Welcome to the city of fabulous stage hair
By Renée LiButti
The wigs you see onstage in Las Vegas have no equal in the world of theater. Some are like works of art, while others are the results of ongoing experiments in mane technology.
Long or cropped, gleaming or streaming, flaxen or waxen…hair plays an essential role in the city’s most revered shows. Usually it enhances a sense of time and spirit. The free-flowing locks in “LOVE” add to the counter-culture ambiance. The exquisite period coiffures in “Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular” transport audiences back to the Belle Époque. Urethane foam in “Viva ELVIS” gives a comic book twist to the King’s iconic pompadour. Exaggerated bouffants in “Divas Las Vegas” engender drag star Frank Marino’s irreverent fun. The sleek red and black bobs in “Le Rêve” stay astoundingly dry in water to heighten the dream-like mood. And multiple wig changes in “Jersey Boys” further the fast-moving storyline that spans more than 40 years.
Who’s responsible for these elaborate creations? You’ll usually find members of the hair team in a room that’s abuzz with activity during the day – washing, blow-drying, combing, curling, coloring, repairing, gluing, stitching and ventilating – all in preparation for the evening’s performances. An hour or so before the curtain rises, they’re even busier as actors come in for scheduled wig calls. And then during the show, they’re at stations backstage, under the stage or even behind props, waiting to apply and adjust hair. It’s a choreographed routine that is often as compelling as what’s happening before the audience.
Let’s go behind the scenes to talk to these unsung wardrobe directors and hair technicians about the craft of making and maintaining wigs.
The past looks as though it’s here to stay when you wander into the wardrobe department of “LOVE” at The Mirage. And it’s only natural that this show, which celebrates the music of The Beatles, would strive toward hairstyles that are also natural – and synonymous with the fluid locks of freedom-loving flower children.
“We’re not only trying to change the eras to tell the story of the music, but also the locations. We want to create a completely different feel for each number,” said Sandra Fox, head of wardrobe. “A lot of the dancers in wigs go from young kids when rock ’n’ roll first started in the ’50s to the hippies of the ’60s, so we’re really running the gamut.”
Among her favorites are The Beatles groupie wigs because they have a playful air. The ones used in “Something” are soft and romantic, so the movement looks exquisite as the girls are flying through the air. Fox is also fond of the Gopi wigs due to their length and unusual henna-like colors.
“LOVE” showcases physically demanding acrobatic routines, which provide the hair department with challenges in conveying the period looks while preserving the performers’ safety. One of their most difficult endeavors was constructing a Siamese twin wig.
“We had some issues with it because the girls are linked together by a braid that has wiring. It has to attach to the back of the wig, but what we found is that if it’s too heavy or too flimsy it will pull their balance off,” explained Fox. “The girls have to be able to move and look at each other, and they also have to do some light tumbling. Our technicians worked really hard on finding a way to stabilize the back of that braid, as well as an appropriate length and material for it.”
Ultimately, they got a piece of lightweight foam and covered it with a bit of hair and netting. The whole process took about a year before a workable wig was developed. Now, it’s featured nightly in “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”
Fox has six wig technicians on staff. Four crew stylists work during the two nightly performances, while two daytime stylists handle the maintenance of 225 wigs and 10 pieces of facial hair.
Another challenge unique to “LOVE” is that multiple wigs – as many as five – are used on performers during the same show. This means the hair team doesn’t have the luxury of carefully setting and gluing them on.
“Our job is to make sure they look as natural as possible and feel as stable as possible for the artist,” said Fox, “and for the audience – so we don’t have a wig suddenly flying off!”
A hair-raising experience
When you stroll into the wig room of “Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular,” you can’t help but be swept away by an array of bright colors and cascading curls from the extravagant creations that line the shelves. It’s a fitting sight since the epic production at The Venetian takes audiences on a journey to a lavish and long-gone world.
Jillian Leonard, lead hair technician, estimates that there are 150 wigs and more than 20 pieces of facial hair for the show. Roughly two-thirds of these are made with human hair and one-third consists of synthetic hair. There are even a few created with yak hair – like a wig worn by Piangi in “Masquerade” and some of the ones used in “Il Muto.” Yak hair is thicker and white, so it tends to hold color better.
