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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – Laura Osnes

Once Upon a Time…

Once upon a time my life changed forever when a horrible onstage accident led to a happily ever after. This was before my Broadway break, way back in Minneapolis, MN, where I grew up performing at the Tony Award-winning Children’s Theater Company, where we set our scene.

I took a year off after my freshman year of college to intern as a Performing Apprentice at CTC in 2006, performing and understudying in all the shows that season, including the splashy holiday musical, Disney’s Aladdin. It was led by one of the most influential directors of my life, Matthew Howe… who also proved to be a bit of a match-maker. I was 19 years old, cast in the ensemble, and charged with understudying the role of Princess Jasmine (forgive us, this was 15 years ago in a very scandinavian Minnesota). Also in the ensemble, a charismatic and very handsome young Nathan Johnson, understudied Aladdin. We often found ourselves gravitating towards each other, wanting to hang out on rehearsal breaks or between shows, and everyone (even my own mother) was placing bets on when we’d start dating. I had just gotten out of a long relationship and was hesitant to recognize any new romantic spark. 

However, this budding “showmance” blossomed when one afternoon, the real Aladdin and Jasmine actually collided on stage in the middle of the opening song, “One Jump Ahead.” He spun around at just the right moment, with just the right velocity, to knock his teeth right into her forehead, chipping his front tooth in half. Like gladiators, they charged on, using Aladdin’s stolen loaf of bread to soak up the blood dripping from the bite into her eyebrow. The audience applauded as we buttoned the number, no one really realizing the severity of what had happened, until the voice of God came over the speakers to hold the show. 

It was determined the real Aladdin and Jasmine would both need to be rushed to the hospital, Nathan would be the new Streetrat, and I would be stepping into the Princess’ beautiful, albeit blood-stained, golden gown (remember, this is regional theater where understudies get one rehearsal, rarely go on, and definitely don’t get their own understudy costumes or wigs).

Everything from here on out was basically a blur. Except that somehow, I knew I was going to be safe out there with Nathan — even though we were both understudies, taking on these iconic roles as blue-eyed babies, we had at least gotten one understudy rehearsal together and our off stage friendship made the onstage chemistry effortless. In Act II, as he reached his hand out to me earnestly, “Do you trust me?”, I knew there was truly no one I could trust more in that moment to have my back and look out for me as we navigated our way through telling the story from this new, fantastic point of view. I still can’t believe we actually rode that magic carpet together. As I said, my memory of it, from way up here, is far from crystal clear.

Unlike in the famous animated movie, Aladdin and Jasmine actually get married at the end of the musical. And this is the one moment I do recall. It was staged so that Nathan and I walked down opposite side aisles of the house, arriving and meeting center stage… Nathan in his pillowy, white turban, and me in Jasmine’s pristine, belly-button-bearing wedding dress. My eyes met his and we couldn’t help but smirk in disbelief and beam over the fact that we had made it.  And that this was really happening!?  With paper rose petals raining from the rafters and the entire teary-eyed cast staring at us and harmonizing a glorious reprise of “A Whole New World”, Nathan took my face in his hands and kissed the bride!  

I know you want me to say that time stopped and fireworks exploded everywhere, but I’m a professional, and a stage kiss is exactly that… a stage kiss. Even when it’s with the boy I have a covert crush on. A few days later, I hosted a christmas carol party with the cast at my house, and as we said goodnight that evening, Nathan and I shared our first off-stage kiss… now THAT was indeed shining, shimmering, splendid!  What was so inevitably meant-to-be, finally became clear in my heart.  We started officially dating in that moment, he proposed exactly one year later, and we celebrated our 13-year wedding anniversary this past May. I guess you could say that onstage, fairytale wedding foreshadowed all that was to come, and it’s been a whole new world ever since!


LAURA OSNES was last seen on Broadway in​ Bandstand ​and the title role in​ Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella ​(Drama Desk Award; Tony, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, Astair noms.). Other Broadway: Bonnie Parker in​Bonnie & Clyde​ (Tony nom.); Hope Harcourt in Anything Goes ​(DD, OCC, Astaire noms.); Nellie Forbush in​ South Pacific ​and Sandy in​ Grease. Encores! Productions of​ The Band Wagon, Faust​ and ​Pipe Dream; The Sound of Music ​in concert (Carnegie Hall); MCP’s​ Crazy for You ​(Lincoln Center);​ Carousel ​(Chicago Lyric Opera).

