When one thinks of Calvin Klein, perhaps what comes to mind are clean lines, simple silhouettes, and maybe that memorable (for better or for worse) Justin Bieber underwear ad. Your brain might not immediately jump to subterfuge, paranoia, Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” or even a Haitian witch doctor.
But fashion, comedy, and high-stakes drama are at the center of “The Obsession of Calvin Klein,” Ryan Raftery’s musical about the designer. It’s his follow-up to previous productions about Martha Stewart, Anna Wintour, and Andy Cohen. He wanted to put one on for an icon who changed the face of fashion — the first to take on underwear, denim, and television ads, and the sartorialist who “objectified” men in the same way as women, Raftery says.
Raftery also thought it was fascinating that Klein and Ralph Lauren had risen from the same neighborhood in the Bronx to become the fashion icons they are today, and decided to marry this tale with the 2010 film “Black Swan,” in which Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis portray rivals in a prestigious ballet company.
Raftery’s musical begins with Klein giving his career talk at Harvard, which he actually gave in 2015. Every question students ask is about Lauren, and the production grows more and more twisted as the audience gets a glimpse into the world of artistic perfection and cutthroat competition. Raftery says in one scene, to sabotage Lauren, Klein enlists Donna Karan “to go to Haiti to meet with the witch doctor to get a spell that they perform together, set to Fleetwood Mac’s song ‘Rhiannon,’ which I rewrote as ‘Ralph Lauren.’”
With such an off-the-wall plot, it’s surprising to learn that many top executives at Klein’s brand have seen and liked the show when it played in New York, as Raftery says. Karan’s camp, on the other hand? Not so much.
“[They] didn’t like it, and thought it was disrespectful,” says Raftery. “Some people have better senses of humor than others.”
Celebrity fans of his work have included Gayle King, whom he dubs his “fairy godmother,” and Gwyneth Paltrow, a subject in his Klein musical. He says her support was “major,” because the star has been dressed by Klein, Lauren, and Karan.
“Gwyneth Paltrow came to the show, and she came backstage. She was like, ‘I wore Calvin for you,’ and she wore a Calvin Klein coat, and she really liked it,” says Raftery, who even acted out one of Paltrow’s scenes in front of her. “At first she was kind of like, “OK, I’ll tolerate this.’ But then I think she actually really liked it. It was a scene from ‘Great Expectations.'”
Not mentioned in the musical is Raftery’s actual experience of working for Klein as an assistant, which lasted a day (“It clearly wasn’t a job for an actor,” he says). He got a glimpse into the notoriously private designer, and notes that his house is just as minimalistic as someone might think. When he did his interview, Klein was “exceedingly laid back and cool” and took time to ask him about his life.
The next star Raftery will take to the stage is Meghan Markle, whose journey from “Suits” actress to a duchess is, as he calls it, “the ultimate Cinderella story.” It will debut at the end of the year, and even though he hasn’t finished writing yet, Raftery plans on starting the musical on the soundstage of “Deal or No Deal,” where Markle appeared as a briefcase holder in one of her earliest TV appearances. Expect the production to touch on drama with Markle’s father and sister talking to the tabloids, her allegedly causing rifts in the palace, and her relationship with William and Kate.
“The Obsession of Calvin Klein” is at Rockwell Table & Stage in Los Angeles on Feb. 17 and 18.