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The Pirate Queen

This exciting new musical comes from the writers of Les Miserables and the producers of Riverdance.

Linda Balgord: All Hail the Queen (and Her Costumes)

About the author:
Linda Balgord thought she'd experienced the ultimate in stage costuming when she starred in the first national tour of Sunset Boulevard. But Norma Desmond's got nothing on the Virgin Queen, and now Balgord is taking the stage of Broadway's Hilton Theatre in an eye-popping array of gowns, crowns, and finery as Elizabeth I in The Pirate Queen. To call designer Martin Pakledinaz's costumes for Balgord "over the top" is an understatement: These are works of art equalling anything the real Elizabeth could possibly have worn 400 years ago. The actress, who has made a specialty of strong leading roles in musicals such as Aspects of Love, Cats, La Cage aux Folles, Passion, Funny Girl, Man of La Mancha and The Fix, did her homework before taking on a character portrayed in the movies by the likes of Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren and Judi Dench. She describes the evolution of Elizabeth for—and shares her thoughts about each of the five incredible outfits she wears in the show.

Over the course of my career, I've played many larger-than-life characters, from Evita and Fanny Brice to Grizabella and Norma Desmond. Elizabeth I is definitely that kind of role, and when I read the script of The Pirate Queen, I felt excited by the opportunity. I wanted the challenge of bringing this fascinating woman to life on the stage.

After I was cast in the role, I did a lot of research: I read six biographies and several novels and saw all the films I could get my hands on. Because so many amazing actresses have played Elizabeth, watching the films was very inspiring and great fun, but I found the historical reading I did most helpful, particularly biographies by Alison Weir and Anne Somerset.

Elizabeth was a fiercely intelligent woman with a great lust for life. She really lived, and she faced incredible challenges from the time she was very young. Her mother was beheaded before she was three years old; her father publicly declared her to be a bastard; and she was held prisoner in the Tower of London under suspicion of treason before becoming queen in 1558. If you made this story up, people would say, "Oh, come on!" But it all happened, and it formed a monarch who was as tough as nails and fierce in her love for her people.

The role has changed since the first script I saw. For one thing, the keys were much higher originally. Elizabeth's lyrics are very wordy and formal and move quickly, and it's difficult to make yourself understood at higher pitches. Also, I think the creative team was a little surprised at how interested people were in Elizabeth and her relationship with Grace O'Malley. Although the two women were very different, both were pioneering leaders, and both made huge sacrifices for their people. The writers also gave Elizabeth and Sir Richard Bingham [William Youmans] more dialogue, because there was room for humor in that relationship. The flirtation between them is not factual, but it shows how Elizabeth used her femininity to her advantage.

People who have seen the show always marvel at the amazing looks designers Martin Pakledeniz and Paul Huntley have created for Elizabeth with their costumes and wigs. I imagined they would be wonderful, but they are, quite simply, jaw-dropping. Even the "muslins," the simple cloth versions used for fittings, were beautiful. The first time I put on one of the real gowns, I had an "Is that me in there?" moment. Paul Huntley joked that we could finally put my high forehead to use! I now know all about ruffs the lace piece that goes around my neck and supportasses the wire frame that holds the wing-like pieces that rise from the back of my neck. The costumes are a huge pun intended part of playing Elizabeth.

I don't really have a favorite costume; I love different things about all of them. The coronation cape in the first scene is very interesting: Elizabeth comes up onstage in her bed, the day after her coronation, in a beautiful silk georgette nightgown. It's the only time you see her free physically, and then she puts on her heavy robe. My lyric reflects the symbolism of it: "The girl that I once was is dead." Our director, Frank Galati, referred to the addition of the robe and crown in that scene as the beginning of the "encrusting of Elizabeth." The cerise gown is the lightest and easiest to wear of the gowns. Elizabeth is younger then, and there's an ease and playfulness about that dress that suits the scene.

The black velvet costume is the heaviest, at 45 pounds. That's Elizabeth at her most opulent, and in that scene she sings about the fortress that she's created for herself with the gowns and exaggerated makeup. She's untouchable. Unattainable. The poppy red costume with the wing-shape supportasse is the most complicated to deal with, because I have to go up and down escape stairs stepping sideways. The wig and crown I wear with it are the heaviest of all my headpieces and sit furthest back on my head. The white dress is not as large as the others and represents the most mature Elizabeth we see. She's really angry with Grace in the beginning of that scene and the stark whiteness of the gown with tone-on-tone details and pearl jewels make for a wonderfully concentrated picture.

The challenge for me as an actress wearing costumes as elaborate as these is to be honest, vulnerable and alive so that the audience is drawn to and engaged with the woman inside the finery. Although the costumes can be difficult to wear, they absolutely support everything I have to do as this character. How can you not be a queen in these costumes? It's the ultimate dress-up role: I get to wear crowns and gowns and sit on a throne! It's a privilege to play this amazing woman.

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