David Brian Brown is one of the biggest stars on Broadway, and yet he rarely sets foot on stage. One of only a handful of practitioners at the top level of his craft, he is in high demand, and in the turbulent world of the theater, he hasn't been out of work since taking up the profession 28 years ago.
Brown is one of the most famous "wigmasters" in the theater.
"I didn't plan it this way," he said when I met him in his four-station "hair room" in the basement of the Palace Theater. There he had just launched "Legally Blonde," the Matrix-sponsored musical based on the movie.
"I went to beauty school in Chicago to become a make-up artist, but ended up loving hair," said Brown. "I apprenticed at the Chicago Lyric Opera and from there was asked to do one show, and then another and then another."
"Legally Blonde," with its strong beauty slant (several key scenes are set in a Matrix Vavoom-equipped salon), has been an interesting challenge for Brown.
"It's fun, but really demanding. We've created 61 wigs for the 16-plus female members, all contemporary styles."
The pressure is intense. Brown and his team of four have minutes to change an actress from one wig to another, working just steps from the stage.
Brown designs the wigs for wear and tear. Because they need to look good from the front row to the last seat in the balcony, they must endure pulling, tugging, heavy ironing and curling, as well as spirited dancing by the wearers. Brown creates a design that's well-vented for heavy pinning and cast comfort.
Making each individual wig is a process. Once Brown has determined the appropriate design, he fits a mannequin with a mold. The mold is sent to his contact in London, with specific instructions on the look, length and color, to be executed in human hair. About one month later, the raw wig is sent back to Brown where he continues to fit, cut and refine the shape to the cast member who will ultimately wear it onstage.
Each wig is valued at about $4,000, and with extreme behind-the-scenes TLC, has a lifespan of about two years, says Brown. Wigs are shampooed twice a week, and conditioned very much "like the hair on your head."
He and his team then restyle to the specifications of the character, pin- curling or ironing and always finishing with professional products. "My absolute favorite product in the world is Sleek.look Smoothing Serum," he said. "I also love Vavoom Hair Spray and use it on all of my wigs."
Brown is very serious about his contribution to the success of each production. "Lots of research is needed for every show," he said. "For period pieces I have to research the era to not only see what hair looked like, but what was going on at that time."
It's not unusual for Brown to work on multiple shows simultaneously. As we spoke, he was packing to go to Denver to prepare the cast for "Little Mermaid." Brown leads a team of 42 hair professionals on all his shows.
"There's a lot of room for interested stylists," he says.
"We need people. It's really a great job and a hairdresser can make a nice salary. Because we are in âcrisis' right now, you don't even have to be a member of the union. Anyone interested can just stop by any theater and drop off an application," he explains.
"This is a great profession; I make a wonderful living. I know I am privileged and I love what I do."