Josh Shaffer

Broadway’s William Ivey Long honored in his Raleigh hometown

William Ivey Long, a Tony award-winning costume designer Tuesday, May 17, 2016 in Raleigh, N.C. Long spent the first three years of his life in the dressing room at Raleigh Little Theatre.
William Ivey Long, a Tony award-winning costume designer Tuesday, May 17, 2016 in Raleigh, N.C. Long spent the first three years of his life in the dressing room at Raleigh Little Theatre.

As a week-old baby, William Ivey Long moved into the dressing room at Raleigh Little Theatre, starting life in the bustle of backstage, learning to crawl in a nursery cluttered with wigs and smelling of grease paint.

His parents were theater people, the first in their families to drift away from farm work, so Long’s first memories include the Easter pageants performed on the stage outside his front door. As a toddler in 1950, he wondered, “What are these men in bathing suits doing in my front yard, up on crosses?”

More than half a century later, Long, 68, can boast one of Broadway’s longest and most notable resumes: six Tony awards for his costume designs, including “Hairspray” and “The Producers,” more than 100 credits in shows that span from “Guys and Dolls” to “Young Frankenstein.”

But he still shows off photographs of the little boy in Raleigh, for whom the world truly was a stage. And this week, with those roots in mind, the theater named the tiny stone room after Long, the best-known performer to wait in its wings.

“I couldn’t be prouder,” Long said in Raleigh on Tuesday. “My parents were the really valiant ones who made the transition with farming. Breaking with tradition takes a lot of courage and strength of purpose. This was our very first home, and my father’s very first job.”

The Longs spent more than three years in that stone house built by the WPA. Long’s father, William senior, served as the theater’s technical director, and his mother, Mary, acted in plays there. Long first recognized drama when he saw his mother on stage in “Death of a Salesman,” kicking and screaming and having her hair pulled.

But he took lessons from the real world, wandering in the Rose Garden and grabbing fireflies in the twilight. “I remember being taught, ‘Don’t be afraid of lightning because it’s just angels striking matches,’ and ‘Don’t be afraid of thunder because it’s just angels moving furniture,’ ” he said. “To this day, I am foolish enough to not be scared of thunder and lightning.”

In addition to getting his name on the dressing room, Long was honored Tuesday by Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane.

For a man who has spent most of the past four decades in Manhattan, wearing his trademark blue blazer and striped tie, Long keeps a surprising closeness to his slower-paced home state. He still serves as production designer for “The Lost Colony,” the Manteo-based outdoor drama where his mother enjoyed a long reign as theatrical Queen Elizabeth. Long played the role of a colonist boy at age 8, alongside future state Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight.

“I didn’t have a line, which made me so mad,” Long joked. “The other guys had Manteo accents. I lived in the big cities of Raleigh and Chapel Hill and didn’t sound like a ‘hoi-toider.’ 

Long still keeps houses in Seaboard, the Northampton County township of 602, where he also spent time as a child. “I’m related to literally everybody,” he said. “They know your business, and they know your business for the last 100 years. They want to know which beautiful actresses have I dressed. Usually, I keep it quiet. The secrets of the fitting room I keep to the grave.”

When he speaks of North Carolina now, he raves about the characters who live here, material for rich storytelling, the drama that springs out of the ground like a squash vine.

“People are not bland,” he insisted. “When you have a wealth of eccentric, unique, stand-alone people, it makes for great stories.”

His father, it would seem, fit that template perfectly – a farm boy with a crazy idea, who housed his family inside a dressing room. Not long ago, Long told The New York Times that he didn’t feel like his father met his potential. The transition was never fully complete. But the squash vine – in the form of his son – kept growing, following a wild path to Broadway, all while keeping roots in good Tar Heel soil.

William Ivey Long

▪ Nominated for 15 Tony Awards for his Broadway costumes. Winner of six Tony Awards: “The Producers,” “Hairspray,” “Crazy for You,” “Grey Gardens,” “Nine” and “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.”

▪ Other notable Broadway credits: “Cabaret,” “Chicago,” “Big Fish,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “Guys and Dolls.”

▪ Production designer for “The Lost Colony” in North Carolina. This summer marks his 46th season with the show.

▪ TV credits: “Grease: Live” and upcoming “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” on Fox.