Being a dresser on Broadway is unlike any job backstage. Dressers must change performers’ outfits head-to-toe in mere seconds. It is a feat of physical and mental strength—one these dedicated theatre pros perform eight times a week.
The number of dressers varies from show to show. While Aladdin has 17 and Mean Girls has 12, shows like Chicago have five and Come From Away only requires two.
No matter the number on each individual production, each dresser is assigned one or more cast members to track during an entire performance. During the song-and-dance numbers, they can also be responsible for chipping in as part of a team on quick changes for cast members off of their man track. As the audience sits slack-jawed with delight at the transformations unfolding in front of them, dressers backstage operate steadily to ensure some of the coolest moments go right.
For the uninitiated, the first step of many quick changes happens in advance of the speedy action we think of in the wings. Performers often get into multiple costumes first—wearing them as layers. (Thanks to “underdressing”—a term used across the industry to describe layering costumes—many quick changes actually involve quick removals more than top-to-bottom undressing and re-dressing.) Dressers need to snap performers into each costume, one on top of the other.
The dresser undertakes a laborious process to individually snap up each seam of each costume layer. At Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud, there are at least 10 snaps on each seam of a pant leg (that’s approximately 40 total for just one set of pants over the un-snapped layer). Without properly snapping a performer into their costume, there's a risk of an early reveal or malfunction, resulting in the performer missing a piece of a number.
But, thanks to dressers like Aladdin’s Barry Hoff and Ain’t Too Proud’s LJ Wright, these quick changes go off without a hitch. Learn more about these two and their jobs below. Plus, watch multiple behind-the-scenes videos of the costume changes in real time from each show!
Aladdin: Barry Hoff
Hoff has been working backstage for three decades—and he’s developed relationships through his Broadway work with the likes of Oscar winner Celeste Holm (he was her personal assistant) to Tony Award winner Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Tony nominee and Emmy winner Sean Hayes (Act of God, Promises, Promises).
After first pursuing acting, Hoff became a dresser on 1991’s Nick & Nora, starring Joanna Gleeson and Barry Bostwick. Those first gigs were all thanks to his close ties with Holm; as he mingled with her inner circle, the offers arrived thanks to Hoff's friendly demeanor and go-getter attitude. Hoff has since worked on shows like Sunset Boulevard, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, and The Capeman, where he dressed Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades. Now, he works on Aladdin as the dresser for Jonathan Freeman, who originated (and continues to play) Jafar. But in one number, Hoff’s attention diverts from the villainous vizier to assist in the wildly demanding Act 2 opener “Prince Ali.” Ensemblists change three times in this single production number. In less than seven minutes, Hoff personally completes four quick changes between two performers.
“Prince Ali” — Featuring Cast Members Charles South and Tyler Roberts
The number begins with cast members each dressed in four costumes—layered one on top of the other. “Each time we change, the costume gets more beautiful and wilder on stage,” Hoff says. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of the four changes in (less than) seven minutes:
Quick Change #1:
1.South runs offstage to Hoff, who’s strategically waiting in the wings.
2. The pants and sleeves here have each been snapped up along the sides in the pre-set before the number.
3. Hoff pulls the snaps apart to remove the top-most costume layer, which is turquoise. “I start down at the bottom with the cuff and do three pulls up to the knee. I stand to grab the shoulder, pull and it's one fell swoop.”
4. Hoff hands South a turban. The first transformation is complete.
Watch the backstage video of this change here:
Quick Change #2:
1. As South runs back onstage, Hoff stores the turquoise costume (South’s now shed outermost layer).
2. He sets a red peplum (that will wrap around his waist) and a red harem pant for him to pick up later.
3. Hoff removes the orange costume.
4. South puts on his own peplum.
5. Hoff hands South a hat and the performer dashes back onstage.
6. Hoff isn’t done with the red costumes just yet! After South departs, Tyler Roberts enters the wings. Another dresser pulls off Roberts’ costume.
7. Hoff puts a harness on Roberts.
Watch the backstage video of this change here:
Quick Change #3:
Two more changes to go!
1. While the ensemble (including South and Roberts) dance in red, Hoff prepares a puddle of fabric on the floor for the final change.
2. When South returns to the wings, Hoff jokes, “He does this Las Vegas stripper thing where he grabs the top of his harem pants and pulls them off himself and they come off in one fell swoop.”
3. From there, the dresser pulls up the glittering white robe.
4. South returns to the stage.
Watch the backstage video of this change here:
Quick Change #4:
1. Roberts is back again. Another dresser on the team de-frocks Roberts while Hoff prepares the robe again.
2. The final touch? Hoff hands Roberts two swords.
Watch the video of this change here:
Once Hoff completes these back-to-back changes, his work continues. Hoff collects each of the headpieces and returns them to the back of the stage.
