It happens in what feels like a blink. Helen Mirren is playing Queen Elizabeth, matronly at 69, in the beginning of "The Audience" on Broadway. Then suddenly, without leaving the stage, she turns into the young Elizabeth -- 26, slim, brunette, almost dewy with trepidation in her first royal meeting with Winston Churchill.
The transformation only seems like magic. Spencer Kitchen, who came from the London production to continue as the star's dresser, knows better. "There are no screens, no trick photography," she says, explaining the process. But she playfully refuses to give away the secret that kicks off the first of Mirren's astonishing metamorphoses, back and forth, from ages 26 to 88 in designer Bob Crowley's era-defining costumes. "It isn't as if we're pulling rabbits out of a hat," she insists.
No rabbits, OK. In fact, for Kitchen and other dressers on Broadway this season, the results instead come from meticulous teamwork, military-drill precision and extreme sensitivity to the adrenaline rush onstage.
They are the wizards behind the curtains, the quick-change artists who, when the artistry goes as planned, are for the most part invisible on the other side of the footlights.
Over at "On the Twentieth Century," Susan Fallon, wardrobe supervisor, oversees the ingenious traffic patterns that move designer William Ivey Long's 260 costumes in the tiny backstage at the American Airlines Theatre, a house not built for big musicals.
At the Lincoln Center Theater, Fran Curry maneuvers what she calls the "space relations" and "wingspan" of Kelli O'Hara's enormous hoop dresses in "The King and I." Curry, who also was O'Hara's dresser for "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Nice Work if You Can Get It," says most of the star's eight costumes, designed by Catherine Zuber, are changed in a specially-built booth because dressing rooms are too small for the gowns. "Kelli doesn't have a lot of time between scenes," Curry adds. "The important thing is making sure that she's OK."
That special care is appreciated. "With Fran," says O'Hara, "there are two firm sets of choreography: the one I perform onstage and the one she has skillfully created for the two of us offstage. She is my right-hand gal, my shoulder, my common sense and my friend. And all of it with a smile. Or on really fun days, a smirk."
Long before the revival of "Twentieth Century" opened in March, Fallon and her staff had "quick-rigged" many of the clothes. Tuxedo shirts are disassembled into dickey fronts. Cuffs are snapped into sleeves. Magnets are faster than buttons. As Fallon explains, the show's mad '30s screwball rhythm needs her team to "shave down those seconds."
Seconds are split even more for Kristin Chenoweth's onstage transformation from a dowdy mouse named Mildred Plotka to glamour-girl Lily Garland. The star stands over a small bolted hole in the stage. When she gives the signal, a dresser downstairs on a ladder unbolts the hole and pulls the plain-jane dress down through it. And so, at that moment, Chenoweth, who had been "underdressed" with a fancy gown beneath the ugly one, morphs into the requisite bombshell.
If anything that tricky happens to Mirren, Kitchen -- whom everyone backstage calls Spennie -- is too discreet to say. She will say that the first big onstage change requires a three-person team -- in which she emphatically includes Mirren. She and hair supervisor Jenny Pendergraft make a "human shield" around the actress. When the old queen suddenly emerges as the young queen, audiences almost always burst into astonished applause.
The Broadway response surprised Kitchen at first. "London audiences are more reserved," she notes. Now she is so accustomed to the clapping that, when it doesn't happen, she worries about what went wrong.
Although she has been a principal dresser for 24 years, she has never before been involved in a show so boldly identified by its costume changes. Nor has she ever before done a quick-change onstage. And five of Mirren's nine changes happen onstage -- including the one for the enormous coronation dress, which Kitchen says is "very, very heavy."
For the others, quick-change booths have been built on both sides of the stage. One has a modest dressing table. A crown hangs on a peg. So do what she calls "backup pearls." Elizabeth's pearls, clasped with magnets, range from what Kitchen describes as "big old pearls for poor old Granny and lighter ones for young Elizabeth."
Of utmost importance are the handbags, which, as everyone knows, are practically as iconic as the queen herself. These purses, which are harder to find here than in England, are maintained by the costume supervisor, who makes sure they and even their clasps are polished daily.
Everything, she stresses, is a team effort. But most important of all is Mirren, whose trust in Kitchen is the reason she was imported with the production. "She knows I am out there with her and I'm not going to let anything happen to her," Kitchen says with a touching amount of pride and protectiveness. "It's a bond."
Mirren changes so much more than her clothes and the color of her wigs. As Elizabeth goes back and forth from old to young and to all the decades in between, the deep physicality of the woman shifts with playwright Peter Morgan's fictionalized idea of things that might have been said during the private weekly audiences the queen held with 12 of Britain's prime ministers.
Yes, the padding gets thicker in the costumes through the years. But Kitchen marvels at every performance as "I watch Helen change. She hunches her shoulders and I watch her sink into the old queen. The costumes do that. But she does that."
The admiration goes both ways. Asked about Kitchen's importance, Mirren says, "I can't imagine doing this play without her . . . She is a total professional as far as the complex requirements of all the quick changes I have to do." Even more, however, "Spennie understands the energies and the mental concentration required to do this kind of play . . . [she is] utterly supportive and there for you if things get tough, understanding the complicated mental processes required, and the physical demands."
When Kitchen does the changes in the dark, she wears what she calls a "head torch, like a miner." At "Twentieth Century," Fallon and her staff have "bite lights" that hang on cords around their necks when the gadgets aren't between their teeth.
During one quick change near the start of the show, she and two other dressers are poised on a drop cloth behind a piece of set. The objective, which will take what feels like 30 seconds, is to turn a performer who plays an actress in one scene into a train passenger for the next scene.
You can feel the energy and tension in the dressers, who are moving to the rhythm of the music and wiggling their fingers to keep them from freezing up in the clinch. The performer dashes over to them. One dresser changes her hat. Fallon strips off her coat. A third rips off her suit and, somehow, she is heading back to the audience as another character in a different coat.
Fallon scoops up the clothes and puts everything in a basket. She runs up five flights, past actors dressing on the stairs, to hang up the used costumes before preparing for the next change and then the next.
"It's our job to make sure the actors have a second to breathe before they go on the stage," she says without taking a breath. "If they come out and they're still fidgeting, we failed. It's up to us."