The big beautiful Broadway blockbuster Hairspray, on stage now at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, is a show that requires equally big and beautiful hair! A lot of it. Wig designer Dan Benslay of Indianapolis has been eager to start creating fun styles for this show for quite a while. “I planned it out for a year in my head – what I wanted it to look like,” Benslay, affectionately known as “Hairdo Dan,” said, adding there are forty-six wigs used throughout the musical. “This is one of the biggest shows I have ever designed.”
Set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, Hairspray often refers to the changing styles of the time. High school student and lead character Tracy Turnblad is frequently sent to detention for ratting her hair too high. But the styles of that era were bold, and Tracy embraced them – including the tall hair trend.
“When I first started, I went back to the original John Waters movie with Divine, and used a lot of his inspiration for what we were doing,” Benslay said. “I knew I wanted to use some of his original ideas, but make them more my own – kind of an homage to John (Waters).”
And while the Broadway show did inspire a few looks, “I didn’t just want to recreate what they did on Broadway.”
Although he did some research online, he also turned to a favorite form of inspiration – his extensive collection of record albums. “Whenever I design a show, I pull out albums from that era to see who was popular then,” Benslay explained. The album covers are an excellent indication of style, for both the hair and fashion of the times.
“The kids would emulate what they saw on record covers,” he said. “The Supremes were my inspiration for the Dynamites and the black ensemble,” he noted. “And truthfully, a lot of Dolly Parton’s wigs from the ’60s were my inspiration for some others.”
Brenda Lee was another.
In the end, it took Hairdo Dan and two assistants about four weeks to design and build the show. “Almost a solid month,” he said, adding the work isn’t over. “I need to come in twice a week to maintain this show’s wigs. Everything gets brushed out, re-combed, curled and sprayed.”
A stylist for twenty-six years, Hairdo Dan said there is a definite difference between real hair and wigs.
“Human hair is much more forgiving,” he noted as he brushed out an auburn wig. “With wigs, for theatre, you really have to know foundation and how to get it to stay for nine shows a week. These have to last and look consistently good show after show.”
While people tend to style their hair a little differently from day to day, the wigs must maintain their original look throughout the run of the show – thus the continued maintenance. It’s all the more necessary for a show that contains the amount of energetic dancing that’s found in Hairspray.
In all, fifty-one wigs were actually designed for the production, with forty-six ultimately used. That’s considerably more than a “typical” show, which might have anywhere from seven to ten wigs. The more period the piece, the more wigs there tends to be, Benslay said. Also the number of female characters tends to impact the number of wigs needed.
“A usual “big” or heavy-wigged show might consist of twenty to twenty-five wigs,” he noted. Hairspray doubled that number.
When asked which of the wigs is his favorite, Hairdo Dan struggled to select just one. But he settled on the asymmetrical blonde flip that is one of antagonist Velma Von Tussle’s several styles. “It’s so much like Debbie Harry’s in the movie,” he said.
The most wild wig, worn in the “Big Doll House” scene, was inspired by the Broadway show, and took the longest to make. It features bangs, with the majority of the remaining of the hair standing straight up, encircled at the base by a braid. “It’s so out there – it’s such an extreme hairdo. It had to be perfectly balanced,” Benslay said, noting it took several tries to get it just right so that it didn’t fall off when the actress tipped her head back.
“It is a lot of fun to wear,” Sally Scharbrough, the actress who wears the extreme wig, said. “It definitely gave me a specific character to work with and I feel like I am very noticeable on stage during that scene because of how tall the wig is. I thought it would be heavy and awkward to wear, but it is actually very light.”
Most of the actors wear multiple wigs throughout the show – as many as five – and this presented another challenge for Hairdo Dan.
“Some people play multiple characters,” he explained. “I wanted them to look very different each time they came out on stage as another character.”
Once the show is over, the wigs will go into the theatre’s rotating stock of approximately four hundred wigs.
There are fifty-seven performances of Hairspray in the intimate space of Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre. Each performance includes Chef Odell Ward’s dinner buffet, coffee, tea and lemonade. Tickets range from $36 to $59, and parking is free. For reservations, call the Beef & Boards Box Office at 317-872-9664. Box office hours are 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM Tuesday through Sunday, and 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM on Mondays.
*Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog post compliments of Patricia Rettig. She works in media relations at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre. Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, located on the Northwest side of Indianapolis, has been providing food and fun for everyone since 1973.