In terms of asking for tickets, I think the actors get it a lot worse than I do.
How many times have you seen Hamilton? About a dozen. Including non-fully dressed or fully staged shows, about two dozen. It’s life-changing; I’ve cried every night I’ve seen it. It’s made me super interested in genealogy, too, like what was my family doing the revolution?
Do you listen to soundtrack in your spare time, or is it too work-related for you at this point? Yes, I listen to it pretty frequently. It’s just infectious. My mom, who listens to it when she goes walking, put it so well: It’s the exact right rhythm for an upbeat life. It’s the exact tempo for just walking around and feeling inspired. I listen to it while driving; it keeps me alert.
Best part of your job: I work with people who love what they are doing. Even on a frustrating day, you’re not sitting at a desk punching numbers; you’re not doing something you feel was a compromise. People in this industry are doing unique and fascinating things, and I’m in awe of what my coworkers do.
Most challenging part of your job: It’s physically grueling. When I tell people I shopped for 10 hours yesterday, they think it’s so fun. But I’m lugging giant bags of leather and shoes for 10 people around. Even though online shopping has helped, you still have to go out and buy fabric when it’s raining and in the middle of winter and in the heat of summer. When I was a new, young assistant, I bought a pedometer and I was clocking 10 miles on a slow day. I was schlepping giant Shrek suits, carrying armor to fittings, making sure shops had specific things they needed. I never feel like I’m in danger of getting out of shape, but the average day during tech is 15 hours long. We’re all doing this because we love it; when you’re walking 10 miles in the rain carrying 30 pounds of shoes up and down the street, it’s because the other options aren’t your dream.
Something people would be surprised to learn about your job: How often we come into very close contact with celebrities. Either they come to a show or they do a concert or they’re in the show themselves. I adore Emma Thompson; in Sweeney Todd, she was dreamy from start to finish. My mom was super psyched when she found out that I was working on a show with Sting.
What’s Lin-Manuel Miranda like IRL? One of my favorite moments was in rehearsal. We were doing lighting, so everyone had to stand still and wait to make sure the colors were right and hit them exactly right. Everyone was in a hold. It was quiet for a little, and then suddenly Lin started singing the DuckTales theme song and everyone joined in. Then he launched into Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. I think I was the only one in the audience who knew that one… I definitely joined in. He has such boundless, joyful energy.
Most important skills in your line of work: Having a good understanding of fabrics and their different properties, even if you don’t know the name of each one; knowing where to spend and where to save; being adept at online shopping and scheduling. Research abilities are also critical — being able to find pictures from the period you’re looking at and backing that up in actual books, since online is always questionable. Lastly, you need to be able to improvise. If something is totally unavailable, how can you solve it in the next 20 minutes to get it on the stage? That’s a skill you don’t necessarily start out with.
Your favorite Broadway show, other than Hamilton: I recently saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with my mom, which was completely heart-wrenching. It’s such a treat to go to a show you’ve never worked on and have no idea how they did it — that way, you can just be amazed.
Were you always a theater nerd? I did theater in high school and studied fashion design my senior year, and I only looked at colleges where I could do both acting and design. This is the culmination of everything I wanted to do when I was little, minus wanting to be president, which I’m not really sure I want to do anymore.
What are you working on now? Prepping for the Chicago Hamilton show (tickets go on sale June 21). We don’t have casting for it yet, so there’s no contract yet, though.
For more theater geekery, meet the opera singer who compares singing to a hot fudge sundae and the American Idol coach. All photos above courtesy of Jen Raskopf.