It’s a rare thing for costume armor to be actually made of metal. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong: it can be tough to source, it can be too heavy for actors, it can be hard to move in, it can rust, it’s noisy as pieces clang against each other. But in dressing the knights of Camelot, 2023 Tony-nominated costume designer Jennifer Moeller was determined to go hard. “I was really nervous. I didn't lead on to anybody that the armor was going to be metal because I wanted to make it happen,” she says. “I've done plastic armor, I've done leather armor, I've done knit chainmail and real chainmail, I've done a whole bunch of stuff. I wanted it to be real, I wanted it to shine, I wanted it to make noise. I went for it because I'm always trying to do something that satisfies my own creative needs.”
While Moeller’s most recent Broadway credits before Camelot were all rather contemporary-set plays, she cut her teeth after graduate school at Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. doing history and period plays. With a wealth of knowledge about medieval clothing and more than a few experiences costuming with armor, Moeller knew she wanted to take this chance to do something different. Lincoln Center’s Camelot, which opened in the Vivian Beaumont Theater April 13 with 2023 Tony nominee Jordan Donica, Andrew Burnap, and Phillipa Soo starring, was Moeller’s chance. But, the revival features a revised book by Aaron Sorkin. It presented the designer with a challenge: “I needed to find some way to create this mythical place where the weather is perfect, and everybody's sexy. People have all these ideas of what they think Camelot is, whether it's from the literature or previous productions.” But, she also needed to make it “feel contemporary.”
Inspired in part by a book titled Shiny Shapes, which showcases sculptural images of medieval armor, Moeller knew she was going to need to find someone to craft the armor. “I went poking on Etsy,” she says with a laugh. “Because somewhere, somebody in this huge global world of artists has put some effort into this that you can hopefully learn from and collaborate with, right?” The designer was directed towards a company called Arm Street which is known for making quality armor that isn’t too heavy—an important point for actors who will need to sing and move in it for about three hours, eight times a week. “I thought, ‘Oh, great! Maybe we can use some pieces.’” Moeller decided against a full suit of armor, and instead selected armor pieces based on a simple guiding principle: “You want this to be very sexy. Sexy, sexy, sexy, sexy medieval. We’ll pair the pieces with some leather armor that fits the torso really well, has buckles, and feels tough.” Between the musical’s casting and Moeller’s costuming, the production succeeded on that front, judging by the photos.
There was one concern that had to be addressed early on: Arm Street is based in Ukraine which is currently in the midst of a war defending itself from Russia. “We reached out to them and said something to the effect of ‘I know you're in the middle of a war, but we love your stuff. It seems like your store is still open, can you do this custom work?’ And they were totally excited for it, to be able to keep working,” shares Moeller.
Moeller and her team collaborated closely with Arm Street to develop custom looks that reflected each of the characters—picking different shapes and finishes, and including custom etchings. When it came to the three knights played by Anthony Michael Lopez, Fergie L. Philippe, and Danny Wolohan, the goal was to make them look “fierce and a little dark” because of their skepticism towards Arthur’s goals of a just society. “We paired these shapes that were spiky or hammered and do various of different dark finishes. It was important they function like a group, but had individuality.”
For Mordred, played by Taylor Trensch and who is the villain of the piece, Moeller designed armor that had spines and jagged edges that “look almost reptilian.” Paired with an oily looking finish and the armor neck piece called a gorget, the costume mimics the other three knights, “but even more sinister feeling.”
With Arthur, played by Andrew Burnap, he puts on his armor midway through the show, and it’s a turning point. “The weight of the armor is very much a metaphor for the weight that he's carrying of this idea of Camelot.” And there’s an Easter egg in the etchings on his gold armor: “If you look really carefully, there are some very tiny little skulls. It’s the turning of the tide and foreshadowing,” Moeller reveals.
Of course, there’s one character’s entrance that demanded all eyes be on him: Lancelot. After all, he is “simply the best by far.” And so director Bartlett Sher gave Moeller one specific directive. “He was like, ‘Lancelot should come out in chrome. It should be crazy shiny,’” she remembers. Her immediate thought was the fenders and bumpers on cars from the 1950s, “all shiny and sculptural.” As a costume designer, Moeller is used to getting the exact opposite instruction—to tone down the shine on watches and belt buckles. “This time it was like, ‘Let it shine, let it roll light into the audience, let it be beautiful and fantastic, let the reflections fly around the space,” she says in a speedy and passionate explanation. It’s clear that despite how long it’s been since her work on Camelot began, Moeller’s excitement hasn’t faded.
