The weight of skirts: Anna’s costumes in ‘The King and I’

The King and I

Hancher — through Saturday, Oct. 14

Heather Botts in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘The King and I.’ — photo by Margot Schulman

On the day of the Women’s March, Jan. 21, 2017, King and I lead actress Heather Botts was onstage in L.A. playing Anna. When she said the line, “I believe women are just as good as men — just as intelligent, just as important,” Botts remembered, the show stopped. The audiences started cheering, roaring in her ears. She knew then she was a part of something, in a time in history that it was important to be telling the story of The King and I.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is coming to Hancher Oct. 10-14 (tickets are $40-95). I had a chance to talk to two very important women in the production: Botts, still playing the iconic role of Anna, and Laci Roberts, the Wardrobe Supervisor for this tour. The show has been touring for over a year and loaded into Iowa City this past weekend. After the 16-hour load-in the costumes will be prepped, set will be reassembled, lights hung and the stage will be set for this grand spectacle.

Many of the costumes for this tour are the same ones used by Kelli O’Hara’s Anna and the rest of the cast in the Lincoln Center production. Full disclosure: I worked in that wardrobe department two years ago, just before my family and I relocated from Brooklyn to Iowa City. Getting a chance to talk to Roberts was a nostalgic delight. She and her team work endlessly on the elaborate costumes: repairing, altering and stitching to keep the details right.

Costume sketch for the character of Anna. — image courtesy of Hancher

These costumes are magnificent to say the least. Their crystals and beads sparkle even before the stage lights hit. I remember hours and hours of steaming and ironing, of repainting masks and shoes. The most challenging yet beautiful garment is the huge lavender skirt worn by Anna when she dances with the King. Roberts gave me the inside scoop on that piece.

“The skirt weighs just over 45 pounds,” she said. “The bottom … has five layers alone; over her bloomers is the cage, then two hoops, the ruffled petticoat and finally the purple satin overskirt we see.”

For all of Anna’s incredible costumes, Botts needs her own quick-change booth stage-level, a challenge the crew deals with in each theater. Wearing the skirt, Botts cannot go up and down stairs and sometimes has to fit through terribly small spaces backstage. Anna has a star dresser in charge of her costumes, including assembling the skirt’s layers and prepping it for each show. The clever wardrobe team have a system of color-coded shoelaces tying each underlayer together, so as to not get off-kilter.

This skirt sways back and forth as the King and Anna dance, seemingly floating across the stage.

“There were no words,” Botts said of the first time she tried on the skirt in rehearsal. It’s heavy, she said, and she gets a real core, quad and hip workout every night.

“As it starts swaying and gets going, it’s a lot of fun, though,” she said.

Botts feels powerful as Anna while wielding around such a grand skirt. She recounted that the show is set in a time period where the circle of a woman’s skirt protected her — gave her space in a time when women weren’t meant to take up any space.

The King and I is a story of a strong woman bringing new ideas to an old way of thinking — being part of the right side of history. As we watch Anna in her grand skirts, we can be reminded of the strong women that changed history along the way.

This is beautiful show, not to be missed. The cast and crew are working many hours to provide each city 100 percent of their best, bringing all the grand spectacle of the Lincoln Center production here to Hancher.


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