A well-designed quick costume change is a true crowd-pleaser. Beyond impressive stage craft, these moments punctuate plot points and create iconic visuals on the stage that keep theatre fans talking long after a production's final performance. Take a look at these legendary costume change moments from Broadway's present and past.
1. “I Am Changing” and “Heavy, Heavy” in Dreamgirls This 1981 reality-inspired musical about girl groups from the Motown era featured not one, but two impressively fast and transformative costume changes, making it the gold standard for many theatre fans when discussing this particular technique. Costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge (who earned a Tony nomination for her work) used reversible draped costume designs and magnets—a major innovation at the time—to create these iconic onstage quick changes. The first came in “Heavy, Heavy” a montage song-scene that pairs arguments between the three leading ladies (Deena, Lorelle, and Effie) with the song they’re performing at several venues as they become more and more famous. At one point during the number a Mylar curtain descends, and seconds later, all three women burst through the curtain’s strands wearing completely new dresses.
In the show’s second act, [spoiler alert] Effie has been kicked out of the group and is in need of a job. She auditions at a small nightclub singing “I Am Changing.” At the end of the song’s bridge, the stage lights went to black while Effie’s spotlight narrowed to center on just her face. Going into the song’s final chorus, the spotlight expanded back out and revealed Effie in a sparkly gown, as the stage lights returned to reveal that the scene had now transformed from audition to performance; Effie had gotten the job. The 2006 movie adaptation paid homage to this iconic costume change with a similar effect that used a circular camera shot and a little movie magic.
2. The Witch regains her youth in Into the Woods When we meet the Witch of Into the Woods, she’s a fairly tradition witch stereotype—old and haggard. Near the end of the first act, she suddenly transforms into her beautiful, young former self. From the audience, it looks instantaneous and truly magical, but most productions actually use a double for the first half of the scene, allowing the actor ample time to change costumes and remove their old-age make-up before entering in a transformed state. Ann-Hould Ward designed the original Broadway production, earning a Tony nomination. (Donna Murphy in the Public Theater production at the Delacorte actually removed her “ugly witch” look backstage to put on her “pretty witch” makeup and costume and then re-dress with the “ugly witch” on the outside.)
3. Edna Turnblad goes shabby to chic in Hairspray Tracey gets her housebound mother outside and onto the streets of Baltimore in “Welcome to the 60s,” taking her to Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway to talk about signing Tracy as spokesmodel. Mr. Pinky sees Edna’s ample proportions and decides to give her a makeover. In a matter of moments, Edna goes from wearing an old house dress and a dowdy hair-do to being a ’60s glamazon! Original costume designer William Ivey Long, who won a Tony for his Hairspray design, even gave Tracey a matching look, which she has to change into in an even shorter amount of time.
4. Cinderella dresses for the ball in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella This musical adaptation of the classic fairy tale was originally written for television, meaning Cinderella’s magical transformation from rags into an elegant ballgown could be achieved using some special effects and carefully chosen camera angles. In 2012, a new stage adaptation of the work premiered on Broadway, and costume designer William Ivey Long (who earned his sixth Tony statue for this production) devised onstage magic of his own for the same moment. With a wave of the Fairy Godmother’s wand, Cinderella spun, revealing the sparkly gown in full view of the audience. Most of the effect was achieved by using reversible fabric panels like Aldredge used in Dreamgirls, though some stage magic, pull strings, and sleight of hand was involved to suddenly give her a big puffy skirt.
5. Elsa becomes the Snow Queen in Frozen In Disney’s animated film Frozen, Elsa famously sings “Let It Go,” transforming both herself and the terrain around her into beautiful ice crystals as she decides to embrace her special powers. For the stage adaptation, this had to happen live on stage. Costume designer Christopher Oram created a tear-away version of Elsa’s normal costume, allowing her to near-instantaneously transform into her iconic “Let It Go” look, all while belting out an impressive high note.
6. Beast becomes a Prince in Beauty and the Beast Making a Beast transform into a human Prince is one thing when you’re working in animation, but it’s quite another situation when that same scene comes to a live Broadway stage. When Beauty and the Beast—Disney’s first-ever stage musical—premiered on Broadway in 1994, this particular transformation became less about costume design than Disney magic. The Beast’s body levitated and spun in complete circles, surrounded by flashing lights and stage smoke. Moments later, he returned to the ground now “Human Again.” Ann Hould-Ward won a Tony for her costume design of the musical spectacular.
7. Christine becomes an opera diva in The Phantom of the Opera Though she begins the story as a ballet dancer, Christine quickly becomes an opera star in The Phantom of the Opera. After Carlotta refuses to perform, Christine sings her aria “Think of Me,” and halfway through the song the scene segues from the rehearsal to a performance. The ballet chorus surrounds Christine, and when they separate, she is suddenly wearing the leading lady’s costume, designed by Maria Björnson who won a Tony for her design of the long-running musical. Few would question how the change is achieved—the ballet dancers clearly and visibly help her change costumes quickly—but a sweeping music modulation helps make this a memorable stage moment.
8. A chorus of Mormon missionaries get jazzy in The Book of Mormon In “Turn It Off,” the characters of The Book of Mormon sing about how any unpleasant or unwanted thoughts should just be ignored—turned off—until they go away completely. Because it’s The Book of Mormon, the number quickly becomes a tap dance, during which the missionaries clap and “turn off” all of the stage lights. A few moments later, they clap again, bringing back the stage lights and revealing the entire ensemble newly clad in sparkly pink vests.
9. Turning back the clock in Bright Star Alice Murphy begins Bright Star as an adult, but while singing the show’s second song, “Way Back in the Day,” the action flashes back to Alice’s teenage years. She changes costumes—designed by Jane Greenwood—and transforms into her younger self live on the stage as she passes from stage right to left. There was no effort made to hide how it was done, but Josh Rhodes’ beautiful choreography made it happen so fluidly that it became one of the show’s most memorable visual moments.
10. Elle goes back to her roots in Legally Blonde Down and dejected, it looks like Elle Woods is going to throw in the towel towards the end of Legally Blonde. Even after former rival Vivian shows up to boost her confidence, Elle refuses the navy suit and shuts herself in a supply closet. Seconds later, Elle bursts from the closet donning a bright pink dress, from costume designer Gregg Barnes, who earned a Tony nomination for this show. She’ll return to court to save the day, but only on her terms and in her own signature color. (This moment is second to the onstage costume change in the opening number “Omigod” where Elle finds the perfect engagement outfit at the Old Valley Mall—and the MTV special showed that the costume change is helped with magic magnets. Full circle back to Dreamgirls’ innovative design.)
In his second outing working on a giant television musical event, Tony-winning costume designer William Ivey Long does the time warp again, this time trading ’50s greasers for ’70s fettish and glam rock.