Of course, among the show’s most intricate items are those donned by the Phantom. He has a combination of a wig and a hairpiece that’s made with delicate strands of human hair woven through fine mesh on a molded head form.
“We call it the ‘alopecia wig.’ It’s three-quarters of a wig and gets glued onto a bald cap. Then the makeup is done, and on top of that we put on the ‘handsome wig,’” said Leonard. “He wears this throughout the show, until the end when it’s torn off.”
The Phantom’s makeup takes about an hour to do each night and applying the wigs is part of that process. Each day an additional 90 minutes is required for maintenance, since they are both lace-front wigs that need to be hand-tied and fully ventilated.
“These wigs are some of the most expensive in the show even though they look like the simplest ones,” said Leonard.
Six people are on staff at night and one more is around during the day to care for the Phantom’s wigs and others that need a bit more attention. On a daily basis, the hair team touches up the wigs on their track by cleaning the lace as well as fixing any sort of frizz. Plus, each wig in the show is on a cycle, where it is washed and reset after 15 to 20 wears.
“I have a Carlotta wig in the sink right now,” said Leonard. “On average, although it varies by wig, they take about three hours to reset.”
The slave girl wigs are the most time-consuming because the strands are long and curly. They’re also danced in, so they tend to get very messed up. The Don Attilio wig is another arduous one. Comprised of multiple hairpieces, it’s heavy and hangs way down on the actor’s back.
Pompadour and circumstance
Elvis impersonators have been doing it for years – copying the King of Rock’s iconic hair. When Cirque du Soleil theatricalized the legendary performer’s life in “Viva ELVIS” at Aria, everyone expected to see that signature pompadour, mutton chop sideburns and all, onstage. But instead, holding true to the troupe’s innovative outlook, which often rebels against tradition, a new coif was engineered.
“These aren’t exactly wigs; they’re more like headpieces,” said Leah Maxson, lead craft tech. “They’re made out of urethane, a type of foam.”
Based on designs by Stefano Canulli, who created all of the show’s costumes, this headpiece hints at the Elvis era, while bringing a Japanese Manga comic interpretation to it. Edgy with electric blue highlights, the look incorporates the King’s TCB (“taking care of business in a flash”) credo by using his lightning bolt logo for the sideburns.
The process to produce the headpieces is complicated. Each one has to be handsculpted in Montreal.
“We make a head form of every performer once they are cast in the show,” said Maxson. “There’s one in Montreal and one here to assist in our fittings and help with any of the alterations we need to do.”
Once that’s approved a silicone mold will be created. Next, the urethane is made from two parts – the negative and positive castings. Those are smashed together and sit for four hours. Then, after being pulled apart, the headpiece is cleaned up and painted before being sent to Las Vegas.
“We do the fittings and create the widow’s peaks here,” said Maxson, who noted that a team from Montreal came out to instruct them on these procedures.
Each headpiece has a chinstrap, so it can be secured to the performer’s head. At present, there are 44 Elvi in the show. Being lightweight and flexible, the headpieces are easy for them to put on without help. They’re worn with jumpsuits in the “Viva Las Vegas” finale.
The big tease
If you think that hairstyles on runways and in fashion magazines are extreme, wait until you see the tresses of Frank Marino, the star of “Divas Las Vegas.” As the city’s most famous drag queen, he depends on wigs to take his appearance over the top. Indulgent, highly teased looks that may have died out decades ago return in glorious form each night at the Imperial Palace.
“We’re doing female impersonation. You can go next door to see the girl next door, but I want our audiences to see something outrageous in Vegas,” said Marino. “My wig is the cherry on the cake of a drag performance.”
There are 50 wigs lined up on several shelves in his dressing room. He’ll wear six of them in each show. Marino’s favorite is one that’s been dubbed the “butterfly wig,” thanks to a myriad of colorful wings wired to appear as if they’re fluttering around it. He has countless more wigs stored in a warehouse.
“During my 25 years of performing here I’ve collected over a thousand wigs,” estimated Marino.
He buys most of his wigs from René of Paris in Beverly Hills. They are made from synthetic hair and range roughly in cost from $250 to $500. However, a greater expense is incurred from their maintenance. It takes about three hours to prepare each wig. Marino has them styled in groups of four. Four go into the shop, and then four come back.
