Most stage actors do their own makeup. Hair is a different matter, especially when it involves wigs. And My Fair Lady most definitely involves wigs – there are around 100 of them. This factoid was one of several imparted to me by John McNulty, the production’s hair and wig supervisor, the other day before a matinee. As two of his three assistants worked adjacent to us, McNulty, who has worked on numerous LCT productions, spoke about his current assignment. We talked in his usual workplace backstage, but in fact there are so many wigs in My Fair Lady that there is an additional hair-and-wig room.
We started with weather. “Hot humid days,” McNulty said, “can be hell on hair for everyone, even wigs that are kept inside in air-conditioning. Luckily, with this show, a lot of the wigs are up-dos. When you have hair that’s kept down and soft and pretty – what I call a Veronica Lake look – it’s very hard to keep the curl.”
To maintain the freshness of My Fair Lady wigs, McNulty and his crew have intensive workdays at least twice a week, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “We come in earlier than usual, and stay an hour-and-a-half or two hours after the show. We wash the wigs, break them down, put in a roller set. Breaking them down can be time-consuming. That wig over there” – McNulty pointed to an up-do – “has more than 50 pins in it.”
McNulty himself is responsible for the hair of all the principal actors. Lauren Ambrose, who portrays Eliza Doolittle, requires the most attention. “She has five wigs. I’m with her basically for the whole show, starting at half-hour.”
McNulty had high praise for Tom Watson, the production’s hair and wig designer, especially with regard to Ambrose. “Lauren is a redhead, and a redhead’s hair color is very hard to match when you are doing wigs. It requires a precise blending of brunette, brown, and orange. If it’s not exactly right it looks fake. Through his magic, Tom got the perfect red to match Lauren – even her own family was fooled into thinking the wigs were her natural hair.”
Although McNulty spends most of his time with Ambrose, he checks in with all the leading actors before each performance. “Principals don’t come here, I go to them,” he said.
Hah! As if on cue, at that moment both Ambrose and Harry Hadden-Paton – Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins --poked their heads in. Each had just arrived for the matinee, and each wanted to say hi. I thought of something Elizabeth Taylor once said: “Everybody thinks that the director is the most important person to the actor. But it’s not the director – it’s the person who does your hair.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com