MURRAY LANE: UNDRESSING THE WEST END (Part One)

Absolutely Fabulous!

Fancy rubbing shoulder-pads with Norma Desmond or helping Oliver Thornton out of his Basque? When Tiffany Graves, star of Chicago and The Producers gave us her “leading lady” list of the West End’s most interesting characters, one name was at the very top. Murray Lane has been dressing the biggest stars in the West End for three decadent decades, and we’re thrilled to say that he’s agreed to share his dressing room secrets and tales from the theatrical closet with us. In this two part interview, we meet the man who knows Patti LuPone, Elaine Paige and a host of West End stars very intimately indeed!

Patti Lupone: Every performance is a Masterclass
Murray with Patti LuPone: Every performance is a Masterclass

Hi Murray – let’s start at the very beginning – how long have you been a dresser?

All my working life. I did my degree in fashion design but by the third year I hated it. I graduated in 1984 and just didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I was a fan of Cats – I’d seen it a lot and I got to know some of the dressers there. One of the dressers said “Oh, there’s a job going on Starlight. I applied for that, and because I’d done fashion shows with quick changes, I got the job. I remember thinking “I’ll do this for three weeks while I decide what I’m going to do with my life”. Thirty-one years later I’m still doing it!

So Starlight Express was your first job – that must have been a baptism of fire?

The Greaseball gang start off from black outfits and then go into their characters as engines and trains…but once they’re in costume that’s it – it wasn’t as busy as you’d think. You’d be around in case a toe-stop needed changing but more complicated roller-skate repairs had to be done by stage management. It was a crazy show to work on in some ways though – some of the cast had never done any theatre before. One guy had played roller-hockey for South England and had never even seen a West End show: His sister got him an audition because she’d read about it. So it was full of these established performers like Jeff Shankley and Stephanie Lawrence, and then other people who had no theatre training – it was very interesting backstage! I joined about 3 months after the show opened.

Backstage on Starlight Express with Dustin (Gary Love)
Backstage on Starlight Express with the show’s original Dustin (Gary Love) and alot more hair!

Do you wish you’d been there from the start?

On Starlight, no. It’s best on a new show to have experienced dressers, because so much changes in rehearsals and previews – it can be highly confusing.

Do all West End Shows have dressers?

Some plays just have the wardrobe mistress and the wardrobe deputy and that’s enough. In musicals you’d almost always have dressers, although shows are being staffed less and less. When we started on Viva Forever, they employed four dressers for a full West End musical with a lot of costume changes on a lot of people. It just wasn’t physically possible…there weren’t enough of us to take the costumes out of the wings after a quick change, re-hang them and get the next costumes ready. Even by the end we still only had 6 of us on Viva. I dressed two of the leading ladies and one of the leading men and four ensemble. I was constantly divided, running between ensemble and principals. I dressed Sally Ann Triplett, Sally Dexter and Simon Slater plus four ensemble boys – I did ninety flights of stairs every show.

Murray with Sally Ann Triplett: Anything Goes when you're a West End dresser!
Murray with Sally Ann Triplett: Anything Goes when you’re a West End dresser!

I guess most theatres don’t have lifts?

Very few – and even those that do often won’t allow you to use them during the show in case you get stuck – mostly the lifts are very old. I actually did get stuck in the lift at the Adelphi with Patti LuPone before her first entrance on Sunset Boulevard. We got in, the doors shut, and that was that: the thing wouldn’t budge. There we were, pressing buttons like mad and hammering to be let out. Kicking it, chucking a turban at it – nothing worked! The crew managed to free us just in the nick of time for Patti to sweep down the staircase and meet her public, but it so nearly ended up with Joe Gillis delivering Norma’s famous line “You there, why are you so late?” and Patti calling back “Because we’re stuck in the lift darling!”

In a team of dressers, is there a pecking order?

