I asked Tom Watson, Junk’s wig designer, about the show’s 1980s hairstyles, and before I could say “Marie Antoinette” we were talking instead about the 18th century. “The wigs that we use today still operate from the principles then,” Watson explained. “They started making wigs with mesh, so air could get through and they were more comfortable to wear. Before then, wigs were on the Egyptian model, which was built on felt – much hotter!”
Junk may have Versailles roots, but its endings are 1980s Wall Street. “The men’s hair needed to be thicker and fuller than most men wear their hair now,” Watson said. “As for the women, Mrs. Merkin” – the whip-smart wife of the junk-bond trader, Robert Merkin – “had to suggest Upper East Side wealthy. And Ito Aghayere,” – who plays Jacqueline Blunt, a young, ambitious lawyer – had hair that was too modern for the 1980s. So we needed a wig for her, too.”
Watson uses wigs not only to suggest the period but also to differentiate characters. Speaking of Catherine Zuber, his longtime collaborator and Junk’s costume designer, and Doug Hughes, the play’s director, Watson said, “Cathy and Doug stressed that some members of the cast are playing two or more roles, so we needed to use wigs to make sure the audience would know they were looking at a different character.”
Watson started his career as a hairdresser in a high-end salon in San Francisco. One of his wealthy clients took him to the opera; it was Elektra and Watson was, appropriately, electrified. “ Yes, I was smitten. I started working in opera, had my own company, and eventually became head of the wig and makeup department at the Metropolitan Opera for 17 years.”
At LCT, Watson has worked on both contemporary and period shows. “With a modern-day production,” he says, “everybody has opinions about the hair and dress, because it’s close to what we all wear in everyday life. With an older show, people know less and say less.” Watson counts his work on LCT’s production of Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, a decade ago, as a career high point. “From the actors to the costumes to the set to Jack O’Brien as a director, that was an incredible experience,” Watson said.
Watson said most wigs today are made of human hair, and most of that hair comes from India. “It’s becoming harder and harder to find ‘virgin’ hair,” he elaborated. “Everywhere in the world, people are dying their hair. Blond hair is especially processed.”
If Watson designs the looks, John McNulty, LCT’s hair and wig supervisor, maintains them. “The key product I use for maintenance,” McNulty told me, “is water. It’s the base to everything. For the majority of the men in Junk, we don’t want the hair to look as if it has any product in it. Their styles are low-maintenance. They get out of the shower and rub some water through their hair. They don’t blow-dry.”
McNulty said that the hard-driving Wall Street types in Junk probably would go to a fancy barber rather than to a salon. And they might tell that barber to give them the look of someone like Junk’s main character, who in the play has become famous and influential enough to appear on the cover of Time magazine. “They would say, ‘I want my hair to look like Merkin.’ That’s Merkin with an upper-case M not with a lower-case m. When you’re dealing with hair, a lower-case merkin means something entirely different.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.