By RAVEN SNOOK
Clothes may make the man but hair makes the character. So believes Paul Huntley, the veteran hair and wig designer with more than 200 Broadway productions to his credit (and that doesn't include his extensive Off Broadway and film work).
Currently represented by Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella and Mamma Mia!, Huntley was born and trained in London, England where he began working professionally in 1949. He relocated to the U.S. four decades ago at the invitation of Mike Nichols to work on a revival of Uncle Vanya. That production was short-lived, but nevertheless, Huntley quickly became one of the Main Stem's most in-demand hair designers, working on a slew of high-profile productions (Cats, Les Misérables, Hairspray, The Producers, Anything Goes twice, Hello, Dolly! twice) with some of the theatre's biggest divas (Carol Channing, Donna Murphy, Patti LuPone, Sutton Foster, and Angela Lansbury, to name just a handful).
Despite hair and wig design falling under the auspices of the costume designer, Huntley has managed to become a superstar in his own right. Many costume designers demand his services, notably the legendary William Ivey Long, with whom he's had a long and fruitful collaboration. Huntley has also been showered with accolades. In 2002 TDF's Irene Sharaff Awards gave him the Artisan Award, and he's also earned special lifetime achievement honors from the Tony and Drama Desk Awards.
And while he could certainly retire and rest on his laurels, the strikingly youthful senior shows no signs of slowing down. He's already at work on several upcoming Broadway productions, including Bullets Over Broadway and The Velocity of Autumn.
Although much has changed in his field since Huntley's career began, he believes his mission remains the same: "[I'm here] to help give the actor all the confidence in the world," he says. "Even when you talk about being a purist about a particular era, if an actor says, 'Oh, I couldn't possibly look like that,' well, then they don't have to. You can never alienate them. Often what I say is, 'Well look, let's try this, and if you hate it we'll change it.' You have to remember, it's the actor that's going out there, and they have to feel self-assured. So if a style isn't strictly period, it never worries me."
Huntley says that in certain ways musicals are easier to design than straight plays, since there's more room for creative license. "You can do a heightened version for the period," he explains. "Take Cinderella: William Ivey Long based some of the style on Bruegel paintings. When Cinderella transforms, she's not in a white powdered 18th century wig. It's a much more earthy kind of look. Meanwhile the stepsisters and mother needed to be slightly ludicrous, so their wigs and outfits are more exaggerated."
Even after more than a half century in the industry, Cinderella marked the first time that Huntley worked on an onstage transformation, as the title character goes from peasant to princess before the audience's eyes. "I have watched it many, many times, and I am always surprised," he says. "She pulls off everything and there she is, ready for the ball. We had to work out how to do the crown. We finally decided to put it on a spring, so when it's underneath her rags and scarf, it lies flat. It's the same with the Fairy Godmother transformation. All that hair hidden under her cloak and then she twirls around and suddenly there's this glorious head of golden curls. It was great fun to work on, I have to say."
According to Huntley, these days most performers use wigs as opposed to their own hair since they both help a look remain consistent and easily hide a mike pack. Though he fashions most of his wigs out of real human hair, he sometimes gives chorus members synthetic pieces, since they're more immune to sweat and gravity. (Huntley also crafts wigs for cancer patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering at no cost. "It helps the cure if they can look in the mirror and see themselves, not someone in a wig," he says.)
As he works on Bullets Over Broadway, a musical version of Woody Allen's 1994 film, Huntley is reuniting not only with Long, but also with Allen, since he designed the wigs for the movie as well. However, he won't necessarily be reviving his old creations, which speaks to his ongoing passion for his work. "It's a collaborative process," he says. "You talk with the costume designer and the director and sometimes even the producer, because everyone has input, naturally. I think if you've got a good team, that's always three quarters of the battle."
Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo of the "Cinderella" cast by Carol Rosegg