Brian Hemesath, SAU class of ’94, was first assistant to costume designer Paul Tazewell — who earned one of the film musical’s seven Oscar noms, for Best Costume Design. The 2021 movie (filmed in summer 2019) was directed by Steven Spielberg and is among 10 nominees for Best Picture.
“It’s an amazing honor for a beautiful film,” Hemesath said by text Tuesday morning. “It is truly humbling to have been part of such a historic film as this with such brilliant artists, especially Paul Tazewell. I hope everyone gets a chance to see this on the big screen.”
Hemesath will not have the chance to attend the Oscars ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on March 27, since the nomination is only for Tazewell. “But I will be rooting for him from NYC!” he said.
A Vogue feature last month described Tazewell (who won a 2016 Tony Award for his costume design of he Broadway smash “Hamilton”), as helping make “Spielberg’s version of this classic tale of star-crossed lovers is as profound and probing as it is visually sumptuous,” and that the designer was a frontrunner in this year’s Oscar race.
“We really needed to establish a world for the costumes that felt plausible and reflective of the 1950s because that was how Steven wanted to depict it, in contrast to what had been done on previous productions and in the original film,” Tazewell told Vogue.
“As anyone who has seen West Side Story on the big screen can attest, his finished product does all that and more—mixing the grit and chaos of the story’s central conflicts with just the right amount of movie-musical spectacle,” the piece said.
The original 1961 “West Side Story” film was an Oscar smash — winning 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Costume Design for Irene Sharaff.
“He’s said in interviews, he loves the original film; he just had imagined it differently when he was a kid and he wanted to bring that to life,” Hemesath said in a 2020 interview about Spielberg and the 1961 movie musical. “I think people are going to be really excited about the film.”
“It’s a lot more realistic,” he said of the new version, filmed July through September 2019 in New York and New Jersey. Hemesath said the original film seemed more like a theatrical production.
“It feels more like you’re watching a stage, and this definitely feels like it’s happening in a real space,” he said. “The performers that they have are unbelievable. The girl who’s playing Maria was 17, and the young lady playing Anita, in addition to being an amazing actress, she was in the original ‘Hamilton’; she was in the Donna Summer musical.”
Tazewell was costume designer for the Tony-winning “Hamilton” and “In the Heights,” among several Broadway shows. “He came into this project and his regular assistant was not available and I was fortunate enough to come in and work on that project,” Hemesath said in 2020 of the new “West Side Story.” “It was an amazing project to be part of – such an iconic film, and the fact that Steven Spielberg wanted to remake that film for a long time.”
Rita Moreno – the 90-year-old EGOT winner who was the original Anita – is in the new cast, and “is unbelievable for her age,” Hemesath said. “She’s also one of the producers on the project – just a force of nature. Her history, willing to share stories of what happened and how she ended up in some very iconic films. She certainly was groundbreaking in being one of the first Latina actors featured in film and television.”
Hemesath — a native of Calmar, Iowa — is no stranger to industry awards. He’s a veteran designer for TV’s “Saturday Night Live” and “Sesame Street.” For the third time out of eight Emmy nominations, Hemesath in 2020 won a Daytime Emmy Award for his costume design work on “Sesame Street.” He also won Emmys in 2015 and 2011.
Hemesath designed for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” film unit for 8 years (credits include 100 “digital shorts” for the Lonely Island Boys, with memorable favorites “Dick in a Box,” “Motherlover,” “The Golden Rule,” “Boombox,” “Like a Boss,” and Laser Cats.”
A St. Ambrose graduate in theater and art, Hemesath earned his master’s from Carnegie Mellon University. He made his Broadway debut in 2014 as costume designer for “Honeymoon in Vegas,” a Jason Robert Brown and Andrew Bergman musical, based on the 1992 film. In 2015, Hemesath earned the Theatre Development Fund’s Irene Sharaff Young Master Award.
That honors a designer of distinction early in his or her career, “given in recognition of Irene Sharaff’s wish to see young designers encouraged on their way to fully acknowledged success and excellence in the field,” according to tdf.org.
The honors are named for Sharaff (1910-1993), whose costume designs won five Academy Awards (she was nominated for 15 Oscars) and a Tony (for “The King and I”).