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Streams

This is Our Youth

A presentation to benefit The Actors Fund

Thank you to all who have donated to The Actors Fund!

DONATE TODAY


Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed THIS IS OUR YOUTH, which follows forty-eight hours in the lives of three very young New Yorkers at the dawn of the Reagan Era, has attracted a trio of the most exciting new actors. Lucas Hedges, an Academy Award nominee from Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea, this year’s Emmy Award nominee for Best Actor, Paul Mescal (Normal People) and Grace Van Patten (The Meyerowitz Stories, Good Posture). This play, which involves theft, drug-dealing and youthful desires is a riveting snapshot of the moment between adolescence and adulthood. Lila Neugebauer (The Waverly Gallery) directs.

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Streams

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man

In conversation with John Malcovich, Robert Krulwich, Zachary Quinto

Watch the Trailer

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Categories
Long Form

American Plays About American Power: Why playwrights love to write about the president

You might not think you can draw a line from Andrew Jackson to the sensual allure of the musical Moulin Rouge!, or that Herbert Hoover has anything to do with the anarchic fun of Broadway’s Beetlejuice. Alex Timbers, however, has proven the connection. Long before he directed those productions, he injected a similar, raucous spirit into three different musicals about American presidents. 

In Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, the 2010 Broadway show he created with Michael Friedman, he turned the Commander-in-Chief  into a swaggering emo rock star. In 2015’s Here’s Hoover!, he let Hoover take the stage and argue, via rock songs, that he deserved a better reputation. And back in 2003, he directed Kyle Jarrow’s insouciant show President Harding is a Rock Star, which put a wild new slant on Teapot Dome and other scandals.

Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman

These projects not only helped Timbers develop the aesthetic style he’s carried over to his current Broadway hits, but also let him explore his particular fascination with the American presidency. The office has enticed countless theatre artists, since it offers so many angles for investigating America’s identity, history, and possible future.

Timbers is especially interested in subverting our common notion of the role. “There is something fun about taking presidents, whom one thinks of as very staid and buttoned-up, and ripping open that shirt collar,” he says. “Without being wildly rigorous with the depiction of these people, you can still capture their spirits and the way they catalyzed moments in history.”

Take the antihero of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson: “We depict him as a frustrated teenager in the suburbs who feels overlooked by his parents, and even if that’s not literally true, it does get at something real about who Jackson was,” Timbers says. “He felt disenfranchised, and he felt that the frontiersman wasn’t being represented by the government.”

Benjamin Walker and the cast of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Timbers is also intrigued by the brevity of the president’s power, which only lasts a maximum of two terms. “I’ve always been interested in legacy,” Timbers says. “With kings, you die without knowing your legacy, but with presidents, you can live half your life after you’re out of office. You can see your legacy taking shape in front of you.” 

It makes sense that he would compare a president and a king. According to cultural critic Isaac Butler, “If you’re doing a drama about the president, it allows you to engage in the same things that are so pleasurable about Greek tragedies or about Shakespeare’s history plays. You can tell the story of big social transformations and the nature of politics itself through the actions of one complicated individual.”

Robert Schenkkan

That epic sense of narrative certainly informed Robert Schenkkan, who wrote a two-play history cycle about Lyndon B. Johnson: In All the Way, which won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Play, we see Johnson on the ascendant, pushing to pass the Civil Rights Act and learning how to wield his office on behalf of his ideals. In The Great Society, which premiered on Broadway last fall, we see his plan for the titular social reform get swallowed by the quagmire of the Vietnam War. 

“I was very much thinking about Shakespeare when I wrote, and the sense of the wheel of fortune rising and falling,” Schenkkan says. “There’s a rise and fall of kings, and LBJ was the king. All plays are, to varying degrees, about the acquisition, distribution, and use of power, and nothing is more clear in that regard than the narrative of how one becomes president and then how one governs as president.”

Americans deeply understand that story. No matter how long one has lived in the country, the president’s power — and that power’s ability to impact our lives — is impossible to overlook. 

