Ed Wilson has been an important fixture on Broadway for years now, designing hair/wigs for some of Broadway’s most ‘Unsung’ musicals of the last several years including 9 to 5, Leap of Faith, Catch Me if You Can, The Pirate Queen, Scandalous, Chaplin, and The Kennedy Center’s highly acclaimed revival of Ragtime. The protege of legendary Broadway hair designer Paul Huntley, the multi-talented wigmaster has now designed for Andrew Lippa and Susan Stroman’s BIG FISH, which is running until December 29th, 2013 at The Neil Simon Theater. He chats with U.B.’s Founding Editor, Scott Kaufman about his esteemed career, and what it takes to help create the look of some of Broadway’s most iconic characters.
SK: Here at Unsung Broadway, we plan to feature many of the different types of artists that work together to create a Broadway show; which is why we are so happy you are here for our first “Spotlight Interview”! How have things been going backstage at the Neil Simon?
EW: Fantastic. We are all thrilled with this show; it’s a beautiful adaptation of the novel Big Fish that later became a motion picture, and now is a Broadway show! It is really just some beautiful, sensitive and incredibly creative story telling.
SK: You’ve been with the show since its world premiere in Chicago, correct?
SK: So, how did the show change after your premiere in Chicago?
EW: Well, not many changes – we just cleared up, and clarified our through line in telling the story, and most of that is happening at the top of the show. We fine tuned our first twenty minutes of the show, and just made sure that we were all on point and heading in the same direction.
SK: I am a big Andrew Lippa fan, and a HUGE Susan Stroman fan. But, many audience members will be familiar with the Tim Burton film. What can people expect to see in relation to that?
EW: Well, when they sat down and started working on the musical version (although I wasn’t part of that collaboration around those tables), but what I heard through the grapevine was that they pulled the parts of the story that they felt would transfer well to a Broadway musical, and that served this part of the business-the musical theater part. Essentially: what they would expect to transfer well to the broadway stage.
So you can expect to see a strong story about a family. I think that this is what it all boils down to, the telling of a family’s love for each other, and their strength as a family unit. Starring, of course, Tony winner Norbert Leo-Butz, Kate Baldwin, and an absolutely fantastic cast.
SK: Now, you’ve been a fixture on Broadway, and National Tours for many years now. You’ve designed many notable shows including 9 to 5, with the iconic wig you created for “Dora Lee”, played by the fabulous Megan Hilty. Leap of Faith, Catch Me If You Can, The Pirate Queen starring Stephanie J. Block, Chaplin, and then of course the Kennedy Center’s highly acclaimed revival of Ragtime. You also spent some time on The Producers, as well.
Tell us, where did you grow up? And how did you get into this side of the business?
EW: Well I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and as a young child I knew I had the desire for expressing myself in theatrical ways, and I did live my childhood that way. But what really inspired me to do this line of work was The Carol Burnett Show.
EW: Yes, I am such a devoted fan of hers. I remember as a young boy, my Mom screaming from the porch at the top of her lungs, “ Eddie, The Carol Burnett Show is on!”. No matter what I was doing I would dash home without a moments hesitation, and plop myself down in front of that TV. And that is really what I credit; it was Carol Burnett, and that show- that really started my career. It started in my living room.
SK: So what about The Carol Burnett show inspired you the most?
EW: Well at the time I was developing myself as a young actor, singer, and a dancer. And I knew then that I had an interest in the overall production quality- whenever I would see sets, costumes, hair and make-up, I found myself fascinated with all of those aspects.
I have always defined myself as an over-achiever, so I always want to have a little part in everything. So, that is what The Carol Burnett Show did for me. I said to myself as a kid: “Well I could be a gurney flat dancer, and I could play the scenes with Carol Burnett! And when we’re not on stage, I can be helping her into her costumes, and styling her wigs for her… so you see, I wanted to be a part of it all!
SK: You had it all worked out! (laughs)
EW: (laughing) Yes, I had it all worked out. I started working as an actor, and as a singer and a dancer. But, I was always the kid that was doing everyone’s hair and makeup!
SK: You just had a natural inclination toward it…
EW: I did, I had a natural talent for it. And I started developing it as I educated myself in the theater.
