Mizrahi in Missouri


By Barbara Langsam Shuman, Special to the Light

Isaac Mizrahi apologized for not appearing more pulled together, explaining the he hasn’t “looked up” in more than three weeks. Mizrahi is juggling triple duties as director, set designer and costume designer for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ first production of “A Little Night Music.”  With the production opening June 6, his schedule allowed for four media interviews in one hour last Friday.  Although he kept to that tight timetable, Mizrahi was genuinely gracious, engaging and endearing. 

Created by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, “A Little Night Music” garnered six Tony awards when it premiered on Broadway in 1973. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” the bittersweet musical features the poignant song “Send in the Clowns.”  

This production marks the directorial debut for Mizrahi, an internationally known fashion icon who previously designed costumes for a Metropolitan Opera staging of “Orfeo ed Euridice” and three Broadway musicals.  He also has produced “Unzipped,” a documentary film based on his life; written a series of comic books, “The Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel;” penned an advice book, “How to Have Style,” staged his own cabaret act, and acted in films and on episodes of television shows, including “Ugly Betty” and “Sex and the City.”

Advertisement: The Grande at Chesterfield

“So, this is not such a huge leap for me,” Mizrahi said. “But it is my first experience with telling a singer, ‘Could you do that again without making a face?’

“It’s like cooking. You can look at a recipe, and you may never have made that dish, but you know you can prepare it.”

He says that he loves putting together all the elements of a show – the singing, the acting, the set designs and the costumes.  “It’s completing the picture.  In some ways it’s easier than collaborating.  Magic takes place through this kind of collaboration, where I trust an actor or a singer to do something in a way I’ve envisioned.”

As director, Mizrahi cast the lead actors and singers, including Amy Irving as the glamorous Desiree Armfelt, a pivotal character who performs “Send in the Clowns.” Although Irving happens to be a talented singer, she is known for her non-singing roles in such films as “Yentl” and “Crossing Delancey.”   

“The role of Desiree was actually written for an actress who cannot sing,” Mizrahi said. “Send in the Clowns’ should be spoken more than sung. It definitely shouldn’t be belted, a la Ethel Merman.”

Mizrahi, 48, was born in Brooklyn, where he grew up in a tightly-knit Syrian-Jewish community. He recalled that his family was “more traditionally Jewish than observant.  “We celebrated all of the holidays and observed kashrus, strictly in our home but not so strictly outside our home. “

He attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush from kindergarten through eighth grade.

“I felt like a Martian at the Yeshiva.  I just didn’t belong. And being gay didn’t help.  I was expelled several times. 

“I was a fit-thrower,” he added. “I would have these terrible levels of anxiety, where I’d feel like I was falling backwards into an abyss.  I was just so different.  It left its scars.”

Mizrahi’s “spiritual life was saved” by his eighth-grade teacher, Sheila Kanowitz, who convinced his parents that their son belonged at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan.

“I really owe a lot to my parents for deciding to send me to the Performing Arts High School when I was 12,” Mizrahi said. “That was a big, big life change for me. I was riding the subway alone from Brooklyn to New York City.  My father worked nearby, so I had a certain comfort level, but it was a culture shock. I found a whole new world at the high school.”

Along with finding a place where he belonged, Mizrahi performed and designed costumes for the school’s productions.  At 13, he began making clothes for himself, his mother and one of her friends.  Two years later, he launched his own fashion label, “15 New York.”  

Mizrahi then moved on to the Parsons School of Design, where he was mentored by designer Perry Ellis.  After stints with Ellis, Jeffrey Banks and Calvin Klein, he created his own women’s wear collection and later a collection for men.  Today, Mizrahi’s ready-to-wear collections are found at upscale retailers worldwide.

In 2003, he teamed with Target and launched collection of moderately-priced apparel. He is the creative director of Liz Claiborne New York.  Last September, he opened his first retail shop on Madison Avenue. 

A kind of cosmic symmetry has led this quintessential New Yorker to Webster Groves.  When Sondheim introduced “A Little Night Music” to Broadway audiences, 12-year-old Mizrahi was beginning his creative odyssey at the High School of Performing Arts. Thirty-six years later, Mizrahi is creating magic by staging Sondheim’s musical for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Barbara Langsam Shuman is a writer, documentary filmmaker and a public relations executive. She also is a past president of the St. Louis Jewish Light’s board of trustees.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Performances of “A Little Light Music” are scheduled for June 6, 9, 11, 15 (matinee), 17, and 19. Tickets may be purchased by calling 314-961-0644 or ExperienceOpera.org.