Posted Online: July 12, 2014, 8:24 pm

Emmy-winning SAU alum designs Broadway debut

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

Photo:
Brian Hemesath

Brian Hemesath doesn't really worry about job security, as costume designer for two of the longest-running shows on TV -- "Saturday Night Live" and "Sesame Street."

The Emmy-winning 1994 St. Ambrose alum is balancing a busy career in television and live theater, as he looks forward to making his Broadway debut in the new Jason Robert Brown and Andrew Bergman musical comedy "Honeymoon In Vegas," which first ran at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse last fall to rave reviews. It will transfer to Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre this Nov. 18, with opening night set for Jan. 15.

"I am thrilled. I couldn't be happier," Mr. Hemesath, a 42-year-old native of Calmar, Iowa, said in a recent phone interview.

"I love just working, honestly," he said. "I'm fortunate that I get to do both (TV and theater). There are things I miss when I do one versus the other. I get spoiled in either direction."

"Vegas," inspired by the 1992 film of the same name (with a screenplay by Mr. Bergman), the musical stars Rob McClure as the commitment-phobic Jack Singer, who travels to Sin City to elope with his longtime girlfriend Betsy and escape the curse of his long-dead mother. Complications ensue with the arrival of Tommy Korman (Tony Danza), a widowed gambler who takes a shine to Betsy, on account of her resemblance to his late wife.

The New York Times said last October it features "a revelation of a score by Jason Robert Brown," and "it captures, tickles and exalts the singular sensibility of a desert city based on surreal estate. Like Las Vegas itself, 'Honeymoon' exists at the corner of tacky and hip. As performed under the single-malt-smooth direction of Gary Griffin, it's a swinging hymn to laid-back outrageousness."

The show "has wrestled the the neon mirage of its title into the solid, satisfying shape of a classic Broadway musical," the review said.

Mr. Hemesath (who's designed costumes for a few Paper Mill productions) hopes it will finally bring Mr. Brown ("Parade," "Bridges of Madison County," "Songs for a New World," "The Last Five Years") the commercial success he deserves.

"This is really a great departure for him," he said of the bright, accessible score. "His musicals are slightly more operatic.This one has an old-fashioned Broadway musical flavor." Of "Bridges," Mr. Hemesath said: "It was a beautiful show. I think the subject matter was not as feel-good as some of the other shows. That's a difficult thing."

"Vegas" is set in the present day, but the story and music are an affectionate "throwback to the '50s," he said.

Mr. Brown recently won a Tony for best score for "Bridges of Madison County," which closed in May after 137 performances. His "Parade" (which also won a score Tony) ran just 84 performances in 1998-99.

Cory Johnson, chair of St. Ambrose University's theater department, introduced Mr. Hemesath to costume design when he was a theater and art double major.

"He took my costume design class. With his innate ability in art, it was a great combination," she said recently. "He's got an incredible work ethic and boundless energy."

"I'm so excited to go see the show," Ms. Johnson said of "Honeymoon in Vegas." "Hopefully, he will be the first of many Ambrose alums to have a Broadway opening. It really is an old-school, a boy-gets-girl, show-stopping, traditional musical."

In 2011, Mr. Hemesath and his PBS team won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design/Styling for "Sesame Street," the first time an SAU grad won TV's highest honor.

"I can honestly say that I couldn't have gotten where I am without the education I received at St. Ambrose and the support of some very dedicated professors and staff members who always encouraged me to do my best," Mr. Hemesath said in an SAU article soon after the Emmy win.

"Cory Johnson, Kris Eitrheim, Mike Kennedy and Kristin Quinn changed my world in many ways and helped me to find a career that is not only financially successful, but personally fulfilling as well," he said. "Plus, they were a lot of fun to be around."

Marrying the visual and theatrical

While he originally considered a career on stage, Mr. Hemesath pursued designing and making costumes by marrying his interests in theater and art.

"I think it's more a way that taps into my personal creativity, as a visual person," he said. "It allows me to tell story that's there. ...Looking back, I'm so happy."

Costume design is more satisfying than making inanimate art or sets, since he is creating a picture on live human beings, and tailors each to the specific person. "You get to have a collaboration with them that is really rewarding," Mr. Hemesath said.

