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July 27 2012

Seven days on stage: Will Olympic tourists sprint over to the West End?

As the curtain rises on the Olympics, London's Theatreland is on tenterhooks about ticket sales, while a new musical prepares to take wing at Beijing's Bird's Nest Olympic stadium

Late sprint?

With the Olympics getting into full swing this weekend, London's West End – and its theatres in particular – are on tenterhooks, waiting to discover whether any of the incoming tourists will make the trip across the capital to see a show. Earlier in the year, Andrew Lloyd Webber warned that the summer would be a "bloodbath" for Theatreland, with theatres left empty and ticket sales through the floor. While that doesn't seem likely to happen – according to a report we on the Stage have produced this week – there's still a big question mark over whether the influx of overseas visitors will make up for a "noticeable" dip in advanced sales.

Birdsong in Beijing

In Beijing – the last Olympic host city – an example emerged this week of the potential benefits that the Games can bring to the performing arts. China's National Stadium, better known as the Bird's Nest Olympic venue, is to host its first ever stage musical. Fascination, as it's called, will open this September and will run for three years, playing to a potential capacity of 10,000 people per show.

Less than super

You could be forgiven for not having noticed, but Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest TV talent show – Superstar – drew to a close this week. The final of the ITV show – held slightly strangely on Wednesday night – played to 3.3 million viewers, less than half the number that similar BBC contests have attracted. As well as not proving a massive hit with viewers, the show has also sparked a few strong opinions within the industry, with Gavin and Stacey star Joanna Page describing the contest as "insulting".

Tattoo close to the bone

Controversy in Germany, meanwhile, where the Bayreuth festival opened this week, but with one notable absentee. Yevgeny Nikitin, the bass-baritone who had been due to sing the title role in a new production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, dropped out of the event after a row centring on a Nazi tattoo emblazoned on his chest. It proved a particularly sensitive subject given the festival's (and Wagner's) historic links to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

Stirling work

In Northern Ireland, the new Belfast Lyric Theatre is celebrating its nomination for the prestigious Stirling prize for architecture. The venue is up against – among others – the London Olympic Stadium for the prize, which will be announced in October. Encouragingly, William Hill has the Lyric at 4 to 1 to win, compared to 5 to 1 for the Olympic stadium.

Warehouse to courthouse

London's Donmar Warehouse theatre finds itself facing a lawsuit from David Birrell, an actor who was blinded in one of his eyes after a prop gun misfired during a show. The accident happened during the 2010 production of The Passion. He is seeking £250,000 in damages.

And finally ...

Ghost the musical, which had already announced its closure in the West End this October, will now also bid farewell to Broadway. The show will shutter in New York in August, after a run of 136 performances. Still, it's not quite the end of the road: a Dutch version opens in August, while there are also plans for a US tour and other international versions.

Follow Friday – my theatrical Twitter tips

@lyricbelfast – the official Twitter feed for Northern Ireland's only full-time producing theatre, the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Some interesting extra content – pics, videos and the like – available via Twitter, plus the obligatory endless retweets of people saying nice things about the theatre.

@thebenforster – Ben Forster is the winner of ITV's search for a Jesus to appear in Andrew Lloyd Webber's revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. Lots of thanking of his supporters going on at the moment, but it will be interesting to see if he gives an insight into rehearsals for the arena tour.

@jopage – Joanna Page, best known for her role in Gavin and Stacey, but also an established stage actress. Not a huge fan of TV talent shows, it seems, but, judging from her Twitter feed, does seem to like dogs a lot.

Alistair Smith is deputy editor of The Stage. You can follow me @smithalistair © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 16 2011

Ray Aghayan obituary

Award-winning costume designer who dressed Judy Garland and Diana Ross and oversaw the Oscar red carpet

Now that television talent contests are gussied up to Vegas standards, it's less easy to appreciate the discreet glamour that was the speciality of Ray Aghayan, who has died aged 83. But for 60 years, he guaranteed that difficult divas would arrive on screens and stages projecting perfection. Glamour was so much his habitat, he supervised over a dozen Oscar shows.

His initial diva, he remembered, was even more terrifying than Barbra Streisand: Princess Fawzia of Egypt, first wife of the last Shah of Iran, a woman of movie appearance and wilfulness. Aghayan came from an Armenian family in Tehran, and his widowed mother, Yasmine, designed clothes for the ruling Pahlavi family; the boy, starstruck by Hollywood, was certain he, too, could create, and the amused Fawzia summoned him via her ladies in waiting. She explained to him that she had to wear mourning dress, but didn't want to be extinguished by it. So he drew her "this big black tulle thing trimmed with droopy red ostrich feathers". It was sewn, defiantly worn, and after that no grand dame scared him.