In fact, long before he wrote about him, Robert Schenkkan had a first-hand encounter with LBJ’s influence. The future writer was only three or four years old at the time, visiting the then-senator’s Texas ranch after his father (a major player in public broadcasting) got an invitation. And while Schenkkan doesn’t remember much about the trip, he has asked his older brother for details.   

“My brother told me, ‘I don’t remember LBJ specifically, but what I remember is how incredibly respectful our father became around this strange man,'” Schenkkan says. “And what’s interesting about that to me is the child’s perception of his father’s response to the presence of power. That’s what stuck with him. I think that’s a really illuminating anecdote.”

That’s the kind of story, in fact, that could become the basis of a play. 


Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.

Categories
Streams

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man

A presentation to benefit The Actors Fund

“I like to think intelligence is contagious…

unfortunately, it isn’t.”

THE BEST MAN

Thank you for all who have donated to the Actors Fund!

GORE VIDAL’S THE BEST MAN weaves humor and suspense in equal measure as a Secretary of State and a U.S. Senator contend for the Presidential nomination and, most importantly, for the endorsement of a colorful and canny ex-President. Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman plays the ex-President and the company of actors includes John Malkovich, Zachary Quinto, Vanessa Williams, Stacy Keach, Tony Award winners Phylicia Rashad, Reed Birney, Katie Finneran, and Elizabeth Ashley, directed by Michael Wilson.

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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – Chris Noth

To have my Broadway debut be the 2000 revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man was a stroke of good fortune that almost passed me by. I had been filming Sex and the City at the time and convinced myself that I shouldn’t try to juggle the two (which actually was not a problem since my character came and went throughout the series and wasn’t in every episode). The truth is I was a bit intimated by the character of Joe Cantwell – he seemed like an archetype to me – with the distinct possibility of descending into a caricature and I wasn’t sure that could pull it off – so I turned it down.

On set of SATC that week I casually mentioned this to Sarah Jessica. “Have you lost your mind?!!” she exclaimed (with some exasperation), “It’s GORE VIDAL on BROADWAY!! Wake up!!!” I’m so glad I did. With a cast of 17 and a voiceover by Walter Cronkite – this examination of a presidential election during a presidential election proved to be the most exciting and unforgettable experience I’ve ever had on stage. The actual election was a nail biter and when the results of Florida came out – many of us were on stage.

I remember being in a scene with Christine Ebersole (who played my wife) – and hearing Elizabeth Ashley’s distinctly loud voice off stage, “Al Gore just won Florida!…Hooray!!!!” But by intermission they took it away from him. With ballots being recounted over the next weeks – suddenly the audience who came to see us were listening much, much more intensely to what Gore Vidal had to say about politics. Dialogue which never got much response before – like “Bill this convention is really hung up and the way things are going we may never nominate anybody” suddenly got a roar of laughter – people were invested in what they were hearing on stage – every moment seemed to have meaning and Gore’s play seemed to be giving them insight to what was happening to the country in real time.

And oh what a band of players I got to be with-all of them! I can never forget Spalding Gray who managed to convey an electric wire of nerves with an unflappable serenity at the same time. Michael Learned who played the enduring wife to Spalding’s – Bill Russell – brought such a delicate ballast to Spalding’s intellectual storms – she always amazed me with her pitch perfect timing. The charming, sly, with a dash of the devil – Charlie Durning who many nights before curtain regaled me with the stories of World War Two and his hand to hand combat during the Battle of the Bulge. Who could have guessed that Charlie Durning was phenomenal ballroom dancer? So deft on his feet he seemed to float; which to our shock and awe he displayed at different parties during the run. And my partner in crime Christine Ebersole who’s merry, lilting laugh and participation in some high jinx pranks with me made every night a joy…

My dressing room next door neighbor Elizabeth Ashley, whose booming voice and laugh filled the theater on and off stage, was and is a treasure. and this is where my friendship with Mark Blum, recently lost to COVID-19, began 20 long years ago – Mark the consummate actor – never one to blow his own horn – Mensch doesn’t begin to describe what he brought to the mix. Once you worked with Mark – you wanted him in every project you ever got hired for. We both went right from the play to a soapy mini series in Toronto – thank God he was with me – we were to be in a production of Uncle Vanya this summer at The Berkshire Theater Group. It’s hard to even consider him gone. And of course the master – Gore Vidal whose stories of history, literature and gossip (a lot of historical gossip) – wicked impressions of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote – made for glamorous nights of drinking.