(And the armor truly is shiny. If you take a close look at the photo above, you can spot Donica's dresser Terence Doherty reflected in the armor. It's a sweet moment as Doherty also dressed Donica when he starred as Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera.)
Lancelot du Lac is played by 2023 Tony nominee Jordan Donica who brought ideas to Moeller for customizing the character’s armor. Having read the musical’s source material, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Donica told Moeller about a feather motif based on a good luck charm Lancelot always carries in the book. The actor’s read of the character also led him to fill out the backstory of the armor; to Donica, Lancelot made his own armor with his uncle, and its design and upkeep is inherently a reflection of the knight because he made choices about how it would fit and look. Collaborating with Donica was important to Moeller, who wants the armor “to feel like it's right. I don't want to put these clothes on them. I want the actors to live in them.”
Then when it came time to try on the pieces at the first costume fitting, Moeller was very nervous as she finally revealed that the armor is, in fact, metal. “I was so surprised how absolutely game the actors were, everyone was so excited and nobody complained. It was amazing.”
But, she reveals, Donica really took it to another level. While the other knights in the show don’t wear greaves, the leg armor which wraps around the calf, “Jordan wanted to do the legs. I was like, ‘If it’s too much, we don't have to do them. It's fine. Don't worry.’ There were times when we were struggling to get [the weight] balanced,” Moeller says. Considering the mobility Donica needs to both drop into and rise from kneeling, as well as swordfight, balancing the weight of the armor is vital for Donica to not be injured—or topple over. “I kept thinking, ‘Well, just toss in the towel.’ And he was like, ‘No way. We are figuring this out.’ And he stood there for over an hour while we were trying to get it to be just right.” All in all, it’s 65 pounds of armor which covers Donica’s frame. Understandably, he doesn’t wear a metal breastplate.
Donica recalls that costume fitting, too. “When I got there, she's like, ‘We have these legs.’ And I immediately was like, ‘Why not? We're here. Let's go for it.’” As he says, “Wearing the armor for me helps to ground the character in a certain way that feels very real. I wanted it to be mobile, I wanted it to be effective. We might as well try to make it work because if it works, it's going to be really awesome.”
Of course, the weight of all that metal armor has resulted in some extra work for Donica with his physical therapist. “Something we’ve actually been working on is breathing. In the armor itself, all of the weight of the legs sits on my shoulders, and is actually pressing down on my lungs.” As he describes it, all the metal pieces are attached to each other, which are then attached to a belt with straps that crisscross over Donica’s chest and loop over his shoulders. While it’s quite a load to carry, Donica says, “it’s honestly kind of helped. It forces you to be grounded. I really have to use my diaphragm and sacrum.”
In rehearsals, Donica had put on quite a bit of muscle working with the musical’s fight director B.H. Barry. That work certainly helped him prepare him to wear the armor, which took time even after opening night to fully adjust to.
While the costume certainly supports Donica’s Tony-nominated performance, he also acknowledges the pure fun of wearing the armor. “I love singing ‘C’est Moi.’ It’s just impossible not to feel powerful wearing that. I feel like the Mandalorian out there, like I'm in Star Wars half the time,” he says with a laugh. “I feel like with this role, it's the culmination of everything that I pretended to be when I played as a child on Saturday mornings.”
There was one other member of Camelot that Moeller also worried about when it came to the armor: musical director Kimberly Grigsby. “I thought, ‘Oh, what if the music director has a fit about it or she doesn’t like it? What if they can't do the transitions because of the noise?’” The nerves rattled Moeller, but were, thankfully, allayed. As it turns out, Grigsby loves the sound of the armor as it moves and clanks. It’s ability to make noise has led to it becoming part of the music. “They’re almost using the armor like a percussive instrument to highlight certain moments,” Moeller points out. “It makes me so happy every time I watch it.”
Get an up-close look at Jordan Donica's armor in these exclusive Playbill photos below.