The Carol Burnett Show (1977).
SK: What was the first show you worked on?
EW: Well the first show that I was ever cast in was Once Upon a Mattress, and I was 16 years old…
SK: Again, with the Carol Burnett!!
EW: Yeah, exactly there you go! And I have done that show several times in my career, but that was the first big show done outside of my school. It was a professional company, and that is where it started. Even at that time (I was in the chorus), I was advising the girls as to how to wear their hair in medieval times!
SK: You knew!
EW: Well, I’m not sure how much I actually knew at that time, but I certainly had the flair for it, and enough so to make people believed that I did!
SK: You’ve become the protege for the legendary wig designer, Paul Huntley. He created the original designs for shows such as Amadeus, Cats, Pacific Overtures, The Mystery of Edward Drood (including this last revival), Hairspray, Young Frankenstein, the list goes on and on. Incredible!
EW: Yes, his career ranges from Bette Davis, to Glenn Close, Viviane Lee, the list goes on, and on.
SK: Paul Huntley needs to write a book!
EW: Yes, well I don’t know if he’ll ever write the book, but I may write a book about him and his life.
SK: There’s your next project!
So, tell us: who on the production team will actually hire the wig designer? And when do you come in on the creative process?
EW: Well, we come in pretty early. We come in just after, or with the costume designers. The costume designer is hired, and we are usually considered part of that team. Generally our jobs come to us through a costume designer.
SK: So, then how do you work with the overall scenic and costume design? What is that collaboration like?
EW: Often, we will wait until designs are sketched by a costume designer, and then we are handed a book, which we either call the “Hair Bible” or “Costume Bible”. But we are generally handed the sketches by the costume designer, along with research they have done in terms of period, and the overall general look of the show. Then from that point we start adding our layer to the project, we do our research, and we detail that. The costume designer will detail from the neck down, we start with the images that they have sketched and start from the neck up. We observe the period, and region, the time and place, and then put it all together.
SK: So when in the process do you meet the actor? And do they have any input on the design process of their hair?
EW: Oh absolutely, yes they do! So we meet the actors, and we will set up a fitting. Our initial fittings will include tracing the shape of their head. We make a plastic form of the top of their head. It’s very provincial, it is not at all “high-tech”, we just use plastic baggies and scotch tape!
SK: (laughs) Yep.
EW: And on top of that, once we tape that to their head-making a shape of their head is what we call a “hair prep”. We prep their hair in pin curls, and those pin curls are placed under a wig cap. On top of that wig cap is a plastic baggie taped upside down, of course with holes to see, and breathe out of. Then on top of that plastic form, which we tape down to the top of their head, we use a black sharpie, and we draw and copy their hairline on top of the plastic. We then take measurements, we measure from ear to ear, from the front of their hairline to the nape, from temple to temple across the back and front, and just a whole variety of measurements. We then transfer all of the on to a wooden block from which the wig is built.
That was a lot of information! But basically, we first meet our actors, get a fitting… and do they have input? Yes they do.
We often discuss with them their concept of the character, but sometimes it’s so early in the process that they’ve just been hired. They haven’t even read a full script sometimes, so they don’t have a lot to say at that point, but what they do have to offer at that point we take in. Then we continue that conversation as we develop and have another series of fittings, once the wigs are built and styled. A lot of actors will rely on us to give them the character. A lot of actors come in and say “this is what I’ve been thinking about” or “this is how I see her or see him- with flaming red hair”, or “can I have a little gray at the temples because I think they are middle aged”, and we take that all in. It’s a collaboration. And that is really when we are all working at our best, when we collaborate with everyone and when everyone has input.
SK: Well, I firmly believe that a collaberative intention is imperative in creating something successful. So let me ask you, how many wigs will you build generally for a larger show?
EW: Once all is said and done, and all understudies are built and swings are built, Big Fish will have about 75 wigs.
SK: How long will that take you to build with your team?
EW: We build a show from beginning to end in about 3 to 6 months. Sometimes you have to wait on a budget approval. Sometimes a show grows, sometimes it starts smaller. Or with a specific number of wigs in mind and then the show develops- especially if it is a new show in rehearsal, where we realize that many of the actors are playing several characters, and so they need a different look.
