My Top 5 Broadway Special Effects

There was some great Spider-Man coverage in Variety over the weekend that looked at the show from a bunch of angles, from branding, to storytelling and yes, to spectacle.  (The show actually got the cover of Variety – and for a Broadway show to snag a cover, when the mag usually only gives us a page, says something about the power of the Spidey suit).

In the opening paragraphs of the article about the technical challenges of this super-sized musical, book writer Glenn Berger had this to say . . .

What really amazes an audience isn’t a big set pice.  It’s how you can theatrically overcome narrative solutions. A simple, elegant solution is where the spectacle lies.

The quote made me think about some of my favorite “effects” from over the years, and, well, I gotta agree with Mr. Berger.  Sure, chandeliers and helicopters and heavyside layers are cool, but my real “ahhh” moments come from effects with much simpler concepts (and simpler budgets).

Here are my top five Broadway special effects:

1.  Raoul Takes The Plunge

In the 2nd Act of Phantom, after the chandelier has crashed, and we’ve seen the Phantom’s face, Raoul leaves Madame Giry to search for Christine and jumps off a bridge into a river of fog.  He does a pencil dive (his body perpindicular to the floor) and drops right through the floor . . . and the audience doesn’t hear a sound.  It’s so unexpected, it’ll take your breath away.

2.  Old Joe Becomes Young Joe.

In Damn Yankees, Joe Hardy makes a deal with a devil, and with the help of some great underscoring, makes his transformation from old to young by simply walking through a door.  If you’ve never seen the show before, you’ll find yourself with some chills, as the young Joe capitalizes on the magic with a thrilling reprise.  Again, fast and unexpected is the name of the game.

3. This Disappearing Houdini Trick

This trick was so good it actually disappeared!  In the early incarnations of the original Ragtime, including the first year or so on Broadway, the 2nd Act started with the character of Houdini performing a trick, where he was put in a straight jacket, locked in a box and raised 50 feet above the stage.  The chains on the box would “break”, and you’d see Houdini’s legs scrambling to stay inside, and then, the box would blow apart, and Houdini would be . . . gone.  And he’d appear in a box seat next to a surprised audience member seconds later.  It was an applause moment, and it also made sense with the story.  Unfortunately, it was “tricky” and after a lot of complications, the trick (designed by super illusionist Franz Harary) vanished.  But if you were one of the lucky ones that saw it, then you were colored impressed, I’m sure.  I worked on the show, and it made me feel like a kid every night.

4.  Bloody, Bloody, blood.

Whether I’m watching someone get stabbed at West Side Story, or whether I’m sitting in the splatter zone at Evil Dead, I’m a sucker for an old-fashioned blood packet.  Shoot (no pun intended), the blood on Eponine’s dress after she gets shot (which she merely reveals) used to get me, even the 12th time I saw the show.

5.  Do I Smell Bacon?

Everything is better with bacon, including Off-Broadway.  David Cromer’s beautiful production of Our Town served up some fantastic performances, and some actual bacon.  In the very vivid return to Grover’s Corners scene, Emily’s mom fried up some of the good stuff  . . . and filled the theater with that smell that makes even vegans drool.

While sinking ships (Titanic) and entire mansions that move (Sunset Boulevard) can be impressive, what’s most impressive are the effects that take the audience by surprise, capture its imagination, and most importantly, make sense with the story.

Otherwise, we might as well just go to the circus.

What are your favorite on stage special effects?

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.