Growing up, I developed a totally unexpected obsession with Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. My mom kept all of them in our VHS collection (#proud90sbaby), so over time, when I was done wearing out other go-to movies, those were the ones I popped in. The storylines are sort of cheesy and for a little kid, the time periods definitely felt foreign, but there was just something about the music that made me happy without explanation.
I’ve never taken the time to rank my faves, but “Carousel” is definitely toward the top, mostly because it makes me ugly-cry every. single. time. So when I found out the show would be returning to Broadway with a refreshingly diverse cast (Jessie Mueller, Lindsay Mendez, and Joshua Henry in lead roles), the only thought I had was, “Need tickets.”
And almost immediately after, I wondered how exactly the producers would pull off the musical’s turn-of-the-century aesthetic onstage. I’ve never given much thought to the ins and outs of Broadway makeup, mainly because it’s been wrongfully labeled as one-dimensional. But after speaking with the show’s hair and makeup designer Luc Verschueren (whose credits span more than 30 years), I quickly learned that stage makeup is way cooler than I ever thought.
Ahead are three things I learned during our convo, just days ahead of this weekend’s Tony Awards.
Makeup and Hair Designers Are Low-Key Historians
In my many conversations with celebrity makeup artists, the word inspiration comes up a lot. Most of the time, it’s based on the event or theme of whatever event they’re attending. In the case of Broadway, it sort of works the same way, except the time and location of the storyline is what ultimate guides the hair and makeup direction.
“The person I collaborate the closest with would be the costume designer. It’s one picture from head to toe. It has to be coherent and tell the same story,” says Verschueren. “Ann Roth is the [“Carousel”] costume designer; a very famous costume designer and she makes beautiful drawings. So I got a set of her drawings with fabric swatches, so I can see the real color scheme.”
From there, the research period begins. In all of his work—which also includes the current revival of “Hello Dolly”—he considers everything about the time period, including setting, social class, and country. Some of the books he frequently references are An Illustrated History of Hairstyles and Fashion in Photographs. For “Carousel,” he specifically looked at photos from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. And from there, he also did a deep dive into the painters of that era.
“I also paid a visit to the Brown Foundation in Philadelphia. It’s a museum and they have a lot of Renoir; 181 in that collection.”
Once the groundwork has been laid, Verschueren will get to know the actors so he can note their specific features, preferences, and whatever else they need to fully develop their character. “We always say in theater, ‘It takes a village to get there.’ That’s what I love about it—it is teamwork and you do it together.” In the end, they’re also left with mood boards in their dressing rooms, so they can continually refer to them while applying hair and makeup.
Stage Actors Know Their Stuff
One of the biggest surprises during my conversation with Verschueren was learning that stage actors—even the ones on the Great White Way—do their own makeup. Am I late to this revelation?!
“As a designer, you’re only with the show until opening night and you come back in for a new cast member or small visits to see how it’s maintaining, but you’re not there on a daily basis,” he said. “To achieve what you design and to maintain that, we make makeup charts (with 7–20 products on average), so they have a layout of what to do. And nowadays, with the technology, sometimes in rehearsal, people will take a selfie on their phone.”
In general, an actor is not called until half an hour before the show to be completely ready, so they’ll either apply their makeup then or arrive at the theater a few minutes earlier. For specific cases where the beauty look is extensive, something called a “track” is used to map out everywhere an actor should go before and during a show to have looks applied. Shows such as “Wicked,” “Lion King,” and “Phantom of the Opera” fit this description.
Going Bold Isn’t the Only Option
Perhaps the biggest and most inaccurate assumption made about stage makeup is that it needs to be heavier or much bolder. That may have been the case back in the day, but thanks to the ever-evolving formulations and techniques, it doesn’t always have to be that be. According to Verschueren, all a stage makeup designer really wants is to create beautiful, blended makeup.
“Twenty years ago, we used more specific stage makeup, but nowadays, the makeup is so developed, that even streetwear makeup has really good pigmentation. There are much wider choices than it used to be,” he said. “So you don’t necessarily have to go right to a theatrical makeup brand. What happens sometimes as well is either we get approached or we approach companies for sponsorship. The most popular brands that sponsor are MAC and Inglot.”
Ben Nye is another stage favorite that’s been around for ages, in addition to the German brand Kryolan and RCMA.
And since stage makeup is usually a blend of the classics and modern-day newbies, there isn’t much difference between the methods used to ward off shine from the bright stage lights.
“In general, you just use a blotting powder or a pressed powder. Certain brands have a non-shiny cream that you can apply before or after makeup.”
Be sure to catch the Tony Awards on Sunday, June 10 at 8pm EST on CBS, where “Carousel” is up for a whopping 11 awards!