How can so many of this group have passed? I miss them all… the living and the dead; and the experience of together bringing life to Gore’s grand play for the ages.


Chris Noth

Christopher David Noth is an American actor. He is perhaps best known for his television roles as NYPD Detective Mike Logan on Law & Order, Big on Sex and the City, and Peter Florrick on The Good Wife.

Categories
Creative

Spotlight on Plays

Broadway’s Best Shows is proud to present Spotlight on Plays, a starry series of livestream readings of Broadway’s best plays to benefit The Actors Fund


Spotlight on Plays presents

7 Great Plays by 7 Great Playwrights

ANGRY, RAUCOUS AND SHAMELESSLY GORGEOUS 

by Pearl Cleage

THE THANKSGIVING PLAY 

by Larissa FastHorse

WATCH ON THE RHINE 

by Lillian Hellman

THE OHIO STATE MURDERS 

by Adrienne Kennedy

DEAR ELIZABETH 

by Sarah Ruhl 

THE BALTIMORE WALTZ 

by Paula Vogel 

THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG 

by Wendy Wasserstein

COMING SPRING 2021


The Actors Fund envisions a world in which individuals contributing to our country’s cultural vibrancy are supported, valued and economically secure.

Mission: The Actors Fund fosters stability and resiliency, and provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals over their lifespan.

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Creative Video

Before the Show Goes On, We All Need to Take a Moment to PAUSE

With Stars Of Hamilton, The Band’s Visit, and Fiddler On The Roof 

Based in Jewish tradition, Shabbat — and its teaching that spending meaningful time connecting with friends and family — is for everyone. Much like yoga or meditation can be, Shabbat is an act of peaceful rebellion against a constantly moving world. When this isolating global pandemic took hold, OneTable was looking for a way to keep the magic of Friday night Shabbat going, and for a way for people to mark time when every day feels the same. 

They landed on PAUSE, a new video series collaboration between OneTable and Broadway’s Adam Kantor. Initially conceptualized as a one night special, OneTable and the production team behind Saturday Night Seder were stuck on the fact that the beauty of Shabbat comes from its unfaltering arrival every single week. The series is designed to build on the ritual of Shabbat, to take a moment — a pause — and ask big questions. Each video melds tradition with innovation, asking and answering the question how might we imagine the world not as it is, but as it could be? 

“Since Broadway has shut down, I’ve been missing the joys of collaborating with artists who inspire me on the daily,” Kantor said. For the series debut, OneTable and Kantor collaborated with dancer/choreographer Jesse Kovarsky (The Band’s Visit, Fiddler On The Roof, Sleep No More). “Jesse is one of my favorite artists and collaborators on Broadway,” Kantor said. “We first met during Fiddler On The Roof, in which he played the titular role, and then we had the good fortune of working together again on The Band’s Visit, in which he was the associate choreographer.” Filmed in his own NYC apartment, Kavarsky explores his interpretation of receiving traditional Shabbat candles in the mail from his parents, and figuring out how to make them his own — delving into the question, “What do we do with the things we inherit?” 

The second installment (Friday, November 6) features Daniel Watts (Hamilton, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, In the Heights, Tina) and Kelly Hall-Tompkins (the fiddler violin soloist in the recent Broadway revival of Fiddler On The Roof), wrestling with the concept of making the ancient new, through music and spoken word poetry. The remaining ten episodes of the series (co-produced by Eric Kuhn and production agency Gesundheit Media) will debut on each of the first Fridays of the month, culminating on Friday, September 3, 2021. 

You can watch the first video above, and stay tuned at @onetableshabbat or onetable.org/pause on the first Friday of each month at 5pm Eastern as featured artists offer their personal interpretation of the traditions, intentions, and contemporary applications of Shabbat ritual through digital performance art, spoken word, dance, song, humor, meditation and more.

