While working as a hairstylist in San Francisco in the 1970s, Tom Watson attended the opera with one of his clients—and he fell in love with the dramatic look of it all. So afterward, Watson began assisting at the Theatrical Hair Goods Company, where he learned the craft of building and styling wigs. By the mid-’80s he was building wigs and renting them to theater companies around the country that didn’t have big enough budgets to have their own wigmakers. “As I put in my dues and learned my craft, the productions got more and more prestigious,” Watson says, remembering when The Metropolitan Opera started using his wigs and then commissioned him to design the hair for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1996.
Watson’s been on staff full-time with the Met since 2000 and now manages seven people in the wig department. “I still oversee every single wig at some level, for all the productions” he says. “And I still love to get in and cut and style the hair—especially for the leading ladies and men.” It can be a huge undertaking: Although some shows might need wigs for only a few main characters, others could require hair pieces for more than 140 people on stage. To create each, the designers make a mold of the performer’s head, construct a cap to fit those dimensions and then hand-tie the hair; the process can take 35 or 40 hours for the more intricate looks.
In addition to that busy schedule, Watson continues to head his own wig company. Along with 20 wigmakers in his studio, he’s created hairstyles for more than 45 Broadway productions, including Wicked, Rock of Ages, Promises, Promises, and The Addams Family. Watson’s most recent project, styling the hair for Harry Connick, Jr.’s upcoming revival, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which spans the 1940s to ‘70s, has brought back memories. “Who would have thought that a show about the ’70s would become a period piece?” he says with a laugh. “You know you’re getting old when the era you lived in is now a period piece—I wore those bell-bottoms and had that hair!”
He’s enjoyed the creativity that comes with designing hair for such a variety of performances, but the shows that originally attracted Watson to wig design are still his favorite. “For opera,” he says, “wigs and makeup are very much a part of the process. We work with costume designers to make sure the whole look comes together.” Watson says he loves to work with the singers as well and collaborate on their hairstyles—regardless of their reputation for being divas. “Most performers really are great people, and we discuss what goes into the look,” he says. “For a lot of roles in opera, there might be only four or five people in the world who have the voice for it. And if you’re one of five in the world, you’re usually a very interesting person.”
Despite all his success at the Met and on Broadway, Watson continues to devote a good deal of time to smaller projects, from Shakespeare in the Park to off-Broadway shows. “It’s great to get out and work with young designers, who have such enthusiasm and creativity,” he says. “I find it keeps me interested.”