One actor can be wear anywhere from one wig, in this show for example, to six wigs. Our leading lady (Kate Baldwin) wears five different wigs, although she is the same character, she ages within the story telling. She ages thirty years.
SK: When would an actor use his/her real hair?
EW: Men use their own hair a lot, it tells the story better. A man can look great in a period wig, but when we are in a contemporary setting, or even in the last fifty years, unless there something really specific about it, men generally use their own hair. That tends to look best.
An actor will also use their own hair if it is a smaller theater, or for realism. And sometimes the actor that is cast is perfect just the way that they look!
SK: It’s a design choice, made by the creative team.
EW: Yes, absolutely. When you get into musical theater everything is heightened. Especially when you are getting into the bigger theaters, 99% of the actors are wearing microphones on their heads. In the last ten years, we’ve been putting all of it up in the wigs. So, wigs are not only telling a dramatic story, but they are also telling a technical story.
SK: Right, they’re doing several jobs at once.
SK: So when you’re creating a well-known, or character such as Charlie Chaplin, and “Dora Lee” (Dolly Parton’s role) from 9 to 5 – characters that we’ve all grown up seeing, how important is it for the design team to get that iconic look of the character? How do you strike that balance?
EW: Oh, it’s very important. We have to honor the truth of who we are portraying on the stage. Though, the actor would do a lot of that as well. We do a lot of studying, a lot of research. We are constantly on the internet- the internet is extraordinary for this. With Google, you barely spell the first name and you have options.
For Charlie Chaplin, the choices were endless. So yes, it is very important that we honor truths. And we do this to the best of our ability, striking a nice fusion with the actor that is playing them. Often in the theater, we don’t do a lot of prosthetics to change the physical appearance of an actor. But we will do some of that, sometimes, you know.
But for Charlie Chaplin, they found a man who resembled him, and who had the essence of him physically. His height, and his physical stature.
SK: Well and he was sort of born for it, it seems. Rob McClure was Tony nominated, and absolutely fantastic in the role…
EW: Absolutely fantastic.
SK: So he made the job a little easier obviously. (laughs)
EW: Yes exactly. (laughs)
SK: When you created “Dora Lee” for 9 to 5, I have to ask, did Dolly (Parton) have any say on the wig or costume design, or how Megan was going to look? The hair is a big part of that role. Did Dolly take any ownership around that character when it came to Broadway?
EW: No, not really! She was extraordinary in that she played her part in the collaboration, and let everyone else do their job. We had collectively agreed from the very beginning that that was the image that we were creating- that it was going to be “Dora Lee” from the movie. So it was clear to us. And Dolly was happy to see that executed, and encouraged it along the way. But no, she just let that be, and we created it. It was very creative for us and very fun!
SK: Well that wig worked SO well, it was the icing on Megan’s performance, and an absolutely delightful show. I took my whole family when they came in to town.
EW: Oh, it’s been one of my favorite experiences on Broadway!
SK: And you worked on the tour when it went out, didn’t you?
EW: I did, yes, we went down to Nashville and set that tour up, and sent it on its way.
SK: And that leads me to my next question. How long do you stay with a show after it opens? And then, how and when will you adjust the wigs for the tour?
EW: Well, I like to stay with a show, I like to run it. But that goes back to the over achieving part of me. If I’m designing it, or if I’m working with Paul as the associate designer, we’ll set it up so that I’ll stay with the show and run it. Every show at this level with this amount of wigs needs a production supervisor, and an entire wig staff. And I generally do that. I love to supervise a show that I design, and then I am there eight shows a week, making sure that the design stays intact. So I will very often stay with the show it’s entire run.
If I don’t, like when I worked on and helped design Roger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Paul. I was there all through production. Then once the show was up and running, I took a step back and let the team that was running the show, the supervisor and assistants, run the show. And then you check in once a week, or once a month, and if they have any needs or concerns they contact you. But we are all professional, we all love the show, and so you just turn the show over and let them have it.
SK: You’ve got to let it go.