Categories
Cover Story Long Form

CASTING A NEW MOLD FOR CAST ALBUMS

For decades, Original Broadway Cast Albums were beloved companions to the theatergoing experience. You could enjoy the music and lyrics to a Broadway show before you ever saw it, or you could relive the memories of the show long after the curtain went down. It was both merchandise and a marketing tool—a memory and an experience in and of itself. A cast recording could help fuel the run of a Broadway show and ensure its popularity in touring, licensing, and beyond for years to come. But new technologies and the ability to share and engage with Broadway scores easier than ever through streaming and social networks are making it possible for cast recordings to be something they’ve rarely been before: the engine that drives a show to the Broadway stage. 

As early as the 1930s, there were attempts to record the scores to Broadway shows. But technology made distributing those recordings in any reasonable way something of a challenge. And although there were cast recordings in the early ‘40s, like many things in musical theatre, it was Oklahoma! that really pushed cast albums in a new direction and introduced the format we are used to today—much, if not all, of the score recorded by the original cast as it was performed on stage. 

The next decade made that format the industry standard. Theatre historian and Broadway producer Jennifer Tepper said, “In this decade, a small handful of shows were recorded in the manner we understand today. This lent a permanence to the musical theatre as an art form, and changed the way the public viewed shows.” And that continues today. As theatre historian Laurence Maslon writes in the introduction to his wonderful book on Broadway cast albums “Broadway to Main Street”, “Hamilton can be seen by only 1,319 people a night on Broadway—which is about 10,000 people a week; the week the cast album was released digitally, it was downloaded by 50,000 people. More than a million people (and counting) have now listened to Hamilton in a private space. For enthusiasts of show music, the living room, to paraphrase one of Miranda’s lyrics, that’s the room where it happens.”

But what if a cast album isn’t the beginning of a theatergoer’s experience or a reminder of a show they’ve already seen? What if the cast album is the very engine of what gets a show to Broadway in the first place? This is precisely what happened with the Broadway run of the Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz musical Be More Chill.

Will Roland and cast of Be More Chill Maria Baranova)

Be More Chill is a musical based on the Ned Vizzini book of the same name. It made its world premiere at Two River Theatre in New Jersey in June of 2015. Iconis remembers the days following that production well. “When the show closed at Two River, it was dead. We got a dismissive Times review and I couldn’t get any producer or theater (non-profit, regional, whatever) interested in the show.” But the head of the board of Two River Theatre, Bob Rechnitz, refused to let that be the end of the show. He teamed with the theatre and Ghostlight Records to make a cast album of the show. Ghostlight Founder, Kurt Deutsch, recalls the journey of album.

“We recorded Be More Chill after the production in New Jersey. It sat around for a good year before people really started discovering it. And we started noticing how people started doing fan art around some of the songs. And it became this very popular trending thing on tumblr. And we saw animatics happen. And lyric videos. And people started to create their own universe around Be More Chill.”

Iconis noticed something was happening as well, “It literally just happened. I think it was a perfect storm of things—Spotify algorithms and timing (musical theater really came to the forefront of the culture in 2017 in a way it just wasn’t years earlier) but more than anything, it was just people (young people, specifically) connecting to the score. The algorithms wouldn’t have worked in our favor had people not listened to and got into the show.”

And suddenly, the show was back alive. “The viral popularity is what got Jerry Goehring to pull the trigger and take a chance on doing the show in a commercial summer run. And that summer run was such a wild box office success that we got to go to Broadway,” said Iconis.

And Tepper agrees, “Be More Chill would never have gotten to Broadway without its album.”

And Be More Chill continues to find success in productions across the globe. “We have conversations about the show in international markets that feel like conversations you’d have for a show that ran on Broadway for years and won a million Tonys,” said Iconis. “Because Be More Chill‘s popularity really exploded online, it still feels very present, very contemporary, very active.”

Alex Brightman in Beetlejuice The Musical

And it’s not the only show to see its cast album fundamentally alter the course of its Broadway journey. The musical Beetlejuice opened in April of 2019. But it struggled to find the toehold necessary to becoming a bonafide Broadway success story. 

But as the run progressed, something started to happen. Deutsch recalls seeing fans reacting to the show in a real way on social media channels. “You saw tons of tiktok engagement with Beetlejuice. You saw people recording themselves singing ‘Dead Mom’ and ‘Say My Name’. And all of these fans from all over the world who weren’t able to see the Broadway show were living vicariously through the cast album and then found each other.”

