What's new in hair and makeup on Broadway stages? Nothing and everything. Says Gerald Altenburg, wigs and makeup stylist of the King Lear revival now playing at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, “The techniques, and the materials, haven't changed much over the last 400 years.” What changes constantly, however, is how cosmetology is used to lay (quite literally) a foundation for creative expression, and this season is brimming with new uses. From the subtleties of King Lear, to the character-building enhancement on Golda's Balcony, to the menagerie of fantasy beings devised for Wicked, there's quite a bit going on from the neck up.

LEAR: DIMINISHING RETURNS

As directed by Jonathan Miller, King Lear takes a back-to-basics approach that eschews fancy period wigs and other traditional trappings. “Initially, we sat down and talked about the individual actors,” recalls Altenburg. “Christopher Plummer was going to be a stereotypical Lear with long hair and an overgrown beard, but Jonathan looked at him and said, ‘You're perfect the way you are.’ Christopher is approaching Lear's age, but he's very youthful-looking in the face and has good skin tone. Gradually, throughout the tragedy, we take everything from him, including his costume and his healthful hair and eyes. Before we nurse him back to health we diminish him with various color foundations and add little wefts to his hair so it gets a little longer and slightly unkempt. Period pieces are often about big, showy wigs. We have a couple of those but we're hoping even they are question marks when people look at them. It's almost more demanding to create them, because we don't want you to see them.”

The production strives for seamlessness, Altenburg says. “I work very closely with our costume designer, Clare Mitchell, because of the scale of her dresses, which recall the 17th and 18th centuries. The hair and heads have to come in line with them. It's more about the costuming to make Christopher look drawn. But I get him 15 minutes at the top and as he alters a great deal throughout we're around each other a lot backstage for quick changes, including applications of a Krylon mud makeup, a favorite of mine.”

This production originated at the Stratford Festival of Ontario in Canada in 2002. “Two years have passed, and there's a whole pile of new actors along with Christopher, so there was a lot of work going in January and February before the show opened in March. It's not like we just took it out of the closet and started up again,” Altenburg says of logistics. “I pulled from stock and when I first came out here I did an extensive set of fittings with the actors, 14-15 a day, but when we were through I had to make only a few new wigs — and a pile of facial hair.”

GOLDA: ANYTHING NOSE

Coming continuously to the Helen Hayes Theatre: A stream of noses, one for each performance of Golda's Balcony. For the biographical drama, star Tovah Feldshuh sports the most prominent proboscis since Nicole Kidman interpreted Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Soloing, the performer frets and fulminates as Golda Meir, who, at age 70, was called out of retirement to serve as prime minister of Israel and confronted stark choices about its future. Feldshuh evokes her subject with historically accurate costuming by Jess Goldstein, capped by a wig from recent Tony Award winner Paul Huntley. It was Huntley who brought makeup artist John Caglione, Jr., Academy Award winner for 1990's Dick Tracy, onto the project for the delicate task of shaping a distinctive character nose for Feldshuh.

“When I first sat down with Tovah, we discussed how far we could take it,” recalls Caglione, Jr. “We decided that this would be a likeness makeup; we wouldn't totally obliterate her face. I made a plaster cast of her face, then laid out pictures of the real Golda and went to my sculpting table to work on the nose and sketch on the cast. When you're sculpting a nose on a face cast you really have to take into consideration everything around it and make it become a part of her. Besides the foam latex prosthetics, we paint in jowls and circles under the eyes and eyebrows, to make the nose blend into the face. The stage lighting allows me to paint more boldly and expressively than if it was film, but otherwise the process is the same for both mediums.”

Feldshuh “became Golda in the makeup chair. The facial expressions would come on and she would emote and do lines from the script as we cleaned her face and put the glue on. In the mirror she assumed certain facial gestures that helped me paint in and around them. It's a metamorphosis that never ceases to amaze me,” says Caglione, who has worked regularly with Al Pacino since Dick Tracy and created “weird, scarred noses” for the actor's turn as Roy Cohn on HBO's Angels in America. “Paul's wig is cool — once it goes on it completes the illusion — and the makeup is cool, but she's just amazing.”