Check out this rare moment of a dresser in his element:
This seven-minute piece of Hoff’s work day isn’t even the focus of his responsibilities. The dresser arrives before the show, having prepared the Freeman’s essentials the night before (Jafar is an early bird who sometimes gets to the New Amsterdam Theatre before Hoff due to the lengthy make-up process). Once Hoff and Freeman have both arrived to the third floor dressing room, the pair chat while the dresser collects all of the costumes needed throughout the performance. “That's one of my favorite things, just catching up on what's happened since we left the night before,” says Hoff.
As they’re talking, Hoff checks every snap, seam, closure, and zipper to ensure nothing needs repair. Then, the dresser spends 10 minutes setting a trick turban (that transforms from black to white to red) Jafar wears. “It's like a puzzle. I start with the red, then I put the white,” he explains. “It’s sort of like a clam shell that clamps on and uses wires attached to the cassock [Jafar’s robe] to work the mechanism and complete the transformation all at the same time.”
Then, it’s time to transport the wardrobe downstairs for easy accessibility during the performance. By half-hour call everything should be set. During a single performance, the dresser completes eleven costume changes, including five ensemble quick changes.
For his part, Hoff loves the liveness of theatre. “You have to be on your guard all the time. That's the beauty of it—it's the excitement of the whole thing. It’s a great family, too.”
The feeling is mutual. Freeman says Hoff is “ESB—Extra Sensory Barry,” showing up with band-aids for unannounced injuries or a vacuum cleaner without knowing anything was dirty. “My track at Aladdin is complicated, and personal, and I always feel he is there for me,” Freeman says. “His kindness and skill at collaboration are unsurpassed, and I feel very lucky to have him as my dresser, and to call him a friend.” It’s not just Freeman either. Backstage, people instantly smile whenever they see Barry. They know he makes magic happen.
Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations: LJ Wright
Wright started “Off-Off-Off, Off-Broadway,” she says, working in small theatres as a dresser, but also taking on random backstage jobs like handling props or wigs. Wright always had a passion for art and fashion, but wasn't sure of a particular career. An admissions counselor told her “theatre is like the one world where everything that you want to do is married together.”
The dresser landed her first Broadway job in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which she earned through her work ethic and connections at a number of those smaller early jobs. By the time Summer: The Donna Summer Musical came around, Ariana DeBose (who played Disco Donna) personally asked for Wright. After a recommendation from someone on the Ain’t Too Proud team, Wright permanently joined the family at the Imperial Theatre and works with two performers each night.
“Run Away Child, Run Wild” / “Gloria” — Taylor Symone Jackson
“Taylor is a prisoner for a scene where she’s dancing in the back,” Wright explains of the quick change in the video below (taken during a dress rehearsal) above. “Then she has to run offstage and then run back on and be a background guy for the ‘Gloria’ number.”
1. Jackson comes offstage, beginning to unsnap her jumpsuit as soon as she’s out of sight from the audience.
2. Jackson turns around so that her back faces LJ by the time the front of the jumpsuit is open to the waist.
3. LJ takes over, pulling the rest of the jumpsuit off in one fell swoop.
The precision required is intense—and a lot of planning went into the quick change ahead of tech, bringing in the wardrobe supervisor, and even the choreographer.
Wright assists 28 quick changes every performance, a track in and of itself, which also include the 90 minutes prior to curtain-up that keeps her busy: Each workday begins with a wardrobe meeting to ensure the full team is on the same page about any understudy or standby that may require a switch in costumes. Next, she steams and examines costumes for necessary repairs. As the clock winds down, Wright completes her presets, placing clothes in baskets for easy access during the actual changes. “I don’t have much time [during the performance]; Ain’t Too Proud is a pretty fast show.”
Once the musical begins, the dresser completes all of the quick changes for her two assigned cast members, Jackson and Tiffany Frances. She also works on two quick changes for Ephraim Sykes, who plays David Ruffin. “About 11 of the changes would qualify as quick, which means they are on deck [not in a dressing room] and completed in one minute.” When not waiting in the wings, she hangs used costumes and stores them properly to avoid clutter backstage and preserve the clothing; she sprays armpits to keep performers dry; she transports clothes to laundry. Wright lives for the hectic nature of the job. “Everything else in life seemed boring compared to the world backstage,” she says.
Both Hoff and Wright prove that being well-hidden backstage doesn't mean their work doesn’t snag the spotlight. Every night, they send their contribution onstage to awe audiences. What’s more, the trust between performers and dressers remains unspoken and forges an unbreakable bond. And, if you do it well, you can forge a decades-long career making magic in the theatre.