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The ‘Wicked’ wigs of the west? Only a Broadway hairdresser knows

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Chris Clark brushes one of the wigs that Elphaba, played by Nicole Parker, will wear in the show. (Photo by Leslie Barrie/CNS)

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The Wicked sign lights up at the Gershwin Theater before the show begins. (Photo by Leslie Barrie/CNS)

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There's no empty space on the wig room shelves, except when Clark takes down a wig to work on it. (Photo by Leslie Barrie/CNS)

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Clark sews back the hair of one of the male ensemble's wigs using a single brown thread. This trick keeps the wig out of the actor's face. (Photo by Leslie Barrie/CNS)

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A hairdresser brushes one of the wigs before she curls it. (Photo by Leslie Barrie/CNS)

On a Tuesday afternoon in New York City, Chris Clark, 36, squeezes a quarter-size dollop of hair conditioner into his hand, leans over a massive sink, and has at it--thoroughly massaging the cream rinse into the blond tresses that fill the basin. But there’s no chatty blonde attached to the hair. Clark is the wig supervisor for the hit Broadway musical “Wicked,” and this, the wig room, is his version of an office.

Celebrity photos and illustrations cover the door leading into the workspace. There’s a drawing of Marge Simpson with her signature blue beehive, a snapshot of Gwen Stefani sporting blond ringlets and even a newspaper headline that reads “Jacko Wigs Out.” Inside, personally-fitted human-hair wigs--150 to be exact--line the shelves. Not an inch of space is empty. Almost every one of the 37 cast members has at least three wigs. And then there are the backups.

Hairdressers and cast members take wigs very seriously in Broadway and off Broadway shows. “One of the best compliments someone can ever give me is to not know that the actors are wearing wigs,” said David Brian Brown, the wig designer for “Shrek” and “Legally Blonde.” In “Wicked,” only two actors ever show their own hair.

With all these wigs, mishaps do happen. Even a small one can throw off an entire performance, like the time a strand of wig hair went down the Wicked lead’s throat, literally choking her up during a solo. But Clark, always on the move, works to make sure they rarely occur. Because, as he said, “This is Broadway.”

And because it’s Broadway, “Wicked” doesn’t skimp on wigs. The average show may have half as many, said Tom Watson, who designed the wigs for Wicked and other musicals, including “South Pacific,” “Les Misérables” and the recent “Rock of Ages.” After brainstorming with the costume designer and directors to develop a look for each cast member, Watson and his team of 15 wig makers started weaving. A single, made-to-order, human-hair wig costs around $2,200--some go as high as $6,000--and supervisors like Clark will order replacements as they wear out, usually once a year, or when a new actor joins the production.

On this recent Tuesday, Clark washes a wig worn by actress Alli Mauzey. As Glinda the good witch, Mauzey wears three wigs a night. Clark, with a thick head of brown hair, small hoop earrings and tattoos peaking from his shirt, moves the wet wig onto a “block,” a featureless mannequin head, and with surprisingly nimble fingers begins rolling small strips of hair onto medium-size curlers. He pops the block into the “oven,” a wooden box slightly smaller than a refrigerator, so the hair can dry. Each wig is washed at least once a month.

Clark’s passion for hair took root when he was a theater major at Southern Utah University working as a crewmember for “Little Shop of Horrors.” “I think it was the very 1960’s styles that interested me,” he said. “The transformation of the girls in the wigs was really a blast to see, because until that point I knew nothing of wigs or the story they could tell.”

Clark has worked on many shows, including “Rent,” “The Lion King,” “Into the Woods,” “Cabaret,” “La Bohème” and “Beauty and the Beast.” He started with “Wicked” when it first ran in San Francisco about five and a half years ago, and then moved with it to Broadway. As the supervisor, he oversees a team of three hairdressers and manages everything hair-related. The work is demanding and fast-paced, just the way he likes it. “We thrive on that sort of energy,” he said.

He needs that energy, especially at show time. Cast members arrive just 30 minutes before the curtain is drawn, so Clark, who focuses on the lead characters Elphaba and Glinda, must work fast to get them ready. As soon as Glinda, played by Mauzey, enters her dressing room, Clark is there with a set of bobby pins, pin-curling her hair flat against her head. At 15 before curtain, he moves to Elphaba, played by Nicole Parker, taking care not to smudge her green foundation or mascara.

Once the actors take their places on stage, Clark rushes to put net caps over the pin curls. He then clips on their microphones and, finally, sets their wigs in place. Right before curtain, Clark hustles to the side stage to be ready for the nine-second wig change Glinda makes a few minutes into the show. He won’t stop running until the final curtain call. By that time, Clark has climbed 16 flights of stairs--he’s counted--and adjusted too many wigs to count. “That would be scary,” he said.

While he’s pinning and adjusting, Clark tries to keep the actors calm. He offers restaurant suggestions or chats about their day off. “My job really is about 40 percent hair,” he said. “The rest of it is being supportive backstage to the actors.”

After the show, Clark heads straight home to Brooklyn, arriving around midnight. “I feel like I’m living the second shift of New York,” he said. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. Because this is where the action--and wigs are.

E-mail: lab2184@columbia.edu