Trevor McGinness currently handles wig, makeup, and costume application for the production. Caglione, Jr. says the star has gone through a nose a show since the production opened off Broadway last year, before its transfer. That means financial as well as artistic rewards for the designer, whose one prior Broadway credit, 1981's Frankenstein, was an opening-night flop. “When oily makeup removers hit the nose it bubbles and is destroyed. In my Long Island shop I have 10-15 nose molds; the production calls me up a month before and says, ‘We need 30 noses.’ So I whip up my foam latex and squirt it into the molds. It's mass production of noses here and that rare gig that generates income continually, for a year and a half now.”

Wicked: Green Party

Wicked, the musical retelling of The Wizard of Oz from “Wicked Witch” Elphaba's point of view, is all about eye-catching spectacle, tended to by makeup designer Joe Dulude II and hair department supervisor Al Annotto, who worked from Susan Hilferty's costume designs. The highlight is, of course, the emerald skin tone worn by star Idina Menzel, which is a collaborative effort. On show nights, “I start the ‘greening’ at 7:15-7:30 pm, with a landscape green Chromacake from MAC Cosmetics; it's a gentle watercolor that I then drybrush, to paint and smooth,” Dulude II says. “It's too green, though, at full strength, so I powder it with a waterproof setting powder, MAC's golden olive pigment. I brush that so it looks dewier, less flat and more like skin. Idina does her eyeshadow, and I do her eyebrows and contouringI use purple for the contours, which blends better than brown and is neutral onstage. Then I do her neck and hands, and apply a spray fixative on her hands so it stays on (later, in Act II, I put the same fixative on the lower half of her face for her love scene). She's not ugly, but distinctively beautiful, and lighting designer Ken Posner added the smallest, lightest amount of green tint possible for her spotlight to smooth out her appearance.”

“Joe and I work side by side on Idina,” Annotto says. “I don't do anything till she's done with him. I have for her a silk blender; it's a piece of silk dyed to match the color of her skin so that she doesn't have to draw that green makeup up into her hairline for her wigs, which are quite simple. It makes a big difference in her cleanup at the end of the evening and from three feet away you can't see it.”

Showtime at the George Gershwin Theatre is a “marathon” for both designers. “Even if the dressing rooms are just 50' away it's too far for some of the changes, so we do it all on the deck, and that's a lot of stairs, particularly when we do two shows a day,” says Annotto, of a typical show day that begins at 5:30 pm and ends at 11:30 pm when the last of the show's 70 carefully labeled wigs are stowed away for the next performance. The wigs were designed by Tom Watson, imported to Broadway from the Metro-politan Opera, and encompass unique looks. “Tom has a lot of tricks up his sleeve, including these birdcage-type structures that we use. You cover it with a netting and attach hair to it so from the stage it looks like a 300 lb. headdress but it's actually hollow-millinery wire and lace is sewn to the cage to give it that ‘huge head of hair’ appearance. The hair is just the dressing over the top of it. But you still have to take it apart, reset it, and put it in the oven and comb it out again. I've never worked on so many cages before on this scale.”

As Act II approaches, Dulude II has to contend with some new character makeups, including the Tin Man. “The tin color is aquacolor Krylon, a soft cream that's pumped on. I experimented with metal rivets for the show's San Francisco tryout but they were too time-consuming to apply so now I just draw them on with a blue pencil.” A barrel of fun is provided by the show's flying monkees. “I take care of all the facial hair and the prosthetics,” designed by Matthew Mungle. “The show uses 10 monkey head masks that I repaint for added dimensions, apply hair to, and clean and maintain.”

Whether subtly or spectacularly adorned, it is, the designers say, the actors who give heart and soul to their appliances. Which is not to say that they take any less pride in their work. Their favorite moments are often the ones most simply achieved. “I especially like the ballroom wigs, particularly the ‘rings of Saturn’ hairpiece,” says Annotto. “It's millinery wire made into circles, with horsehair sewn over it, and then the hair is dressed around it. It's on for maybe 45 seconds, and it's very much, ‘I've got some chicken wire, let's put on a show.’”

Robert Cashill, a former editor of Lighting Dimensions, writes on arts and entertainment from New York City.