Blockbuster movies aren’t the only place to see spectacular special effects. In fact, the advances in film and TV effects have pushed New York City theater companies to try to outdo their cinematic equivalents, with impressive results. Dazzling crashes, high-wire theatrics and stunning sleight-of-hand surprises abound both on and Off-Broadway with the miraculous feats all the more exciting as they take place right before your eyes.
“Older audiences are more content-driven, but younger audiences are wowed by what they can see on movie and television. We have to keep up with that,” says Jake Bell, technical production manager for Phantom of the Opera and Wicked who has worked on executing these effects for many years. And keep up they have. Check out the seven best special effects on and Off-Broadway right now.
The Crashing Chandelier in Phantom of the Opera
It’s likely the most famous special effect on Broadway right now and perhaps the most well-known of all time. Even though the chandelier has been dropping for 25 years — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lush musical thriller opened in New York in 1988 and is the longest-running show in Broadway history — audiences are still astonished when the massive lighting fixture comes sailing over their heads and crashes to the stage at the end of the first act.
How does the masked phantom exact his vengeance on the fictional Paris Opera House in the Majestic Theater? With a little behind-the-scenes help, of course. Bell explains that four separate cables with motors on the chandelier are used — two upstage of the proscenium and two downstage. Before the show, the chandelier is lifted into a position over the audience. “When the appropriate cue comes, the downstage cables are released. At the same time, the upstage cables are taken up and guided to their position so it can be dropped on stage,” he says.
“For its time, it was a pretty spectacular effect,” Bell says. “If you were doing it for the first time today, we might add a little speed to it, but given the conditions we had, no one’s ever wanted to touch it because it serves its purpose and it’s what audiences expect.” While Bell could not estimate the individual cost of the effect in 2013 terms, he reveals that the show’s original budget was approximately $8 million and would be at least $20 to $25 million today. Get tickets to the Phantom of the Opera.
Flying Superheroes and Villains in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
Audiences have been oohing and aahhing since 2010 as they watch everyone’s favorite web-slinging superhero do epic battle with the menacing Green Goblin above their heads. Not only does Spider-Man fly on stage and around the theater, he also perches on platforms in the mezzanine. In addition to the lead actor, nine stunt-Spideys are suspended high above patrons’ heads to dazzling effect. The magic is enabled by a series of complex wires and cables that suspend the soaring super-heroes. In the climactic aerial fight, one of the stunt performers doubles as the Green Goblin while the Goblin actor’s voice plays over the loudspeakers. It’s a soaring spectacle, and though you can see the wires, it’s easy to imagine that you’re an innocent bystander watching a Marvel superhero smash-up. Get tickets to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Amazing Costume Changes in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella
There’s magic of a different variety at the Broadway Theater where Cinderella undergoes a lightning-fast transformation from a plain country bumpkin dressed in rags to an elegant princess in a stunning white ball gown. The Fairy Godmother sees an equally miraculous change from a daffy beggar woman to a glamorous fantasy figure. Thanks to costume designer William Ivey Long’s Tony winning sleight-of-hand designs, these amazing quick changes happen in a matter of seconds. The production won’t reveal how the metamorphoses are accomplished, which only heightens audience amazement as the seemingly impossible unfolds before your eyes. Get tickets to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
Lasers in Matilda the Musical
The bizarre, oft-kilter world of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s classic Matilda comes to life at the Shubert Theater. While her parents do her no favors, things really take a turn when the titular genius-level little girl is forced to attend an oppressive school. That’s when — thanks to the imagination of lighting designer Hugh Vanstone — lasers begin to pulse about the theater as the hideous headmistress Miss Trunchbull imposes lockdown on her terrified students. Norman Ballard, who serves as laser effects producer on the show and executed Vanstone’s design, explains that there are 16 lasers embedded in the scenery. In previous decades, this would have been impossible because the projectors were too large, but now miniaturization allows for many more lasers in a variety of locations.
“The lasers are choreographed. We call it ‘ray-ography,’” says Ballard. “It has a look and a feel. It starts out as a tease and then gradually becomes all-engulfing. It’s more menacing that way, sort of weaving around you and grabbing you. It’s a very specific design motif, not just razzle-dazzle.” However you look at it, the stunning lasers create the appropriately ominous atmosphere and advance the storyline of the bright girl who diminishes the bullies in her life at every turn. Get tickets to Matilda the Musical.
Defying Gravity in Wicked
The high point, both figuratively and literally, of the hit musical Wicked, a prequel to the events of The Wizard of Oz, arrives at the end of the first act with the appropriately named, climactic “Defying Gravity” number. At the moment in question, the green-skinned apprentice witch Elphaba finally realizes her powers and seems to ascend from the Wizard’s palace without the aide of wires.
Bell, the technical production manager for this show and Phantom of the Opera explains that while, “levitation devices are used in magic acts all the time,” the director Joe Mantello wanted this visual trick to be accomplished at the Gershwin Theatre without visible wires. As well, he didn’t want it to take too much time for Elphaba to be hooked up. “The challenge for us was for her to run upstage, get into this device, take off and soar,”Bell says.
The solution ended up being a very long telescopic arm. On the end of that arm, explains Bell, “is a device that she can both stand on, and it grabs her around the waist as soon as she touches it.” The device is operated by the actress, and it’s covered by a skirt “that exactly matches the one she’s wearing. So when she steps into the device, it locks, she standing on a steel plate, and the whole thing lifts her off the ground, and it looks like her skirt is extending forever and she’s flying.” Bell reassures us that “there are all kinds of safety mechanisms in the unit to make sure it does not fail.” Regardless of how it works, it certainly makes for impressive theater. Get tickets to Wicked.
An Ocean of Bubbles in Gazillion Bubble Show
For one magical hour, audiences are taken from the Off-Broadway New World Stages to a fantasyland where smoke machines, lasers and videos transform the childhood wonderment of bubbles (millions of them) into something much more exciting. Performer-creator Dani Yang says the enchanting bubbles that morph into giant shapes, contain smoke and envelop children are made from a solution of water, baby shampoo, dishwashing liquid, corn syrup and glycerin. “That way it’s non-toxic to the skin,” he says. The lighting makes the bubbles look like glass, and when the bubbles are combined with video projections and lasers, “it looks like you’re swimming under the ocean or visiting outer space,” he says. There’s even one stunt where he uses bubbles to recreate the solar system.
While most Broadway spectaculars cost millions of dollars, Yang reveals that the total cost for the effects is about $500 to $1,000 per performance. When asked how many bubbles are generated for each show, Yang laughed and replied, “My mind would blow if I had to guess. That why we call it the Gazillion Bubble Show.” For more info, go to gazillionbubbleshow.com
New Visual Effects in Blue Man Group
A trio of mute, Smurf-colored creatures have been entertaining audiences at the Off-Broadway Astor Place Theatre for more than 20 years by splashing paint in drums, catching objects in their mouths and performing other slapstick antics. But recently, the production has added technological special effects including giant, Blue Man-sized iPad-lookalikes (GiPads if you will), which allow the performers to humorously interact with the screen and projected video images. The new iPads also provide verbal commentary on the action “We want to do for reading what texting has done for driving,” they quip at one point in the show. Good to see this ageless production is embracing the tech-addled generation head on. Get tickets to the Blue Man Group.
Discover more of top places to see and things to do while in New York City with our Best of New York series.