EW: Yes, you’ve got to let it go. Like a child in a lot of ways, you let it go and let it thrive.
SK: I’ve been back stage at a handful of your shows, and you run a tight ship back there, I ‘ll say that! (laughs)
EW: Hmmm. (laughs)
SK: So, what is your craziest tale from back stage that our readers would like to hear?
EW: Oh boy, thats a tough one. I’m not someone who has that one crazy kooky story that comes to mind, maybe it still is to come for me. But you know something that comes to mind is when an actor gets sick mid-show. When we have to take that actor out of the show, and get their understudy, or their swing in. Sometimes even during a scene change! That’s always crazy. You have the extraordinarily talented Stephanie J. Block, whom I consider to be a dear friend of mine. One time during the early days of The Pirate Queen, bless her heart, she got sick during the previews. She wanted so desperately to perform for the opening night, and was SO sick. She went in for opening night, did the opening sequence, and just couldn’t continue. So we had to get her out of the show during a scene change, and put in the understudy.
SK: Oh, I remember that…
EW: Yea…that was, well it just broke my heart.
I do have lot’s of crazy Dolly Parton stories, crazy, crazy Dolly stories. With Dolly, little did anyone know that she would stand back stage and often sang to the crew.
SK: She DID?!
EW: Yes, “9 to 5”, as the cast was singing it to the audience, she was singing it for the crew! And one of my favorite Dolly stories is that whenever she saw me, she would sing “Mr. Wigman” to the melody of “Mr. Bojangles”! (laughs) Every time that she saw me, and that was so endearing. That was our special moment whenever she would see me, and whenever she would come to the wig room. And she LOVED the wig room…as you can imagine.
SK: I’m sure! Did she ever try a few on?
EW: No, but I always wanted to do her hair. I sadly never had the opportunity to do that.
SK: No, not yet., but maybe in the future.
EW: Yes, maybe in the future.
SK: (Well there might be a “Dolly” musical heading to Broadway, starring hmm-hmm-hmm, so we’ve heard…!)
So what is the best advice you would give to one of our younger readers, who might be going into college, or might have worked on the technical side of their community theater, or high school theater doing costume, hair and makeup. What would be your advice to a young person who wanted to pursue a career like this?
EW: Well I would advise them to constantly be open to learning, and if you have a question about something, pursue it, pursue it and find out. Ask questions. Go out and do some research. If you’ve got the inclination, or the wonder of anything then go out and ask questions about it. Fatten up your education. We are never too old to learn, we are never to old to be educated.
Some of the best advice I ever got was when I was studying theater at Illinois Wesleyan University. I had a professor who said to me, “If you have other things in the arts that you love as much as you love acting and singing…” (which I did at the time because I was studying acting and singing) …then pursue it.”
And that’s when I knew that the costume design and wig design was something that I had to give equal time to, because the truth of this is…the truth of this is, as much as we don’t want to hear it, to sustain and maintain a career as an actor is difficult. It is very difficult, but I have 35 years in this business. 35 years of working in the professional theater. It’s because I do a lot of things. I am an actor, a singer, a wig designer, I have done costume design. There is nothing I won’t try, and that is my advice. If you want to work in the theater, learn to do a lot of different things.
SK: So you wear “a coat of many colors”.
EW: I do!
SK: And so what are you working on outside of wig design right now? I know you have a lot of things going on!
EW: I do, I’m working on putting an album together, I’m in the very early stages of recording an album. Do we still call it an album? Or is it CD’s now? (laughs)
SK: I think it is still called an album. (laughs)
EW: I’m putting together “an iTunes collection”.
SK: Yes, how about “an iTunes collection of songs for your downloading enjoyment.” (laughs)
EW: That’s right, and also I study acting with The Barrow Group here in New York City, and we are called Core Artist Ensemble. I am still and actor and singer, and I enjoy doing those things as well as designing for Broadway- designing wigs!
SK: Thank you so much, Eddie!! We are looking forward to seeing more from you, and more of your beautiful work. Everyone go see Big Fish, if you haven’t already. It is a truly beautiful, and moving show; plus a cast recording has just been announced! Big Fish is running now until December 29th 2013 at the Neil Simon Theater on Broadway.