Yes, they were finding each other on new social media platforms, but crucially they were engaging with each other in a tradition that’s as old as Broadway itself—singing the songs from the show together. And as this community of people found each other they did something even more crucial—bought tickets. And Beetlejuice found its footing as a Broadway staple.  

The musical Six was a runaway hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in 2017—a power pop musical about the six wives of Henry VIII. It was such a success that professional producers came on board to launch a UK tour and eventually a West End run. In between the tour and the West End debut, the writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss had an idea of what to do in the subsequent months. “Essentially, if Six is the live Beyoncé concert,” said Marlow, “we wanted to make the Beyoncé album that she’s touring. So we think of it less as a cast recording of the musical, but more as a part of the whole conceptual package.”

Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss

And the success of that album fueled the West End run, and got the show heard around the globe. By the time Six debuted in Chicago, people were flocking to the production—already deeply familiar with its score, despite its lack of a Broadway production. Marlow remembers the fan fervor, “People were flying in from across the country in homemade costumes and singing along to all the words and stuff, which was completely wild! From that point the producers were like, ‘Yep, this show could work in New York’”. And on February 13, Six debuted on Broadway with throngs of existing fans from around the world already in thrall—all before ever playing a single performance on Broadway. 

So what’s next for the Broadway cast album and its potential to fuel Broadway runs? Will a pre-Broadway cast recording become standard practice?

Despite some successes in developing this new model, Tepper has doubts. “I don’t think it will become the norm for shows that didn’t have major New York runs to create albums that go viral, leading to a major New York run within five years. But it’s certainly more of a possibility in the world we live in now than it was in the world where music wasn’t distributed online immediately.”

And whether or not the cast album comes long before a Broadway run or is released after the show debuts, the power of the cast album is undeniable. “At the end of the day, it’s your calling card,” says Deutsch. “It’s your marketing tool. It’s what makes a musical a musical. It’s what makes it sing. And it’s what’s gonna live on forever once your show is done.” 


Ryan Cunningham is a Jonathan Larson Award winner and a Drama Desk and Mac Award-nominated lyricist, bookwriter and playwright. His Off-Broadway musical written with Joshua Salzman, I Love You Because, has played both nationally and internationally in five different languages. Also with Salzman, he has written the musicals Next Thing You Know, The Legend of New York, and Michael Collins. He is a Creative Director at the Broadway advertising agency AKA and teaches at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons. 

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Interviews

Hair to the Throne

You may not know the name, but you have seen Paul Huntley’s work. With a career that stretches back to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, the wig designer has worked extensively on both sides of the Atlantic, in film, television, and theatre. Faye Dunaway’s hair in Network? A Paul Huntley wig. Princess Margaret’s ‘60s beehives? Huntley. Patti LuPone’s Evita hair? Huntley. From Mae West to Joan Crawford to Glenn Close to the hair that transformed Santino Fontana into Dorothy Michaels eight times a week in Tootsie, Huntley has been in close counsel with the biggest stars of the last 70 years.

Paul Huntley and Jan Maxwell for Lend Me a Tenor

The erstwhile Brit is still going strong, contributing hair to Broadway’s Diana and in the process recreating the look of a woman who conjures up a thousand different images in our collective memory as soon as her name is uttered. From the royal wedding to her media blitz tour post divorce, The People’s Princess was a master at recreating herself—and in that regard, she’s well-matched by the talents of Huntley.

“The truth is she looked different every time she walked out the front door,” Huntley says. “Sometimes short, spiky hair and sometimes blown out really large. And then her color changed all the time.”

Of course, recreating royal looks for a Broadway musical requires sleight of hand with which something more documentary-like (say, Netflix’s The Crown) doesn’t have to contend. There are microphones to consider, quick changes, and condensing a lifetime into a two-and-a-half evening show. 

Huntley, Tony-winning director Christopher Ashley (Come From Away), and bookwriter Joe DiPietro settled on establishing Diana with just four iconic looks: the style with which she was first introduced to the public as the future Princess of Wales (“We call that the pudding basin look. Because it really wasn’t that becoming to her”); the darker hair from the royal wedding, the must-watch event of 1981; the tousled and “quite big” hair that most people picture from the early ’90s; and the shorter, spikier style from the end of her tragically short life.

