Costume designer Paul G. Tazewell talks Oscars with theGrio

Video: A Tony-winning designer already well-known on Broadway, Tazewell has earned his first Oscar nom for Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story.'

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Reimagining a beloved classic is no small feat. When Steven Spielberg decided to try his hand at a reboot of West Side Story, he no doubt knew the vision was dependent on a design team who could bring it to life. Among them was Paul G. Tazewell, the veteran costume designer tasked with redesigning Tony, Maria, the Sharks, the Jets and more for a new generation.

While much of this year’s Oscar buzz has surrounded the film’s breakout star, Ariana DeBose, who has been sweeping Supporting Actress categories for stepping into Rita Moreno’s legendary heels to play Anita, there was another breakthrough moment to celebrate. After three decades in the business, Tazewell also received his first Academy Award nod, an honor even the seasoned pro was still finding surreal when he spoke with theGrio soon after the announcement.

“I’m beside myself,” he said.

That may be, but Tazewell is no newbie on the awards circuit. One of the leading costume designers on Broadway, his resume is extraordinary, including Broadway blockbusters Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk (1996); Caroline, or Change (2003); A Raisin in the Sun (2004); The Color Purple (2005); In the Heights (2008); Memphis (2009); A Streetcar Named Desire (2012); Ain’t Too Proud (2017); Summer: The Donna Summer Musical (2017). For film and television, he’s costumed HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017), Harriett (2019), and the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2021).

In the process, he has scored a total of six Tony nominations, bringing home the big prize in 2015 for none other than Hamilton, for which he also won his first Lucille Lortel Award. Tazewell is also a repeat Emmy nominee, scoring a win for NBC’s The Wiz Live! in 2015 and another nomination for 2018’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, starring John Legend.

It’s a remarkable career by any measure, but with his first Oscar nod, Tazewell is still enjoying major firsts. “The fact it’s happened, it’s kind of unbelievable; I didn’t expect that was going to be part of my story—and I’m fully embracing it.”

Anyone who’s seen the new West Side Story knows the nomination is well deserved. Tazewell has deftly incorporated iconic looks and silhouettes from the 60-year-old classic film, a process he explains during our conversation. In contrast to Maria’s classic white dress are vibrant and vampish looks for Anita; the Sharks and Jets still face off in color stories as well as choreography. The visual effect is both reverential and fresh, a dazzling homage to classic Hollywood musicals with a nod to visionaries like Gordon Parks.

It was an incredible project to costume. As Tazewell explains, it was also yet another opportunity to represent.

“What brings me great joy is just being visible,” he says, referencing contemporaries like history-making Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter as he continues. “In the being visible…there are younger people that can look up to us as a group and say, ‘Yes, absolutely. I can see that these people are successful doing what they do; I want to go that route…I want to be a costume designer.'”

Hear more from our interview with Paul G. Tazewell in the video above.

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