“My hair stylist takes each one and she washes, blow-dries and designs it – with marvelous things like those butterflies,” said Marino, who insists on applying the final touch. “Then I just make everything crazy. My motto is ‘Too much is just enough.’”
A seal of approval
“Le Rêve,” the fanciful aquatic production at Wynn Las Vegas takes place in a one-of-a-kind theater in the round with a 1.1 million-gallon pool. Dancing, acrobatics and feats of strength occur above and below the surface. The show’s 200 wigs help transition one fantasy into the next.
“We have two main challenges with our wigs. First, the performers must be able to safely do their acts without them falling off,” said Jan Scherry, head of wardrobe. “The second challenge is, of course, putting them in water and maintaining their look – also without them falling off.”
By trial and error, a process was developed to harden hair while allowing water to pass through. Ventilation is necessary, otherwise – similar to placing a bowl on your head and hopping feet first into a pool – it will just pop off.
The “Chapelle-Nage” wigs worn by the synchronized swimmers are made from synthetic hair. Standard retail wigs are purchased, trimmed and styled before the silicone is spread. It can take up to four hours to set.
“If you’re applying a wet liquid over a wig, it has a tendency to change the style. We have to go very slowly and carefully as we dab in the product,” explained Scherry. “We don’t want it to pull out the finger waves, so we have pins and clips that we position and then remove.”
Along with daily maintenance to keep active wigs in shape, the two-person hair team is constantly making new ones. This is because the wigs in “Le Rêve” only last six weeks. That doesn’t seem like long, until you consider they’re immersed in a pool of chlorinated water 10 times a week.
Originally, siliconing wigs was a new concept to Scherry in the water show environment. As time passed and she mastered the process, the director decided he wanted a more freely flowing hairpiece for the “Pièce Montée” number.
“We worked out a process to apply silicone only at the roots. There is movement on the ends of the hair, but it falls back immediately into the style,” said Scherry. “Even our acrobats can wear them. When they’re onstage and moving no one can tell there is any product in at all. It appears to be natural hair – or at least as natural as red and black hair can be.”
The fast track
Six seconds. One – two – three – four – five – six. They’re gone in a flash. And in “Jersey Boys” at The Palazzo, that’s all of the time available to do the show’s quickest wig change – which may be the speediest in any production on the Strip.
“It’s for the Mary [Delgado] character, Frankie Valli’s first wife, and it comes right after the song ‘My Boyfriend’s Back,’” said Daryl Terry, hair supervisor. “The Bob Gaudio character does a short monologue, and during that time Mary rushes toward me and a dresser. We’re literally right onstage. I grab her wig, which is pinned on loosely in the front and back. As she gets into her costume, I tip on the new wig, flip it over her head – there’s just one pin – and she goes back onstage.”
“Jersey Boys” is unique in that there are only three female cast members in the show. Each one plays a main character in Valli’s life, as well as a lot of ensemble characters. That totals seven or eight different characters per actress. Some involve one scene, while others are quick appearances onstage to deliver or move a prop. For Terry and his two “great” assistants, Gina and Gina, it means a lot of wigs being changed at rapid-fire speed.
“She’s always made it,” he joked about close calls they’ve had with the Mary character’s wig change. “I think there’s only been a time or two when she had to start her line in the wings.”
Terry trained with the San Francisco company of “Jersey Boys” before coming to run the hair department for the Las Vegas show, which opened in May of 2008. He and his team handle 40 active wigs, which are divided into three tracks. Eleven are synthetic and 29 are made with human hair. All of them come from New York and are specially crafted for each individual actor after being cast. There are a large number of wigs for the women simply because the show spans more than 40 years, and hairstyles changed greatly during that time.
From outrageous to technical, the hair on Las Vegas’ stages never falls flat. It’s a complicated craft that takes place in windowless rooms among rows of disembodied heads. It involves long days of tying hundreds of knots, rolling curlers, trimming urethane and setting silicone.
“These wigs are intricate and time-consuming, but always interesting with their varied styles,” said Leonard. “Once I got into this, I fell in love with it.”
Plus, each night when the curtains rise, there’s a payoff for the hair team that is better than any casino jackpot – the awe and laughter of appreciative audiences.