Like many costume designers, Susan Tsu loves doing research for a show.
"I do a good bit in hopes of coming to a deeper understanding of the text and characters," says Tsu, who is creating the costumes for the Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of "Amadeus" that is in previews for an opening Friday at the O'Reilly Theater, Downtown.
Peter Shaffer's play brings to life the legend and music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in a drama that's part biography, part murder mystery set against the backdrop of the royal courts, theaters and palaces of 18th-century Austria.
"Amadeus" premiered at the National Theatre in London in 1979 under the direction of Sir Peter Hall, then opened on Broadway in 1980, where it earned five Tony Awards including one for best play. The movie version, directed by Milos Forman, won the 1985 Academy Award for best film.
A highly theatrical drama, "Amadeus" focuses on the intrigue, political maneuvering and professional rivalry between court composer Antonio Salieri, whose envy and jealousy outweigh his talent, and the young composer Mozart, who is as brilliant as he is frivolous. Despite a life of dedication, piety and hard work, Salieri watches his life and work fall into shadowy obscurity as Mozart becomes the dazzling superstar of his age.
"It's wonderful to research Mozart more to find what Schaffer used from Mozart's life, what he didn't use and what he embellished and changed," Tsu says. "What I find most interesting is that (Mozart's wife) Costanze is made out to be flirtier and tartier. She was a much more loyal wife than she has been made out to be."
Tsu also has enjoyed learning about the Mozart behind the fiction while reading a book of letters the composer wrote to family members.
"Rather than the formal kind of writing you would expect, he's playful. There are references to him wanting to be an obedient son but his father (rebukes) him for not being so," she says.
Tsu created more than 60 multi-piece costumes for the 19 cast members in the Pittsburgh Public Theater production.
"I love the period and the costumes, and I love crawling inside how people would have worn (them)," Tsu says.
It's not practical to create every costume piece from scratch. So Tsu begins, as many designers do, by searching out and renting costumes from other producing theaters such as Canada's Stratford Festival in Ontario and The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore.
When renting costumes, the challenge is to take costumes that have come from different productions and companies and give them a look that is entirely Tsu's.
"I enjoy the challenge of (looking) at scenes and seeing how the design flows and needs to fit the spirit of the scene. It has to fit into the show as it changes its emotional palate." Costumes also must blend seamlessly with other production and design elements.
James Noone's scenic designs live in a world of silver, black, gold and parquet, Tsu says. So her color palette works with taupes, ivories, blacks, russets, subtle blue gray and melon as well as some silver and gold. "It's a fairly narrow palette. But there are some surprises," she says.
Tsu also spends much attention on fitting costumes to the needs of the actors, their bodies and their characters.
"One of the greatest challenges is actors who need to have physical freedom to move the way they need to," Tsu says. "Taking care of the actor is critical."
That's particularly tricky …