Huntley is also responsible for the rest of the royal family, as well—though one imagines Queen Elizabeth II’s hair was a fairly simple feat, changing has it has not a whit for decades at a time—in addition to Diana’s aunt, romance novelist Barbara Cartland, who sported a very specific look during the period. 

Each wig takes an average of five days’ work from Huntley and his team of five to create from human hair (Huntley sources it from “wig merchants” and most of the hair comes from Russia). For a project like Diana, what is particularly interesting is that there are very few natural blondes in the world; most blonde wigs audiences see have been dyed that shade. And throughout the process, Huntley remains in communication with both the creative team and the performers.

“That’s the first thing: You want to make sure that everyone knows what you’re going to do and whether that’s what they want,” he says. “And I prefer always to be the quiet one. People have a different view of me than that, I know!” he laughs.

Though certainly not one to back down from an argument about his work—he tried in vain to convince Faye Dunaway not to restyle the Maria Callas wig he gave her for Master Class—Huntley has a c’est la vie outlook that has kept him sane while working intimately with some of the biggest divas of all time. “We’re not curing cancer here, he says. “It is, after all, a musical. And people are wearing these things on their face, so you have to sort of say, ‘Oh well, what the fuck.’ You really can’t make too much of it, I don’t think.”

Over the course of his long career, Huntley has seen fads come and go, and stars wax and wane. But throughout, the nature of his relationship with the performers has remained steadfast, ever since the day he crawled into Mae West’s bed to set her wig. “Honestly I’ve never gotten over that,” he says. “And all I could think was… ‘My god, how does anyone have teeth that white?’ It was like Walt Disney stars, they were so fucking white!”

“I always felt from my earliest years that they were the stars, and they were the most important people and therefore I was just someone who helped,” he says. Now, of course, his reputation precedes him, but Huntley remains the “strange Englishman who’ll probably do some wonderful stuff,” as he puts it.

Beginning his career in England with Stanley Hall at Hall’s Wig Creations—a major wig creation company for film at the time—Huntley was creating wigs and false eyebrows for director Mike NIchols—who suffered from alopecia—and made the leap to America after Nichols hired him to do the hair on Carnal Knowledge and asked if he’d ever considered moving. 

“He said, ‘Well, you know, why don’t you come and live here?’” Huntley recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh I couldn’t possibly go to America! Good heavens, it’s so loud!’”

“That’s where the ‘grand voice’ comes in,” he adds dryly.

But Nichols pressed on and ultimately sponsored Huntley’s visa. Two years after Carnal Knowledge was released, Huntley made his Broadway debut with the Nichols-directed production of Uncle Vanya, starring—in a very eclectic cast—George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Wilson, and 70-year-old Lillian Gish.

“The sweet thing about Lillian was she said, ‘Oh, Paul darling, I’m going to look so young on the stage! You’re going to have to give me a gray wig,” Huntley recalls, laughing. “And she did look young!”

Huntley’s list of devotees reads as a Who’s Who of theatrical and Hollywood history. He worked again with Gish a decade later, when she starred with Bette Davis in The Whales of August; he did Crawford’s wigs on her final film, Trog (a project that produces the equivalent of a good-natured verbal shudder from him); he restyled Marlene Dietrich’s wigs when she toured the world with her concert act, receiving them in plain brown parcels with a note and a next destination to which he’d send the refreshed wig; he works extensively with Glenn Close, on everything from Sunset Boulevard to 101 Dalmations; and Patti LuPone famously has him written into her contract for every project since Evita. In fact, Huntley is the man behind her memorable, flame-colored wigs on Ryan Murphy’s latest Netflix series Hollywood.

Evita – Patti LuPone

But even a man who counts the original Broadway productions of Dreamgirls and Cats (the project he’d most want to relive) to the most recent revivals of Anything Goes and Noises Off! has a few projects he wishes had been his. 

“I would have liked to have worked on [the 2019] Kiss Me, Kate,” he says. “I did the 1999 revival. I would have loved to have done that again. But there are good people. David Brian Brown, Charles LaPointe…I can respect people who do good work. I have no qualms about praising people if it’s good work.”

But with more memorable creations on his résumé than even seems possible, it’s safe to say that Huntley’s missed opportunities are few and far between. And with Diana, he proves once again who the royal hair creator is.


Follow Paul Huntley on Instagram at @paul_huntley_wigs