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How 'Smash' Costumes Help Katherine McPhee and Megan Hilty Make Their Marilyns More Than Wiggle

The TV show's costume designer Molly Maginnis talks about designing iconic Marilyn silhouettes that can also withstand spectacular dance sequences.

Will Hart/NBC

Apparently, there’s no such thing as too much Marilyn Monroe. My Week with Marilyn star Michelle Williams is up for a Oscar on Sunday at the Academy Awards for her portrayal of the sex symbol. Cosmetics giant MAC just launched a limited edition collection of Marilyn Monroe makeup.

And Dreamworks Television new series, Smash, airing Mondays on NBC, has also resurrected the beloved actress as a team of theatre producers struggle to cast and create a Broadway musical about the screen legend’s life.

The show stars Debra Messing, Angelica Huston, Jack Davenport, and Christian Borle with American Idol alum Katherine McPhee and Broadway vet Megan Hilty as dueling Marilyns desperately vying for the lead role in the musical.

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Ironically, the show's costume designer Molly Maginnis says she went after her job with the same fervor as a starlet on the hunt for a plum role. “I pursued it madly,” Maginnis confesses of her Smash dream job. Luckily. she was just what the show was looking for. “They wanted someone who had been a theatre designer, had worked on Broadway, had made dance costumes for musicals, but had also worked on TV shows and knew the demands.” Another plus is that she’d also worked in films with A-listers such as Robert DeNiro and Barbra Streisand (Little Fockers) and Jack Nicholson (The Bucket List, As Good as It Gets).

Maginnis hasn’t yet seen Williams’ film. “I prefer to make my own ideas of how Marilyn should look, We didn’t want to just duplicate her clothing. We're trying to create our own magic,” she says, adding that her six degrees connection with the legendary actress comes via the late Jack Lemmon. “He told me a few years ago that when he did Some Like it Hot with Marilyn, she stole one of his dresses.”

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Making Smash gowns for two Marilyn wannabes (and maybe a rumored third) -- who have to do far more than just that famous wiggle – is the biggest challenge. “It’s a huge element to make dresses that they can dance in, one you have to always be sensitive to.”

And it’s more than just Lycra. “You have to know a lot of tricks about construction,” she explains. “Do you put a slit in the dress? Do you add godets (a circular section that lets the garment flare)? If they have to lift their arms over their heads, you have to cut the armhole and the sleeve differently to accommodate that movement.”

Maginnis is always on hand at dance rehearsals so she’s up on what the actors need to do while she’s designing their outfits. “Usually we have the kids come in and put on the costumes and say, “Dance! Go full out!’ so that we can see if something is going to rip.”

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The show's Marilyn gowns -- such as the red beaded and embroidered dress worn in the sequence “Let’s Be Bad” -- also create shape from inside. “It has quite a foundation built into it to create the hourglass shape, Maginnis explains. “It’s all in the underpinnings. I often say ‘It’s not the costume, it’s the underwear.’ Women in that period wore waist cinchers, bustiers, and girdles. And good clothing back then also had shaping built into the dress.”

Hilty, who starred in Wicked (she played Glinda) on Broadway, is familiar with having clothing constructed for her. But McPhee hadn’t ever worn constrictive period clothing. Both actresses told Maginnis that their costumes helped them find their inner Marilyn.

“When you put on a dress that has been constructed to give you an hourglass shape, you feel like Marilyn would have felt," the designer explains. "She knew hat she had to be uncomfortable to be sexy, to be the ideal woman."

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