After earning a master's in fine arts from Carnegie Mellon University, he moved to New York City in 1997 and designed costumes all over the country for operas, musicals and plays. He got the gig on SNL's wardrobe staff 12 years ago, through a costume shop for which he worked.

"Some people happened to be working at SNL, and they needed someone to help them out. I was in the right place at the right time," Mr. Hemesath said of the comedic institution, each episode written and put together in less than a week. "It's more like live theater, a great transition for me."

"Coming from live theater, it's the immediacy of putting things on stage, and getting one chance to do it. You just have to do it in front of millions of people," he said. "It is fast and furious." He's also done costumes for over 100 of the SNL pre-taped "digital shorts."

"They have become iconic pieces, which is great," Mr. Hemesath said of those short films. His favorite was the famous "Motherlover" (2009) with Andy Samberg, Justin Timberlake, Susan Sarandon and Patricia Clarkson. "They were both just delightful," he said of the acclaimed film actresses.

Mr. Hemesath has worked for "Sesame Street" (which he called "the happiest place on Earth") for five years, earning four Emmy nominations.

He doesn't work with the Muppets, but for the live actors (children and celebrities) on the educational kids' institution. "We definitely have more lead time for filming, but each episode is filmed within one day," he said.

"Sesame Street" (on the air since 1969) films about 40 new episodes a year, over 10 weeks, whereas SNL (on since 1975) is 20 new episodes over each season, Mr. Hemesath said.

The Emmy nominations are given and won as a team, he noted. "What they do is incredible and the timeframe they do it is incredible," he said of "Sesame Street." "The puppets can't talk back, but that doesn't mean the puppeteers can't."

Like SNL, "Sesame Street" attracts big-name celebrities to guest star as well. "It gives them a lot of happiness," Mr. Hemesath said. "The adults have a better time than even the kids do. It's very nostalgic for them."

Of the multitude of stars he's worked with, his favorite is Melissa McCarthy ("Bridesmaids," "Mike & Molly"), who has been on both SNL and "Sesame Street."

"She is amazing, equally as ready for either." Mr. Hemesath said. "She's really fantastic."

His perpetually busy schedule, including work for NBC's "Today" show (he also recently bought a weekend home on Long Island), makes it challenging to do theater work. Last year, Mr. Hemesath worked on "Honeymoon in Vegas" over the summer, when he was off from TV. "People are fairly flexible about how it is," he said.

SNL has increased the number of filmed shorts over the past decade, as the live skits have become more involved, Mr. Hemesath said. "They need more time for costume changes," he said of the 90-minute live show. "You've got to have that flexibility to up the production value in the live show, and not have 500 commercials. And I just think they have become a way to continue to make the show relevant in an increasingly digital world."

Returning to Ambrose and working benefit shows

Mr. Hemesath often returns to his alma mater to work on shows (his parents live in Decorah, Iowa).

His post-graduation productions in Davenport include "Tartuffe," "Gypsy," and "Pippin." He last returned to SAU in September 2012, to do costume design for "You Can't Take It With You," which was a joint production with Curtainbox Theatre Co.

"He's simply a good friend; he's come back a number of times," Ms. Johnson said.

"I feel like I learned a lot. I got insights from people who came back when I was there," Mr. Hemesath said of his time at Ambrose. "I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of interesting experiences not everybody gets to have. I like to come back and share those with people, and answer questions."

He also has designed for "Broadway Bares," the annual Actors Equity benefit for AIDS prevention and services, about 10 years, including for stars such as David Hyde Pierce ("Frasier") and Kristin Chenoweth ("Wicked"). "It's a really great organization," Mr. Hemesath said.

That theatrical organization raises funds for AIDS-related causes across the U.S. -- since its founding in 1988, it's raised over $175 million for people with AIDS, HIV, or HIV-related illnesses.

While Mr. Hemesath isn't getting his hopes up yet for a potential first Tony Award next year, the Tony-winning Mr. Brown also composed incidental music for a new Broadway revival of "You Can't Take It With You."

The 1937 Pulitzer winner, which opens in late September, and will overlap its run with "Honeymoon In Vegas."