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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  • David Rigano says:

    When was the Houdini effect cut from Ragtime? I was under the impression it was cut for the first tour. I believe I saw the show fairly late in its original run, and that effect was definitely in when I saw it.
    And, yes, I remember being awed by Joe Boyd’s transformation to Joe Hardy in the 90s Damn Yankees revival.
    How about the opening of Tom Sawyer when Tom pops up out of a pool of water?

  • J says:

    Like Raoul taking the plunge, I always loved when the actors jumped out of the plane in the TOMMY overture, and then come parachuting down. Simple, simple trick, but so fun to watch.

  • Another neat one is with the Phantom at the end of Act 2. Although, once I spoke with a fellow actor who played the role and once he revealed how it was done the “amazingness” wore off some.
    I have always been a sucker for the Witch’s transformation towards the end of Act 1 in “Into The Woods.” I’m just a sucker for that sort of thing!

  • Want to read a different perspective on special effects for the theatre? Visit the American Theatre Wing’s blog:

  • Tom says:

    Never seeing a musical before PIPPIN I was thrilled at the opening sequence of a curtain of fog and hands appearing to float.
    Another one (although not on stage) was the finale of the original Off Broadway production of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS where vines drop from the ceiling unto ALL the un expecting audience members while the cast is singing DON’T FEED THE PLANTS!!

  • Yosi Merves says:

    My favorite theatrical special effect would be the transformation of the Beast into a prince at the end of Beauty and the Beast. I also love in Act II of The Lion King when Mufasa’s mask materializes out of several different pieces of fabric in the “He Lives in You” A wonderful piece of stagecraft.

  • Michael Mooney says:

    Unlike Raoul taking the plunge, I saw Spiderman tonight take the plunge from a great height into an open trapdoor. Because he fell at such speed, it was clear to everyone that his wire had broken. The show was “temporarily halted” and then the fire curtain came down and it was announced that that was the end of tonight’s performance. (There are 8 men aside from Reeve Carney dressed as Superman, and I don’t think it was him who fell.)

  • David C Neal says:

    Under the #4 category of Bloody, Bloody Blood (times about 20!) is The Lieutenant of Inishmore. From Wee Thomas in the opening scene to the blood and body parts in the penultimate scene, the production was hilariously ‘special’ in more ways than one!

  • Malini says:

    The Raoul effect is number one followed by the rain effect in Big River. Besides being amazed by the signing and singing, then it rained onstage!

  • Jason says:

    “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.”
    …That’s basically how I felt when watching Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.

  • MK says:

    The effect that has always stayed with me is at the top of act two of the Lion King, where a fabric pulled through a hole in the middle of the stage to show the coming of a drought. So simple yet what a statement.
    And while this was at BAM rather than Broadway, there was all the single light bulbs coming down to simulate a starry sky in Cloudstreet.

  • Barbara says:

    My favorite of all time is the jump off the bridge in Les Miserables. No expensive special effects – just all the artists (actor, director, composer, designers) working at the top of their form to create a perfect theatrical moment.

  • Tait Moline says:

    I agree with the above posts … Javert’s suicide was simple but extremely effective, theatrical elegance. And the Beast’s transformation in B&B was stunning.

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