A Study of the Use of Wigs In Professional Stage and Theater

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EXIT STAGE RIGHT, WITH HAIR: THE USE OF WIGS ON THE PROFESSIONAL STAGE.

On March 31, 2009, a revival of “Hair,” the 1968 “tribal love rock” musical that celebrated the world of hippies and happenings, opened on Broadway. While the title song still celebrates the joys associated with having long, long, LONG hair, many of the revival’s cast members singing it – unlike the cast members of the original production – are wearing wigs.

“Hair” of course is far from alone in being a wig-laden Broadway show. Many plays and nearly all musicals make use of hairpieces to one degree or another. “The Lion King” for example, employs 49 wigs to create its stage illusions. “Shrek – The Musical” beats that with its 72 hairpieces, and “Wicked” is even “wiggier”, at 90. These pale in comparison to “Hairspray,” which when it was running on Broadway utilized something on the order of 150 wigs.

Wigs onstage are nothing new, of course. They’ve been used to help create the illusion of reality (or the distortions of unreality) for centuries. What has changed is the extent to which they are used – and the wigs themselves.

Wigs in the theater: Bigger budgets, better wigs

“Fifteen years ago, I would have said that the big difference between wigs used onstage and wigs used in film or television was quality,” says Eric Heinly of Premier Products, Inc., which has significant experience in developing and manufacturing products utilized in wig care industries. “But that’s different now. Now you have big budgets, multimillion dollar budgets, for many Broadway shows. They’re spending a lot of money for wigs now, and that really shows up on what you see onstage.

“Obviously, the biggest difference between stage and film is that in film you’re going to have close-ups, you’re going to have much closer scrutiny, especially with High Definition. More attention has to be paid to the details.

“But the quality of wigs on stage is so much higher now. If you look at “Wicked” and at “Shrek – The Musical” and “Tarzan” and all of these shows, they’re all wearing wigs and the wigs are very expensive, like TV or film wigs.”

Bigger budgets are definitely necessary to support the higher quality of wigs in use. The wigs in “Wicked” cost between $1,200 and $2,400 each, and Heinly estimates that in some cases, a really good costume wig might run as much as $5,000.

It’s not unusual for one performer to be fitted with more than one hairpiece in a show, especially in a musical in which a single actor may portray a number of different characters. Alternately, one actor may portray a single character whose hair changes over the course of the play.

Wigs on stage: More parts, more wigs

The role of Fantine in “Les Miserables” is an example of both these scenarios. As Heinly points out, she wears a long hair wig at first, a shorter wig after she cuts her hair, a different wig for when she’s sick in her bed, and yet another for the finale, after she’s died. And in between, she may wear wigs for different parts she plays, as a prostitute perhaps or as one of the male students running around in the background scenes. (It should be pointed out that her understudy may likely require her own set of wigs for all these changes as well.)

With actors often requiring frequent – and quick – changes, it’s important that the wig be easy to take off but still secure enough to stay on; therefore, clips are just about the only viable option for keeping wigs in place onstage. There’s no time for anything more involved.

That brings up another difference between wigs onstage and on film. “I’d say the biggest difference between theater and film is that for the most part, theater actors put on their own wigs,” says Heinly. “On film, the actors don’t do that themselves.” So whether it’s a full wig, a fall, or hair “pieces” such as sideburns, stage actors tend to do it all themselves. They may have a little help, and someone with a truly elaborate wig or make-up design may have someone who does it for them, but mostly wigs have to be created with “easy on, easy off” in mind.

Surprisingly, some actors wear wigs even when their characters don’t need them. The reason for this isn’t necessarily vanity; it’s practicality. The easiest place to hide portions of a microphone is under a wig.

Another difference from “the old days:” wigs are custom made for shows now. The time when a designer would “pull” a ready made wig from storage is long gone.

Also different: with so many more wigs, and of such higher quality, there is a greater amount of maintenance required. According to a 2007 article on Playbill.com, “Hairspray” employed five people to maintain its wig collection. The crew responsible for the wigs had to arrive at the theater six hours early in order to restyle, reset and, when necessary, wash and dry the hairpieces.

There have been a lot of changes in the world of costume wigs, which is good for the cast of the new production of “Hair.” After all, it’s hard to sing a lyric like “Give me a head with hair/Long beautiful hair” and talk about how “streaming, gleaming” your “shoulder-length or longer” hair is while sporting a buzz cut.