His mother took his cinema passions seriously enough to send him to California to study. In Los Angeles, he dropped out of architecture and into acting, then: "I was directing a play and found we didn't have enough money to hire a designer. So I designed the costumes."

He went into television in the mid-50s, when most of its costuming was re-used from movie stock, or agency hires. NBC or CBS budgets for original commissions were reserved for big variety specials, and Aghayan was confident that whatever the level of luxe, he could supply it. It was steady work, culminating in 1963-64, when he costumed Judy Garland's regular shows. Edith Head had been commissioned, but exited, fast. Garland was trouble. But Aghayan was a fan ("If you can sing like that it doesn't matter how hard you are", he said), and her demands were minimal: she wanted to wear spike heels. As her legs were long and thin, Aghayan thought this was a great idea, and he was sure of the way she should look. "The lady was like the Statue of Liberty: you know what she wears." He defrumped Garland with slacks under over-blouses, simply cut but surface-decorated at $350 a time, to catch the light in monochrome. Garland wore them on her late tours, including the famous 1964 London Palladium gig.

Aghayan's success meant he needed assistance. It arrived at his door in the form of Bob Mackie, a young designer who sketched better than anyone and became Aghayan's professional and personal partner for life. They shared an aesthetic based on old Hollywood and burlesque – fearless with feathers and rhinestones, but lightened up and styled for wit. Sometimes as a duo, sometimes solo, they produced costumes for Diana Ross in her Supremes days, Dinah Shore, Julie Andrews and Carol Channing – the latter getting a Broadway gown with 80lb of crystal beading, its scarf so weighted that Channing, flinging it over her shoulder, damaged the scenery.

Aghayan never went as far into parody as Mackie, but he did enjoy pastiche in a short movie career, rebranding Doris Day in a mad mod mode for Caprice (1967). The terrible seriousness, and serious terribleness, of Doctor Doolittle (1967) put him off big films, although he and Mackie rallied to Ross and Streisand, picking up Oscar nominations for Lady Sings the Blues (1972) – the shoulder treatments of Ross's dresses amplifying her slight frame to more closely match Billie Holiday's broader form – and Streisand's Funny Lady (1975), the sequel to Funny Girl, a masterclass in bias cut. Aghayan alone had a nomination for Gaily, Gaily (1969), and among his Broadway productions was nominated for a Tony in 1970 for Applause, the musical of All About Eve: he draped rows of fringe from Lauren Bacall's loping frame, to dance in lieu of her feet.

Aghayan campaigned successfully for an Emmy category for costume, and he and Mackie shared the first award, in 1967, for a television movie of Alice Through the Looking Glass. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences still assumed that nothing on the box was purpose-made, however, and a member asked Aghayan what he did that was worth recognition, stating: "You shop for clothes and you bring it in and you put on stars and they wear it." Aghayan replied: "I want you, tomorrow, to go to the May Company [a department store] and buy me, and bring here, the Red Queen's costume."

He and Mackie were aware that the studio workrooms of trained craft hands were closing in LA; New York was a long way to go to get 10,000 sequins applied at speed. So in 1968, along with Elizabeth Courtney, formerly of Columbia Pictures, they set up their own Californian atelier, later exporting its output to Broadway. Many showbiz customers also wanted unique dress-up ensembles, at a time when Paris couture was low on handworked glamour. So the duo obliged, a custom-making venture that turned into retail collections in the 1980s. Mackie had the wow factor, Aghayan supplied the subtle flattery. The Costume Designers Guild executive director, Rachael Stanley, said: "Whenever there was a problem trying to make something work, Ray could come in and take a look at it and say, 'Oh, the problem is ...'" The guild gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2008.

Aghayan was asked to advise on the televising of the Oscar shows from the late 1960s. He didn't have a veto over red-carpet choices, but up until the mid-1980s, when couture houses began to fight to place their designs on stars' backs, his recommendation was heeded. By his last Oscars, in 2001, he felt costume design – the dress as character or an extra asset on a charismatic performer – had been overtaken by fashion advertising.

He won an Emmy and several nominations for the Oscar shows, and designed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 LA Olympics,  with 50 designs mass-produced into 11,000 outfits of white sportswear: happy, summery, the summation of his fantasy America.

Mackie survives him.

• Ray Aghayan, costume designer, born 28 July 1928; died 10 October 2011 © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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