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04.15.11

Book of Mormon's Magnificent Costumes

In Broadway's runaway hit Book of Mormon, the costumes are anything but religious finery: They're the work of an Oscar-winning legend who makes Jesus look like "Cheryl Tiegs in the '80s."

Up until recently, the majority of Americans associated Mormonism with polygamy, unibrows, high-collared dresses, HBO's Big Love and its reality counterpart Sister Wives on TLC. But South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone took the religion and gave it a raunchy renovation in their new satirical Broadway musical Book of Mormon. The show contains enough jokes about religion, gays, AIDS, and Africans to drive Ann Coulter even crazier. (The catchphrase of one character in the Ugandan tribe, for example, is: "I have maggots in my scrotum!")

Gallery: Costume Sketches from Book of Mormon

With all of its gratuitous humor, Book of Mormon's artistry is sometimes forgotten. But the costumes are the careful creations of legendary costume designer Ann Roth, who—over her 50-year career—has designed for dozens of films, including Midnight Cowboy, Working Girl, The Hours, and HBO's recent miniseries Mildred Pierce. She's the grand dame of costumery of both the stage and screen—and has been nominated for three Tony Awards and won the Academy Award for her designs for The English Patient in 1996. These days, however, she is focused on Mormons.

Book of Mormon follows an ill-matched pair of missionaries to Uganda, where they're confronted with the vagaries of local life: warlords, AIDS, and one man who has raped a baby. After falling in with a troupe of Mormons that would put Celine Dion's Las Vegas show to shame, Arthur Cunningham (Josh Gad) discovers that the way to save the people is to make the Holy Scripture relatable with topics like men mating with frogs.

But when a trio of big kahuna Mormons (think: shoulder pads and helmet hair) arrive in Uganda to bestow special awards on Cunningham and his band of flamboyant proselytizers, the villagers take it upon themselves to perform their adaptation of the Book of Mormon for the group. A disaster of epic proportions soon follows.

The costumes, meanwhile, are far from it: They represent a combination of fastidious research, cockeyed humor, and the instinct to trust the recesses of Roth's "sick mind." In a few Book of Mormon vignettes, Jesus appears to Joseph Smith, the Latter-day Saints movement's much-mocked founder. Christ has long blond Texas hair and a flowing white cape piped with LED lights—not unlike those in Katy Perry's memorable glow-in-the-dark costume from the Costume Institute Gala last year. "I wanted Cheryl Tiegs in the '80s," Roth says of Jesus. Similarly, Smith looks like he's ripped from the pages of a Mormon coloring book. "That's Orlando," Roth explains, referencing one character's concept of ultimate paradise—the arches of Disney World. "That's his idea of heaven—and many other people's. It's an accessible visual."

Creating clothes for the world of Mormon was a challenge, of course, a first. The costumes needed to capture the middle-finger-to-the-heavens irreverence present in the script—while still retaining historical accuracy. For the village's performance sequence, Roth designed pieces around what she imagined the Ugandans might have found discarded. The Angel Moroni appears with a halo made from the wheel of a baby carriage. The women wear bonnets made out of old soda bottles and feed bags. The Ugandan character playing Joseph Smith wears a shrunken jacket from a downed pilot lost in the jungle.

Roth found unlikely inspiration from an executive she sat next to at a country club in Virginia. "This poor guy would die, but he's the president of a major corporation," Roth says of the Mormon costumes' unlikely muse. "He was wearing a pea-green suit of some obscure product. I wanted that super-straight and naïve thing where you're very happy with yourself. You're well-paid, you run a multinational corporation… and that's the suit you like. And the people you travel with wear those suits as well."

Roth's attention to detail is apparent in each look as is her thorough period research. She dug to find out what Ugandan boys were wearing in old photographs. And the same methods applied to the 2,000 costumes Roth designed for Mildred Pierce. Designing looks for the title character—a housewife from Los Angeles played by Kate Winslet—involved research into what women wore in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Every female extra wore the right girdle and seamed stockings; every man had the correct length tie. She even put iron marks onto some of the dresses—invisible to the viewer—to make them more historically accurate. Roth's approach is simultaneously complex, yet simple: "I don't like stuff that isn't brilliantly made."

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Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast based in Los Angeles.