Of Wigs and Wonders

Of Wigs and Wonders Playbill takes a look into the mirrors of the artists who create hair and make-up for Broadway headliners.
Paul Huntley received the Tony Honors in 2003.
Paul Huntley received the Tony Honors in 2003. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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No show can go on without the behind-the-scenes magicians who make every show look as glamorous — or horrific — as authors and directors wish. These magicians are the cast's heroes, their work admired by audiences; yet they get little recognition.

Paul Huntley, the celebrated wig designer, is the exception. For his contributions to 190 shows in 34 years, he received a 2003 Tony Honor for Excellence in Theatre and a 2002 Drama Desk Award for Lifetime Achievement.

This year, he's designed hair for Deuce, LoveMusik, Inherit the Wind, The Pirate Queen, Curtains and Grey Gardens.

"It's a big and very creative job," he says, "especially since it's your job to work with the designers and directors to help tell the story. You certainly want to be correct as to period. You work with the costumer to make sure the hair texture doesn't clash; and with lighting to find out if it's going to be somber or very dramatic." A big change today is the number of producers it takes to put on even a small Broadway show. "And every one of them has an opinion. I hear what they have to say but don't always listen!"

The Phantom of the Opera is the longest-running show in Broadway history, but it wouldn't be heading for its 8,078th performance tomorrow if the production hadn't paid attention to the minutest details — such as the Phantom's make-up, created and designed by Christopher Tucker and now in the hands of production make-up supervisor Thelma Pollard. Thanks to her innovations with prosthetics, she's reduced the Phantom's make-up time from three hours to just under an hour.

Theatre is live, so anything can happen. Just ask Wicked make-up designer Joshua Dulude II, Mamma Mia! associate hair designer Josh Marquette or Lion King make-up supervisor Elizabeth Cohen.

"The worst nightmare is when there's an accident," Dulude says. "It's happened three times. The most frightening was about ten minutes before the curtain when a trap door failed to close and Idina Menzel fell through the stage."

The performance stopped. Menzel was in pain. Everyone was devastated. As arrangements were made to get her to the hospital, the stage manager had to find an Elphaba.

"Usually," explains Dulude, "the stand-by would be long gone. By some miracle Shoshana Bean [a later Elphaba] was still on premises." It was a little frantic, "but we had Shoshana from street clothes to in costume onstage in seven minutes" — a coat of green watercolor, make-up and wig.

"Idina was a trouper," reports Dulude. "She never missed a show, but this time was different. She had broken a rib."

During Mamma Mia!'s Act I finale, a dancer's wig came loose from its scalp cap pins. Marquette ticked off the minutes to intermission, "then watched the wig fall and get kicked around like some rodent. There were a few audiences gasps but all I could do was wait."

Cohen tells of the time Kissy Simmons, a Lion King Nala, exited after her Act II solo to report she had a stomach virus and couldn't continue. "The only Nala cover in the theatre, Reema Webb, was in the ensemble and very pregnant." She was pulled out discreetly and hair and make-up went to work. When Nala reappeared, the audience had to wonder how she'd gone from tall and statutesque to short and pregnant. "To make it funnier," says Cohen, "her next line was 'There's no food, no water.'"

Paul Huntley came to Broadway in the 1970s with a reputation from the West End and in film. "I was in my forties," he says, "and had worked with the giants of British theatre — Gielgud, Olivier, Leigh, Richardson, Guinness, Redgrave. That was an era we'll never see the likes of again."

One of Huntley's first Broadway designs was for Marlene Dietrich on her one-woman show. "By then . . . she was a product of her films," he says. "Onstage, she created magic. It was all an illusion, but it worked beautifully. She was so professional, never difficult," he adds. "Marlene knew exactly what she wanted. That's been my experience with most stars. They've seen their face photographed and lit from every conceivable angle. They know. It's an instinct. It's like when they're onstage. They know their mark when they feel the warmth of the key light."

Huntley's first Broadway show upon going solo was the 1973 revival of Uncle Vanya, co-starring Lillian Gish as nanny Maryina. Miss Gish told him, "‘Darling, I'm much too young for the part. You'll have to age me.'" She was 80 but, notes Huntley, "looked much younger. She was always elfin like. So I worked up something old and crotchety."

Just talking ladies, Huntley's worked with Channing, Merman, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Glynis Johns, Julie Harris, Deborah Kerr, Claudette Colbert, Celeste Holm, Elizabeth Ashley, Jane Alexander and, among hundreds more, Harvey Fierstein (as Edna Turnblad).

He has few bad memories, but won't divulge names or secrets even though some of the guilty are gone. "I'm used to seeing stars early in the day before they have their face on. They trust me. You feel a bit like a psychiatrist or doctor."

His biggest hair show of this season is The Pirate Queen, which uses 100 wigs. Each of these take three days to create and cost upwards of two thousand dollars. The same quality and expense goes into hair for the ensemble as for the leads. For principals, Huntley uses human hair; but he's found that synthetics work best for performers "who do vigorous things," like dancers. Then comes the daily maintenance.

Huntley has seen changes. "When I came to Broadway, with the exception of Bob Kelly [who'd been working since the 1960s], there weren't a lot of hair designers in theatre. They were doing movies. The custom was for leading ladies to go to their hair dresser before performances. Also, there were no mikes, so when there were wigs, they weren't worn as they are today. Now, because of sound design, everyone wears them and I'm able to weave the mike through and often secure the battery pack inside."

Proud to work with the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to provide free wigs for cancer patients, Huntley explains, "I feel I'm helping with the cure. If they go to wig boutiques, it's not the same. When a professional does the wig, they can look in the mirror and see themselves. Everyone has the right to look gorgeous."

This piece appeared in the 2007 Tony Awards Playbill at Radio City Music Hall.