Usually on a new show, the Head of Wardrobe will divvy out the plots. If you’ve got a strong CV and you’ve dressed a lot of people then there’s a fair chance you’ll be given the lead to look after because they know they can trust you to do that job. I’ve dressed big stars and I’ve dressed ensemble, I really don’t mind which. If you dress the ensemble you feel much more part of it – you’re in the wings, you do all the quick changes, and it’s a bit more social sometimes. Sometimes a big star like Elaine Page might say “I want my friend (a particular dresser) to dress me” and ask for that person in their contract. On Lord of the Rings you were given just two people because the costumes were so full-on with flying, and cast on stilts – you tended to be given a short person and a tall person because the short person would be off being a hobbit while the tall one was getting into an elf costume.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/7a/Lord_of_the_Rings_Theatre.jpg
Lord of the Rings: Hobbit feet, I’ve got those Hobbit feet….

Did you enjoy working on Lord of the Rings?

I loved it! It was like a big extended family – I think there were 52 in the cast, nine women and the rest guys. There were twenty-two dressers, including two swing dressers, and the wig department was enormous! I already knew the Wardrobe Mistress and Supervisor, so I was involved really early on – I helped unpack the costumes as they arrived from Canada in a freezing cold storage unit in Whitechapel. A hundred and twenty-something boxes to unpack and some really odd things, like you’d open a box and there would be hundreds of hobbit feet – which were rather smelly. We went to Three Mills Studios in the East End for the fittings for the Ents, the big tree people costumes. We were in the gin still for rehearsals because it was the only place big enough for the actors to get into costume. I had to sit on the top of three levels of scaffolding with the actor on stilts and then hoist their trousers all the way up and help them in so they wouldn’t trip up!

Have you ever been so engrossed in a show that you’ve forgotten to dress someone?

I don’t think I’ve completely missed a change, but I have forgotten to pre-set a costume. I dressed the lovely Oliver Thornton who played Felicia in Priscilla Queen of the Desert – I think a lot of people wanted that job. He had to get changed into the Hot Stuff outfit, which is a pink sequinned bikini, bra and knickers and then a pink dress, stockings and shoes. Somehow, I’d managed to set the stockings and shoes but I had forgotten the dress. He was supposed to look like a woman to convince a group of miners, Felicia was on stage in just a bikini leaving very little to the imagination…the audience must have thought “these miners have led very sheltered lives”. I felt sick – of course the cast loved it, and all the regulars in the audience thought it was hysterical but I was mortified.

Oliver Thornton
I dressed Oliver Thornton – I think a lot of people wanted that job!

Who would you love to dress that you haven’t worked with?

Judi Dench and Julie Walters. It’s so interesting if you have the opportunity to dress a big name, because not many people get close to them. I dressed Lee Evans on The Producers – he’s an incredibly private man and he’d never done a musical before, so I think having someone experienced helped him. I felt like I got to know him more than most people who’ve ever met him, and I still treasure that. He’s a smashing guy. And then of course dressing people like Patti Lupone and Betty Buckley, that was amazing! I also worked with Elaine Paige for a couple of months. They were my Normas.

And who would you like to dress again?

I would love to work with Patti again. I was secretly disappointed that Imelda Staunton was playing Gypsy, because I really wanted the Broadway production that Patti was doing to come over here. We got on really well. I’ve also worked with Helen Hobson, Sally Ann Triplett – I’ve dressed some wonderful, wonderful people. I had a blast with Simon Day – now Simon Paisley Day, and with Anita Louise Combe on Saturday Night Fever. Not just leads, the ensemble people I’ve dressed, we’ve just had such a wonderful time.

If you weren’t a dresser, what else would you do?

More and more I would love to do something where I could be outside, because you spend so much time in the dark. There’s no air, it’s very dusty and hot backstage. A friend of mine is doing wardrobe in Regents Park Open Air Theatre – I’m very jealous! Although you might end up changing in the pouring rain…maybe there’s an open air theatre in Menorca? Interior design maybe, or garden design? I make cushions in my spare time, and I’d like to sell those somewhere if anyone has a shop! Whatever I did would definitely have to be something creative – I could never do a desk job!

Join us soon for Part Two as we dive into a world of Oompa Loompas, magic and mystery as Murray Lane takes us behind the scenes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.