ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Wigs

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21 Dec 2007

To wig or not to wig: that is this week's question.



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This question comes from Charlotte in La Jolla, CA.

Question: How many wigs are used in an average Broadway show? Are they made specially for each actor? How do they decide who has a wig and who doesn't? And what do they look like up close?

Answer: It's difficult to generalize about wigs at all Broadway shows, but for this question we talked to Stephanie Barnes, who has worked with the wigs from Hairspray for three-and-a-half years and is currently the show's assistant hair and make-up supervisor.

Hairspray has around 150 wigs, since many characters wear multiple wigs, and there are extras for understudies. Five staff members work full time just on getting the wigs in shape for the show (some also help out with make-up).

That's a lot of wigs, and not all shows have that many, of course. The director and the wig designer decide which performers get wigs, based on a variety of factors. Sometimes it's a time issue, says Barnes, since it's "so much faster to put your hair in pin curls and throw a wig on than to style somebody's hair from scratch." And, period styles can be difficult to achieve with performers who spend most of the day in hairstyles from 2007. Sometimes performers have to switch quickly from one hairstyle to another, and the only way they can do that is by switching wigs. And, while wigs can fall off during dances — God knows it's happened in Hairspray — wig hair often stays in place better than real hair does.

But state-of-the-art wigs made from human hair like the ones used in Hairspray can cost $2,000 a pop, Barnes notes. And though new cast members cycle through several times a year, they can't all get new wigs. Barnes estimates that more than half of the current wigs have survived the show's entire five-and-a-half-year run.

The female chorus and Edna have the most wigs — each performer has four. Tracy has three wigs: her wig used at the very beginning (called the "main look"), the bleached blonde wig she starts using in the middle of the first act (called "the skunk") and her wig for the finale.

Every day, the Hairspray wig team gets to the theatre in the early afternoon and spends about six hours maintaining, restyling and washing the wigs before the performers arrive. "It's like working in a salon without the clients talking back," Barnes says.

The wigs that are used the most — such as Tracy's "main look" — get restyled about three times a week, and are washed twice a month. Others not as much — Tracy's finale wig, for instance, which is only used during the final song, gets restyled four times a month.

The performers prep their own hair by securing it with bobby pins and then putting on a wig cap. The wig team then puts the performer's microphone on top of the wig cap and then secures the wig on the very top.

Only some performers who play Wilbur have worn a wig. Link has never worn a wig, but the current Link, Ashley Parker Angel, who has been in the show for about a year, is planning to start wearing one. One problem with Link using his real hair, Barnes says, is that every night it takes 15 to 20 minutes to "wet it down, blow it out, tease it up and spray it." Plus, "sometimes it's easier on people's hair" to wear a wig, Barnes says, "not only [for] their role in the show but their role in everyday life. It can't take all that spraying and teasing day in and day out."

Wigs can create mishaps. Barnes recalls one time when Tracy's wig fell off entirely, and another time when the pins in the back fell off and the wig flipped forward. "She shakes her head like crazy, and you just put a bunch of pins in there and hope for the best," Barnes says. One time the hairdresser for the actress playing Motormouth Maybelle forgot to put the microphone below the wig. When the performer got onstage, the mic was hanging off her costume, and she had to "hold it up to her mouth as all of the actresses onstage were feeding it through her wig," Barnes recalls. "We've also had wigs completely fall apart," she adds. "There have been hairspray calls over the monitor, 'Get to stage left with hairspray!'"

And how do they look? "At the beginning of the show they look really good," Barnes says. "When they come offstage at the end of the show, they definitely look horrible."